There is a small city just across the border of the Qinghai border, this place is a thangka making center of Western China.
Preparing the foundation
The kind of thangka under discussion here, the canvas you buy, is made of a woven material: cotton, linen, and sometimes silk. A finely woven structure, made of a single piece of fabric, is best, because paint easily chips off of thicker to rougher fabrics when the thangka is rolled up. The painted canvas is rectangular in shape, taller than it is wide, ideally measuring on the average 30inches tall by 20 inches wide (75 by 50centimeters). The same 3:2 ratio f height to width can also be found in other formats: 12 by 8 inches (30by 20cm); 48 by 32 inches (120 by 80 cm); 120 by 80 inches (300 by 200 cm) for exceptionally large specimens. These proportions generally also apply to the huge thangkas - measuring up to 180 by 130 feet (55 by 40 meters) that are hung out side the wall of the monasteries during festivals. There are also elongated thangkas that are wider than they are tall, with a size ratio of 2:3.
The edges of the canvas are folded over twice, rather than hemmed, to prevent them from unraveling. Then the canvas is fastened with thread to four laths that are firmly attached with twine to a wooden frame, and strung tightly, so that it looks like an upright trampoline.
The front and the back of the cloth are swabbed with a sizing of anima; glue consisting of boiled bones and skins, often of a water buffalo. After this layer has been applied, it is polished with a smooth stone or shell. This produces a smooth, even layer on rough or uneven cloth that will function well for sketching and painting and will keep the paint from seeping into the cloth.
For orientation, the painter will often first lay down a grid of coordinates in the form of eight lines: two diagonal lines with a horizontal and a vertical axis drawn through their intersection, and four lines drawn parallel to the frame. Sometimes the painter will do this on the back so that the lines show through when the canvas is held up to the light the next step is a charcoal sketch. When the painter is satisfied with the result, the lines will be accentuated with ink.
There are separate drawings, of templates, available for many of the figures that are to be painted. They can be transferred to the canvas by pricking holes through them along the contours and on the most important lines and components. Powder is blown through these holes, resulting in a dotted outline on the canvas. Another technique for transferring figures uses block prints. The wood or metal blocks are painted black; the figures are colored in at later stages.
When the sketch is finished, it is time for the coloring stage. Large color area areas are often applied by brushing or writing numbers or syllables into the area in question. Black, for instant, is indicated with the number two or with the syllable Na, yellow with five or SA. When applying the colors, a particular sequence is commonly followed. First, the area furthest away in perspective, the sky, is colored. Then the closer landscape is done, followed by trees, rocks, and water. After this come the deities and other figures. The throne, clothing, and nimbus are painted first. Light colors are applied before dark colors, and then details in gold are added.
Painting is done as economically as possible in order to avoid constantly preparing or mixing paint. If the painter is using a particular color, it will be applied to all the relevant places, sometimes to several thangkas at once. Shadows are worked in toward the end. Finally, the faces are painted – the eyes last of all. As with sculptures, after the eyes have been rendered, "the opening of the eyes" is an important initiation ceremony, celebrated, incidentally, only for special thangkas. Before the 19th century, only mineral pigments and organic coloring agents were used. Even today pigments are still being produced in this way, but faster and cheaper alternatives have come along. At the beginning of the 19th century, the development of synthetic colors got underway in Europe. The motivation was finding and alternative for expensive color blue produce from lapis lazuli and ultramarine. Since 1850, synthetic pigments have been making there way to India and beyond, including Nepal and Tibet.
The colors are put in ceramic or porcelain bowls. A little binding agent is added- most often a lime made of boiled animal skins, along with a little bit of water – and it all gets heated up slowly.
Today's thangkas are increasingly made using modern colors. Factory – made paints offer a great variety of colors and tints, the present generation of Tibetans and Newari painters are in no way averse to using them and are experimenting to their hearts content.
There are five basic colors: red, yellow, green and white. Another important color that is widely used is black.
Many of the paintings reproduced here exhibit modern color schemes. They have been done with water- based paints. Often, but not always, a layer of vegetable varnish is applied.
1. Besides polychromatic paintings, there are gold thangkas with gold background and drawings done in red, with very little or n additional color. In general, peace-loving deities and person-ages are depicted in gold thangkas. Then there are black thangkas, made with a blue black ink as a base, and a minimal amount of colors; this presentation usually consists of wrathful deities. There are also red thangkas with a lot of gold details, depicting friendly or protective deities.
Paint is applied with brushes of various sizes. They have wooden handle that have been cut to a point on one side. Hairs are tied around the point. The hair can be from a goat, cat, or horse. In Nepal, hairs taken from the ears of water buffalos are most often used. Painters today also use imported factory- made brushes.
Once the painting is finished, the canvas is loosened from it's stretchers and framed with textile edging. The silk or brocade trim is of an established width, so that the depth of the bottom trim is half the length of the painting, the top one fourth, and the sides are one-eighth of the length. Still, the framed thangka is not completely rectangular but splays out a little toward the bottom, and metal caps are usually slipped over the ends. If a thangka is not in use, but not rolled up either, a thin piece it from soot and smoky lamps, and to avoid the image being visually touched bye uninitiated eyes. Often the curtain will be yellow silk, with red or blue dots, or sometimes it has a flower motion on it. Over this lowered curtain two bands of red silk hang down to the very bottom. At the top between these two strips hangs a lightweight read cord with which the veil can be tied up. At the very top there is a cord by which the thangka can be hung or with it can be tied together when it is rolled up.
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