Thangka is a scroll painting created in Tibetan script on bright satin and hung as an offering on a religious scroll. Thangka is a unique type of art in Tibetan culture, the subject matter of which includes Tibetan history, politics, culture, and societal life. It can be said that it is a sort of encyclopedia of the Tibetan culture, as well as a precious intangible cultural heritage of the Chinese nation.
The production of thangka is a complicated process that necessitates a great attention to detail. It must be done in accordance with the teachings of the sutras, including the ritual that starts before the painting even begins, the manufacturing of the canvas, the drafts, and application of color, the finalization of the designs, the addition of gold and silver, the opening, the stitching, hanging, and the blessing of the work. Every step must be performed with the utmost care. If even one stroke is incorrect, all one’s efforts will be wasted.
1. Canvas Preparation
The first thing that must be done in order to create a Thangka is to select a piece of flat, smooth, and thick white cotton cloth. The canvas must not be dirty, and must not be holed or perforated. The canvas should also be long and wide, with proportions suitable to the size of the cloth. Either side of the canvas can be used, but there must not be a crease or fold on the surface, or else this will potentially affect the design.
Then, the cloth is carefully sewn onto four lengths of bamboo which are tightly strung to a large wooden frame. The artist then spreads a cost 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 the consistency of thick cream. 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. When this second coat has dried, the canvas is held up to the light; and the areas which have not been evenly coated are patched up with more of the clay mixture and again left to dry. This process is repeated 8-10 times until the entire canvas is evenly coated.
The canvas is then laid upon a smooth wooden board and a small area is moistened with water using a soft white cloth. Section by section, the artist vigorously rubs the canvas smooth with a piece of white marble, moistening it with water as he works. This takes about an hour. The entire canvas is then slowly are carefully stretched by tightening the strings tied to the frame and left to dry in indirect sun.
Once dry, the entire procedure is repeated for the other side of the canvas, stretching it after each moistening and leaving it to dry. When it has been thoroughly treated and dried, the canvas should be so tightly stretched that it makes a nice drum sound when tapped. This is the sign it is ready to be painted. The front of the canvas is then polished with a conch shell.
2. The Secret of Colors
When drafting the brightly colored thangka, two kinds of coloring are used. The first is conventional Chinese art paint, which fades over long periods of time. The second is mineral paint, which does not fade. Commonly used paint colors are black, red, white, blue, and rouge. The paint used is all natural ore derived from gold, pearl, coral, colored glaze, lapis lazuli, and so on. In Tibetan culture, gold and silver jewelry is an extremely important adornment.
Carbon brushes are used to design the thangka, with big, medium-sized, and especially small writing brushes accompanied by paint cases and an easel. When producing a thangka, there are many small details one must mind. Many of the elements of the painting process require very careful attention, and some require the use of a very fine brush. Thus, many brushes used are made of very fine weasel bristle.
THANGKA PAINTING MAKING PROCESS
1. Making the First Draft with Carbon Brushes
To sketch the figures in a thangka, the artist must be an expert in the measurements and proportions of Buddhas, Boddhisattvas and deities. There are thousands of different deities in Tibetan Buddhism. The artist will have to rely on a grid of exactly positioned lines to sketch the deities. The basic system of these coordinates is one vertical and two diagonal lines. The intersection of these three lines defines the centre of any thangka. In thangka with more than one figure, there will be additional circles and connecting lines, to contrast the main icon with the background figure. The grid system divides the painting into different parts with fixed proportions. If the artist wants to have a thangka twice the original size, he has to double the dimensions or distances between all the lines.
There is a definite, specific sequence to color application. In general, the thangka is painted from top to bottom. The first step is the sky. 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. When the whole series of base coat colors have been applied and allowed to dry, the thangka is scraped with a razor blade, held at an arched angle to the cloth, to smooth away any roughness in the paint. The dust is brushed off with a soft cloth or feather.
3. Redrawing and Shading
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. The artist then shades them with a fine paintbrush.
Painting the intricate details of the back and foreground landscape and brocade clothing designs follows the same sequence of color application as above. This takes 18 to 20 days to complete.
5. Body Shading and Final Painting
The artist then shades in color to give shape to the figure’s body and face. The flowers are given a final shading, and all the minute background details such as fish, deer, birds, fruit and countless grass blades are painstakingly painted.
6. Gold Application
A considerable quantity of gold is used to highlight the painting and give it its final glorious touches.
7. Opening the Eyes
This is the most important moment of a thangka artist’s work. Before painting the figure’s eyes, the artist bathes and makes offerings to the Buddha’s body, speech and mind.
The tailor will affix a brocade frame to the completed thangka.
This final step is what distinguishes Tibetan Buddhist practice from ordinary “idol worship.” The practitioner takes his or her newly completed thangka to a highly realized Buddhist master and makes offerings to request the master’s blessings. The master, endowed with the clear mind of enlightenment, is able to “bring alive” the image on the thangka by infusing it with energy and beseeching the deity to open its eyes and look upon all sentient beings. The thangka, having now been properly consecrated, is a receptacle of wisdom. It is ready to be hung and venerated as a genuine living embodiment of enlightened mind.
It is important to note that this final step is only necessary if the thangka artist himself is not acknowledged as a realized being. Over the centuries, many important Buddhist masters have intentionally taken rebirth as thangka painters, and if such an artist creates a thangka, the very mind of the artist naturally consecrates the image being painted. In such cases, there is no need to seek the services of a lama for an additional consecration.