Hand Painted Thangka of Shakyamuni Buddha
Buddha Shakyamuni -
click on images to enlarge -
Vajrapani - Wrathful Deity
Intent, In Tents
and Intense, by Ann Shaftel
The concept of Original Artistic Intent is difficult to apply to Tibetan
thangkas. Thangkas are composite objects produced by painters and
tailors with differing intents, skills and training. Iconographic
specifications, regional and doctrinal differences in style, changes
in form from harsh treatment and altered mountings all complicate
A thangka is a complicated, composite three-dimensional object consisting
of: a picture panel which is painted or embroidered, a textile mounting;
and one or more of the following: a silk cover, leather corners, wooden
dowels at the top and bottom and metal or wooden decorative knobs
on the bottom dowel.
Can you say that there was an artist who had a prevailing artistic
vision over the entire composition? Rarely. Is the thangka which you
are examining in your laboratory today in its original form? Probably
What is the purpose of a thangka, what use was it originally intended
for? Thangkas are intended to serve as a record of, and guide for
contemplative experience. For example, you might be instructed by
your teacher to imagine yourself as a specific figure in a specific
setting. You could use a thangka as a reference for the details of
posture, attitude, colour, clothing. etc., of a figure located in
a field, or in a palace, possibly surrounded by many other figures
of meditation teachers, your family, etc..
In this way, thangkas are intended to convey iconographic information
in a pictorial manner. A text of the same meditation would supply
similar details in written descriptive form.
Does the concept of artistic intent apply to thangkas? Only rarely
do thangkas express the personal vision or creativity of the painter,
and for that reason thangka painters have generally remained anonymous
as have the tailors who made their mountings. This anonymity can be
found in many other cultures.
There are, however, exceptions to this anonymity. Rarely, eminent
teachers will create a thangka to express their own insight and experience.
This type of thangka comes from a traditionally trained meditation
master and artist who creates a new arrangement of forms to convey
his insight so that his students may benefit from it. Other exceptions
exist where master painters have signed their work somewhere in the
The vast majority of anonymously created thangkas, however, have taken
shape as a scientific arrangement of content, colour and proportion,
all of which follow a prescribed set of rules. These rules, however,
differ by denomination, geographical region and style. The Conservator
is left with the responsibility of caring for religious objects that
usually carry neither the names of the artists, nor information about
their technique, date or provenance. But we do know that the intent
of the artist was to convey iconographic information.
There is a vast amount of iconographic information provided in thangkas,
some of it literally spelled out for you. If you look closely, many
thangkas spell identification of figures and scenes in formal and
delicately rendered scripts. In damaged sections of thangkas where
paint layers are missing, letters which indicate the master painter's
choice of colour are sometimes visible. These letters were not intended
to be part of the final composition and should not be confused with
the former. But given the breadth and variety of the iconography of
Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, it is virtually impossible to extrapolate
the information that would be required to fill in figures that are
missing or to complete the sacred objects that the figures hold in
their hands. Where inpainting is required, the definition and clarification
of artistic intent is a complex issue.
Since even indigenous Tibetan scholars trained in the iconographic
details of Buddhist deities generally would not presume to know the
iconography associated with every deity, it is unlikely that most
Conservators could guess the identity and details of unfamiliar figures.
In this case, speculation as to the artist's intent tends to be a
particularly unrewarding strategy.
In the twenty five years during which I have been working with thangkas,
I have chosen never to guess, calculate or presume to identify missing
iconographic facts. To do so would, in my experience, contravene both
the ethics that are required of professional Conservators and the
integrity of the objects that have been entrusted to us. Even a subtle
change in colour alters the message of an icon.
For example, a particular shade of the colour green indicates effective
activity, while a white often indicates peacefulness and unassailable
compassion. It is significant therefore if the same form of a feminine
figure is rendered in green or white.
Is the colour you see before you the colour which the artist intended
for you to see? Sometimes water damage (yak-hide glue is susceptible
to water damage) washes away several fine layers of pigment on final
paint layers or shading layers. This damage exposes either underdrawing
or flat colours which the artist never wanted you to see. Although
some details may be present, unless the artist has also left a notation
as to the specific colour (sometimes revealed by paint loss), an error
would be made if the Conservator were to reconstruct something in
an inappropriate colour.
Often, a combination of water-damage, greasy butter lamp soot and
smoky incense grit permanently alters the original colours. Evidence
of this is often seen at the edges where a mounting has protected
the original colours.
In Tents - How Tradition Contributed
Damage was particularly likely given the tendency of Tibetans to travel
long distances in harsh conditions. Thangkas were important articles
of the tent culture of nomadic monastic groups in medieval Tibet.
It was not unusual for a group of scholars, yogins and priests to
travel by yak to distant regions, set up tents, unroll the thangkas
and serve the local people by teaching before moving on to another
This was good for the people but intense for the thangkas! Rolling
and unrolling was, and still is, unavoidably damaging for thangkas.
Rough handling and damp walls damaged both the paintings and their
mountings, in medieval Tibet and today as well. I have studied the
handling of thangkas today in existing traditional monastic settings.
