Traditionally, thangka paintings are not only valued for their aesthetic beauty, but primarily for their use as aids in meditational practices. Practitioners use these pieces to develop a clear visualization of a particular deity, strengthening their concentration, and forging a link between themselves and the deity. Historically, thangkas were also used as teaching tools to convey the lives of various masters. A teacher or lama would travel around giving talks on dharma, carrying with him large thangka scrolls to illustrate his stories.
The sacred art of this type of painting dates back to the 7th century. Originating in Nepal, it evolved into several schools of painting. Here at Norbulingka we practice Menri, which is characterized by life-like colors and a focus on a central figure surrounded by significant events or people in his life.
The deities shown in thangka paintings are usually depictions of visions that appeared to great spiritual masters at moments of realization, which were then recorded and incorporated into Buddhist scripture. The proportions are considered sacred as not only are they exact representations of Buddhist deities, but also the visual expression of spiritual realizations that occurred at the time of a vision. Thangka painting is thus a two-dimensional medium illustrating a multi-dimensional spiritual reality. Practitioners use thangkas as a sort of road map to guide them to the original insight of the master. This map must be accurate and it is the responsibility of the artist to make sure it is so in order for a thangka to be considered genuine, or to be useful as a support for Buddhist practice, guiding one to the proper place.
Because thangkas are not the product of an artist’s imagination, but are as carefully executed as a blueprint drawing, the role of the artist is somewhat different than the inventor we know him to be in the West. The role of the artist becomes one of a medium or channel, who rises above his own mundane consciousness to bring a higher truth into this world. In order to ensure that this truth remains intact, he must diligently adhere to all the correct guidelines.
Aspiring thangka artists must spend years studying the iconongraphic grids and proportions of different deities and then master the technique of mixing and applying mineral pigments. At Norbulingka, we offer a three-year training program for Tibetan students. After completing their three year course, most artists then join our workshops, where they must complete an additional 3 years as apprentices before they are considered fully qualified artists.
To make a thangka, first a piece of canvas is stitched onto a wooden frame. It is prepared with a mixture of chalk, gesso, and base pigment, and rubbed smooth with a glass until the texture of the cloth is no longer apparent. The outline of the deity is sketched in pencil onto the canvas using iconograpic grids, and then outlined in black ink. Powders composed of crushed mineral and vegetable pigments are mixed with water and adhesive to create paint. Some of the elements used are quite precious, such as lapis lazuli for dark blue. Landscape elements are blocked in and shading is applied using both wet and dry brush techniques. Finally, a pure gold paint is added, and the piece is framed in a precious brocade boarder. A standard thangka in our collection, which is about 18 x 12 in., takes an artist about six weeks to complete.
These days, it is becoming more and more rare to find genuine thangkas because of the length of time it takes to learn the skill and create a painting properly. However, Norbulingka is committed to preserving the skill in its traditional form.
Aside from being an aid to spiritual practice, commissioning a thangka is considered a means of generating spiritual merit, and many times, if an individual is facing some kind of hardship, a lama is consulted and recommends the creation of a thangka of a specific deity as a remedy. The artist then designs a thangka by referring to the measurements of deities detailed in the scriptures, following the prescription of the lama. Creating these one-of-a-kind thangkas requires extensive research, especially as the descriptions explaining the proportions of each deity are not compiled in one text, but are located in different volumes throughout the hundreds of volumes of Buddhist scripture. Furthermore, some texts cannot even be touched unless one has received the proper initiation for that specific deity. For many years Norbulingka created only these specially commissioned thangkas, but as the interest in Tibetan Buddhism rapidly grew worldwide, we began to see a demand for more readily available pieces for customers who appreciated the beauty of Tibetan art but had less specific requirements. With this is mind, we created a signature collection, which featured many of the popular deities from the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, and which could be ordered with no wait time. While we do still take orders for special commissions, our collection pieces are a nice option for those do not have special requests.
For those who wish to learn the art of thangka, Norbulingka offers workshops ranging from one day to several months. Courses are designed based on the time and interest of individuals and groups. They are a great way to learn more about the sophistication of Tibetan culture and students will leave with a beautiful piece of their own. Beginning students will learn basic iconography of various deities, and then move on to learn painting techniques.
Tempa Chophel, Late Master
Tenzin Norbu, Master