During the reign of King Tsogsten Gampo, the founder of the Tibetan Empire, the art of thangka painting was embraced. The unique artistic style of thangka painting is regarded as a cultural treasure with more than a thousand years of influence. Thangkas portray images of history, social life, culture as well as deities. The Tibetan word ‘than ka’ means “recorded message” in English and thangka is a Tibetan transliteration which means religious scroll painting mounted by colorful stain used for worship.
Thangkas are a two-dimensional medium which illustrate a multi-dimensional spiritual reality. Practitioners use thangkas as a sort of road map to cultivate the visualization of deities and establish a link between themselves and the deities. The proportions of the images depicted in the thangkas are considered sacred and artists spend years studying the iconographic grids and proportions of different deities. An authentic thangka painter is more than an artist, their true talent is in their ability to transmit the divine.
There are various forms of thangkas; embroidery, brocade and applique, but most are depicted on canvas and paper. The painting of a thangka is an elaborate process which often takes as long as several months or even years to paint one thangka. To begin a piece of canvas is selected, usually light in color and not too thick to ensure the paint does not crack or peel. It is then stitched onto a wooden frame. The creation of a smooth canvas is achieved by coating it with a mixture of chalk, gesso, and a base pigment. It is then rubbed smooth with a glass or shell until the texture of the cloth is no longer visible.
Since thangkas are not a product of an artist’s imagination but the replication of representations of Buddhist deities and expressions of visions of realization, careful adherence to the correct guidelines is paramount as the outline of the deity is sketched in pencil onto the canvas using a grid. The colors used in traditional thangka paintings come from any different natural sources, earth, cinnabar, ocher, saffron, madder, rhubarb, agate, lapis lazuli, pearls, silver and gold. These pigments are ground to fine powders and mixed with water and adhesives to create the warm and luminous colors. Only one color is applied at a time, first light then dark. The details of the face, hands, and feet are added last. According to custom, it is important to choose an auspicious day for painting the face as the success of a thangka often depends on how well the face is painted. The finishing touches of gold are added to the thangka, known as ‘gold painting’. The paintings are often encased in a brocade border but can also be placed in a glass frame.
The magnificent meditative images of thangkas are fragile objects which will fade if exposed to prolonged sunlight.
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