Thangka painting is a strenuous leap to accomplish, in the old days in Tibet and other neighboring countries thangka’s were considered instrument of enlightened energy, when a person purchases a thangka it is not a matter of how much money they have but a matter of the seriousness of their faith. The Artist painting the thangka would have to have been trained for many years before even touching a brush, and would also have to have a strict background of Buddhist religious practice. Not much has changed since those old days, Authenticity however due to modern printers has turned this art in a scam which is not the original purpose. The intention must be pure and devoted, in other words the thangka has to be traditionally constructed and the devotion to it must be to the thangka’s completion. Often when one begins a thangka be it a Monk, a Lama, a serious practitioner or Artist there are long task’s to be completed. Among the first is the construction of the canvas.
First, cloth is carefully sewn onto four lengths of bamboo which are tightly strung to a large wooden frame. The artist then spreads a series of glue over the whole canvas and leaves it to dry. He stirs up a mixture of white clay, water and glue in a clean pot to a creamy consistency. Blessed medicines or other sacred substances are added if available. The mixture is then strained through fine gauze to remove any impurities and applied evenly to the dry canvas. The Canvas is hand sewn from cotton,wool and other similar fabrics, and in foggy Himalayan foothills of Nepal must be done during the dry months of March, April, October, and November. After 14 to 20 days and sometimes if the canvas is not evenly coated the process must repeated and depending on the size entails the difficulty of preparing the thangka’s canvas but when the mold is finally dry and evenly coated the thangka is finally ready to be sketched upon the canvas.
A learned thangka artist such as a Lama must know the precise measurements, every gesture is meticulously calculated and is sketched onto the canvas. Rare thangka painter’s such as Pratap Lama the artist we showcase is a master and can easily sketch all the precise measurements simply by memory. It is easy to point out a masters artwork by a students, with every brush stroke there is absolute confidence and a sort of stillness within that can only be the touch of a true master.
The artist then draws the outline of the painting
It takes a full day to prepare the five primary colors. Traditionally, the materials included a variety of rock mineral’s, vegetable substances, gold, silver, copper, even some holy substances such as medicines and herbs. Each has to be collected from its source in different areas of the Himalayan mountain foothills, cleaned, ground, powered, crushed and cooked then after preparation the materials are ready to paint with. In these modern times however some artists tend to use chemical based pigments, easily available for purchase. In an attempt to preserve the genuine tradition of thangka painting, Pratap Lama and his students all use natural materials, with some exceptions to the modern canvas paintings Pratap Lama was experimenting with. Note; While each color is being mixed, it is continuously tested on the edges of the canvas and allowed to dry. Only after the paint has completely dried does it reveal its true color.
The brushes have a finer edge than western brushes because of the meticulous detail of the traditional thangka. In thangka schools often the students would be left to do the blending of the outer detail, with only a couple of airs on there brushes.The definite, specific sequence to color application in general is that the thangka is painted from top to bottom.
The first step is the sky, which takes 3 to 6 days, an initial deep blue wash is followed along with tightly painted dots that give the blending a stipple effect. Then all the blue parts of the thangka water, clothing, etc. Then the dark green landscape and all the dark green areas are next. This is followed by light blue, then light green, red, orange, pink, brown, pale orange, yellow, pale yellow and finally white. After the thangka is dry it then lightly sanded with a razor held at an arched angle to the painting to smooth away any roughness in the paint. The dust is brushed off with a soft cloth.
Working with Detail
The original detailed lines of the clouds and flowers which have been covered by paint are redrawn in pencil and traced over in black ink to capture detail lines, the artist then shades them with a fine paintbrush. A traditional thangka needs three applications of paint, but flowers require many repeated applications of thin paint to give them their effect of radiance. A single flower may take 3 to 7 days to complete.
The artist then shades in color to the deities to give them shape and apply minute details of shade’s and various designs . The flowers are given a final shading and all the minute background details such as fish, deer, birds, fruit and countless grass blades are painted. Then when the details are completed it is time to apply the gold.
A considerable quantity of gold is used to highlight and give the final glorious touches. This entails a strenuous, complex process, preparing the gold takes 7 to 10 days and applying it takes an additional 6 to 25 days. The artist generally purchases about 50 grams of gold at a time (no more than five grams are applied to a single thangka.
The artist cuts the sheets into tiny pieces and puts them in a mortar with water and grain sized pieces of marble or glass. He grinds the mixture until the bits of marble or glass are mere dust particles. More water is added and the mixture is covered and allowed to stand overnight. By morning, the gold has sunk to the bottom and the milky mix of marble water is dumped off.
This process is repeated with the addition of glue, and each morning for seven days the surface water is poured off. Finally, only glue is added to the gold and this mix is vigorously ground to extract any remaining impurities. The artist then applies the gold onto the painting and the thangka only has one step left, opening the eyes.
When the face has been painted the thangka is considered a blessed instrument able to absorb power and bestow blessing to the person using them with pure intention and truth.