Canvas: Cloth is sewn onto four lengths of bamboo, which are strung to a large wooden frame.
Paints: Five primary colours are used. Traditionally, the materials included a variety of mineral and vegetable substances: minerals, precious stones, bark, leaves, flowers (especially the rock rose), gold, silver, copper, etc. Each had to be collected from its source in different areas of Tibet, cleaned, ground, powered, crushed or cooked. Nowadays, artists in exile tend to opt for chemical based pigments, easily available for purchase. In an attempt to preserve the genuine tradition of Tibet, I use natural materials as far as possible in my work.
Gold or paint: Globules of gold are bought and put in a mortar with water and grain sized pieces of marble or glass.
Brocade: To mount the painting on.
There is no wastage in the making of Thangka paintings. The leftover paints in the shells can be kept aside and wet and used again for the next painting. The paintbrushes and frame also get used again, once a single painting is done with.
Tools & Technology
Paintbrushes: For painting on rough surfaces, brushes were made out of Nama grass, a tough grass growing along riverbanks. For medium soft brushes, the hair of horses' tails was uses. For soft brushes of any size, the tufts of hair growing above goats' hooves, the fine hair inside cows' ears, the fur of otters, the very soft feathers of mountain songbirds, and the fur of brown and black cats (especially in India where the other hair and fur is not available) are perfect for painting.
Canvas Frame: The canvas frame is made from hardwood and has holes drilled on all four sides for the rope holding the canvas in place to pass through so as to get tied on the corners.
Stone and/or Glass piece: This is required to rub the cloth to prepare it for the painting, so as to make it work like a canvas.
Before the painting begins, the artist cleans his place and takes a bath. Then the canvas, paints and brushes are brought to the place. To bring out the best from his work, the artist makes an offering of water to his deity. This is followed by meditation to get purified.
Thangka painting is a honed skill and one cannot be a Thangka painter without necessary training. The person, who intends to be a professional painter, needs to undergo training of many years under a guide or in a school before he is eligible to paint them. It is also only for people with their faith in Buddhism. Sometimes, monks engage themselves in training at a very young age. An artist who paints Thangka adheres to a strict moral code. He should be borne with modesty and a high devotion towards religion. Sound senses and cleanliness of body and mind are required to paint a Thangka. Some subjects even require abstinence from meat, alcohol, onion and garlic.
The final step of Thangka making 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. These are the steps provides a guide in achieving the desired visual effects required for the creation of quality thangka. However, one must remain aware that it is essential to combine these processes with the correct motivation, philosophy and creative ability to obtain a Thangka of excellence.
A locally available Lattha is used for the Thangka. It is then stretched on a frame. Saresh, a local gum and whilet clay is mixed and painted with a rag. This canvas is then rubbed with a stone; water is poured continuously to smoothen the surface for painting.
The canvas is stretched over a wooden frame using a cord that allows tension to be adjusted after the cloth has been sealed with a moist mixture of chalk and gesso. The surface is polished with a smooth stone or glass, until the underlying texture of the canvas is no longer apparent. The design for the painting is then drawn directly onto the taut surface using charcoal or pencil. Once the initial sketch is complete, the lines are redrawn in ink and the details are refined. Colours are applied, beginning with the distant planes of the painting and completed with GOLD embellishments. When the painting is finally complete, it is mounted in silk brocade.
1) The cloth to be painted undergoes a complex process of preparation that takes between 14 to 20 days depending on local climatic conditions. In India's foggy Himalayan foothills, canvasses for the whole year must be made in the dry months of March, April, October and November. If a canvas is improperly prepared, the entire thangka will be a failure. First, 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.
2) When this second coat has dried, the canvas is held up to the light and the areas that 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.
3) 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. .
4) At this stage the artist bathes, takes purification vows at dawn, meditates upon his tutelary deity, and performs rituals to clear away obstacles and harmful spirits. Having studied the description of the image to be painted in a religious text and consulted a lama about any confusing details, the artist recites the sacred syllables of the Buddha or deity in question and begins to draw.
5) Ideally, the artist recites these syllables and visualizes the deity for the full duration of the creation of the thangka. If this is done in a genuine way, the thangka is very different from an ordinary work of modern art and is inherently highly sacred. The foundational lines are done in pencil (followed by black ink in old Tibet) and take between 10 to 30 days to complete, depending on the size and complexity of the thangka.
6) The outlines are drawn and then the colours are filled. White, red, yellow, blue and green are used. These are mixed to get at least 40 different shades. There is a sequence for filling in the colours - blue for the sky is always done first, then green for the earth, followed by the background of the deity and so on. The colour is not filled in flat, but three to four shades of the same colour are used. They are filled in a concentric manner, from dark blue to white. This is an important feature in Buddhist art.
7) The artist decides on the Sor of the painting. Then the outline is made as per proportions. For example, a 12:4 proportion of the face and the neck. He refers to books and the sets of rules for the iconographic depiction.
8) After filling colours, the Thangka is cut from the frame and taken to the local tailors for framing it with cloth. It is framed with a set of brocade panels. The dimensions of the borders may vary but usually correspond to fixed units. Borders of the sides and above are 4 units, and the ones below are 8 units.
9) Red and yellow brocade is fixed between the image and the main brocade frame, which is called the Thangkas rainbow. A contrasting panel of brocade is often sewn into the main broader border below called the Door of the Thangka. A yellow silk printed with green and red floral pattern is sewn to the upper rod and is used to cover the painting. This covers the image if the deity represented is not meant to be seen by a casual viewer. Sometimes tassels are attached to the paintings.
10) The Thangka is finally backed with much plain cloth. It is then secured to wooden rods with brass or silver knobs at each end. The brocades have various Tibetan motifs and symbols.
11) Once finished, the Thangkas are not signed by the artists but are given to a Lama for blessings. The lama endows blessings by writing core-syllabled abbreviation of 'Om mani padme hum' on the back.