The 7th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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The word 'than' means flat and 'ka' means painting. A thangka is a hand painted or embroidered banner that is typically hung in a monastery. Thangkas may also appear above a family altar and thangkas are carried by lamas in ceremonial processions.
Thangkas are intended to convey iconographic depictions of certain deities. Thangka artists must be highly skilled in their craft. To sketch the figures in a Thangka the artist must be an expert in the measurements and proportions of Buddhas, Boddhisattvas and deities, as outlined in Buddhist iconography. The visual requirements and symbols are highly standardized and specific. Colors have their own meanings as do the proportions and relative sizes of the objects and deities depicted in thangkas.
Thangkas are not designed to express the personal opinions, insights or beliefs of the artist. The artists consider themselves to be vehicles for the deities they are painting, merely transmitting a message. Most traditional Tibetan artists do not sign their art. Attaching one's name to a work is considered very egotistical, and it is the duty of Buddhists to destroy the ego. Most thangkas are not dated either, nor is there any sort of information regarding the techniques used in creation of a thangka. A thangka is typically devoid of any sort of information that may relate directly to the artist who created the thangka.
The above diagram illustrates the standardized and highly specific proportions of Buddha. Great emphasis is placed on symmetry, as it is regarded as perfection in Buddhist art. For a work of Buddhist art to have value, the depictions of Buddha must conform to a very detailed and sacrosanct proportions such as the one shown above.
The Creation of a Thangka
When not on display, Thangka paintings are to be rolled up for storage. Due to the fact that Thangkas are rolled up, it is important to take careful preparation of the painting surface to prevent cracks which can cause the paint peel off over time.
A piece of cotton cloth is stretched and then attached, either through threading or stapling, onto a wooden frame.
After stretching the cloth over the wooden frame, several layers of gesso are applied to both the front and back of the cloth. The canvas is then burnished on both sides with a stone or conch shell to file down any imperfections from the gesso to produce a smooth surface suitable for drawing and painting.
First, eight major lines of orientation are drawn. These include a central perpendicular, two diagonals, a horizontal and four outer borders. After this, the artist uses either charcoal or graphite to sketch the deity with precise proportions. In most Thangkas, the center is reserved for the principal deity being depicted. All other figures are depicted as being much smaller in comparison with the main deity The relative sizes of the figures suggests a hierarchy.
Before applying the colors, the artist makes detailed plans of the final color arrangements and indicates the color selection on the sketch with an abbreviated notation system. The palette of the Thangka painters has been classified into 'seven father colors' and one 'mother color'. The seven father colors are: deep blue, green, vermilion, minimum orange, maroon, yellow and indigo. The mother color is white which interacts perfectly with all these hues. The lighter shades resulting from the mixture of 'father' and 'mother' were referred to as their sons. There are fourteen such 'sons'.
After laying the initial coats of flat color the painter proceeds to create depth in the painting through shading and color gradations. Shading in Tibetan Thangkas is always applied to add effects of volume and dimension.
Shading large spaces where one color fades gradually into the horizon is achieved through a technique called 'wet shading'. This involves blending the colors together while the paint is still wet.
Outlining plays a significant role in thangkas. To set boundaries between objects, emphasis of certain forms and for artistic precision and accuracy.
At this final stage the facial features are finished and the eyes of the deities are the last objects to be painted. This is the most important moment of the artist's work. Before painting the figure's eyes, the artist bathes and makes offerings to the Buddha's body, speech and mind. When the eyes have been painted, prayers are inscribed on the back of the thangka to awaken the energy of the imagery.
Most Tibetan artists do not sign their art. The artists consider themselves to be vehicles for the deities they are painting, merely transmitting a message. Also, attaching one's name to a work is considered very egotistical, and it is the duty of Buddhists to destroy the ego.
After the painting dries, the Thangka is then mounted with Chinese silks. The Thangka is covered with a sheet of gossamer silk. When the Thangka hangs on an altar the cover is moved off of the painting like a curtain. Two sticks are attached to the top and the bottom so that the Thangka can be easily rolled up for storage or for travel
see also: Thangka