Learning How to Thangka Paint in Nepal

 

IMG_5474As many of my family and friends know, I am obsessed with handcrafts and art. That was one of the main reasons I got involved with SERRV and working with Fair Trade artisans. I am fascinated by traditional art and craft! It is such an inspiration for me when I travel, and Nepal is a particularly ripe culture. There are so many artisan workshops here, specializing in a variety of different crafts, from carpet weaving to metal-smithing.

But today, I learned about Thangka painting. A traditional form of water painting, thangka is done on cotton or fiber canvases using very fine brushes. The paintings usually depict Buddhist stories and traditions and are lush with Buddhist iconography. Very much a workout for the eyes, the paintings are delicate and details are minute, resulting in large murals of bright colors with endless details. With the help of Jason’s connections at Sherpa Ra Shah Co., I spent the afternoon in a thangka master studio observing the process.

One of the in procss pieces. Notice the white Buddha in the middle. This is painted last.
One of the in procss pieces. Notice the white Buddha in the middle. This is painted last.

 

Said much better by Wikipedia, thangka “the composition of a thangka, as with the majority of Buddhist art, is highly geometric. Arms, legs, eyes, nostrils, ears, and various ritual implements are all laid out on a systematic grid of angles and intersecting lines. A skilled thangka artist will generally select from a variety of predesigned items to include in the composition, ranging from alms bowls and animals, to the shape, size, and angle of a figure’s eyes, nose, and lips. The process seems very methodical, but often requires deep understanding of the symbolism involved to capture the spirit of it.”

The first step is mapping out the proportions of the figures in pencil.
The first step is mapping out the proportions of the figures in pencil.

I walked in to a well-lit, well-ventilated office and workshop, in which about 10 master painters and a few apprentices were in the middle of their beautiful creations. The artists all sit on the floor in front of large stretched canvases. The process starts by sketching out proportional figures and transferring them onto the canvas with pencil. Then the pencil drawings are outlined with black. Next, the painters prime their canvas and begin the initial painting. Background is typically done first, and then details are painted over. Finally, gold leaf paint is added to bring radiance to the paintings.

A piece that has been outlined in black and is ready for painting
A piece that has been outlined in black and is ready for painting
Adding on the gold leaf details to a nearly completed piece
Adding on the gold leaf details to a nearly completed piece

Thangka is a time-consuming process because of the high amount of detail, but also the background behind the paintings. Artists are trained in religious history & knowledge to create an accurate and appropriate thangka, in line with Buddhist traditions. One of the artists in the studio had been working on the same piece for 2 years, and he still thinks there is about 5 months of work left! And they aren’t even commissioned! I have an immense appreciation for these artists, because so much dexterity and detail is needed to create these masterpieces, and they are the type of art where you could look at it again and again and still notice new things. I had a wonderful time watching all stages of the process, and I can’t wait to buy my own thangka. They are so stunningly beautiful, especially the wheel of time or mandalas paintings, which are almost hypnotic in their repeating shapes and colors.

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He has been working on this piece for two years!! Look at all the different figures and details in there. Amazing work.

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Author: Megan Arz

I am a travel and food obsessed Midwesterner living in Chicago and dreaming of the world. I work as a full-time program manager for Greenheart Travel, but I am also committed to integrating the travel lifestyle into my every day routines. I am passionate about ethical travel, meeting new people, creating unique memories and eating local cuisine!

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