I was invited by the Abbot of a major monastery on the Tibetan border
to work with the monks on proper care and handling of their thangkas.
During the year, according to religious holidays of the lunar cycle,
specific thangkas are removed from storage, unrolled, hung up in damp
and smoky shrine halls, and then taken down, stacked for rerolling
and placed back in storage. Storage consisted of airless tin trunks
designed to protect thangkas from rodents. The trunks smelled of bacteriological
The monks in this monastery value their thangkas. But rolling and
unrolling combined with rough handling and poor storage constantly
damages their treasured thangkas.
Now if you are feeling that the subtleties
of colour and iconography are overwhelming, we can continue on to
style and technique! If you feel that the original artists were working
by a set of rules to which you have little access, let us reinforce
that tense feeling by looking at the range of traditional styles and
painting techniques which the original artists were guided by. Then
we will continue on to discuss the mountings which were made by tailors
who worked by a completely different set of guidelines.
Basic painting technique differs with
regional style, training of the artist and the funding available to
purchase gold, expensive pigments and so on. Also with the number
of students or assistants the master painter employed.
Did the artist contour areas of iconographic and non-iconographic
detail (such as sky or grass) with wet shading, dry shading or a combination
of the two techniques? The Conservator would have to study thangka
painting technique to understand. A good way to recognise these techniques
is by learning to paint thangkas or by studying incomplete thangka
Did the artist apply many fine layers of paint one upon the other,
or one heavy layer? Regional styles differ in the technique of paint
If the paint layers are lost and damaged, can the Conservator judge
the artist's intent from the surrounding areas? Should the Conservator
tone in lost areas of non-iconographic detail? Private collectors
and dealers, for example, often request a Conservator to inpaint all
Although some of these questions are standard conservation issues,
they are further complicated when religious and iconographic message
must be respected and maintained.
Thangkas are not only paintings. Their textile mountings are very
important. When dealing with the mountings, a new set of questions
arises. Did the artist of the painting have any control over the style
and proportions of the mountings which surround the painting? Was
the original choice of mountings that of the patron or that of the
tailor? Is the tailor to be considered in a discussion of artist's
intent? Was the painting created in one part of Tibet and framed in
another part of Tibet, China or Northern India? Did the silk come
from China or the Middle East along active trade routes? Is the mounting
done in a different style, technique and aesthetic from those of the
Is the silk brocade mounting currently part of this thangka in fact
the original mounting for this picture panel, or could it be the third
or fourth replacement? The answer to this last question can often
be found on the edges of the support where several row of stitch holes
can indicate that the mounting has been changed.
Does the mounting obscure significant sections of the painting? Tailors
have been known to sew mountings with a window so small that it covers
important iconographic and aesthetically relevant sections of the
painting composition. The form of the mounting therefore may alter
the artist's intent by obscuring details significant to the iconography
and aesthetics of the painting.
The conservation treatment of a thangka is a complex process that
reflects the complexity of the original composite object. All of the
issues raised above must be evaluated in deciding on the appropriate
treatment for a specific thangka.
For example, a Conservator must look carefully for any exposed colour
notations and not confuse them with iconographic lettering on the
final paint layers. A Conservator must evaluate what regional and
stylistic techniques were used in producing the painting and mounting
and also look for damage from past handling. And finally, the Conservator
must examine the current mounting to determine its relation to the
painting and document whether it covers significant sections of the
In summary, thangkas are complicated composite objects which are designed
to communicate iconographic ideas in a beautiful and practical form.
A thangka in your laboratory or collection may be the production of
many painters and tailors with differing intents, and differing skills
and training. The textile mounting may have a completely different
style, date and region of origin from those of the painting.
Pure, single artistic intent is lost through a combination of iconographic
specifications, regional and doctrinal differences in style, changes
in form subsequent to the original creation and many years of harsh
Ann Shaftel MSc, MA
Conservator of Thangkas
Tsondru Thangka Conservation
Ann Shaftel is an Elected Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation
and the International Institute for Conservation. She has published
and lectured on thangkas and served as consultant and conservator
for monastic and museum collections for the past 25 years. She holds
an MSc in Conservation from Winterthur (1978), an MA in Oriental Art
History from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (1972), and a BA
from Oberlin College (1969). She also studied at UNESCO-ICCROM. She
apprenticed to Tibetan master painters for 15 years.
The Author is indebted to the late Vajracarya, the Venerable Chögyam
Trungpa, Rinpoche, the late H.E. Jamgon Kongtrul, Rinpoche, and to
Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso, Rinpoche.
With kind permission of
the Dharmapala Centre - School
of Thangkas Paintings.
(This website sells Tibetan art for the benefit of artists in Nepal
and an orphan house in Katmandu).
Buddhist Art of Thangka - Nicolai Dudka's website
Nicolai N. Dudka
was born on the first of May, 1962 in Dessau, Germany. He received
a European art education at college in Ulan-Ude, buryatia, Russia,
and at the Academy of Art in Kiev, Ukraine. His first exposure to
the complex science of Buddhist religioun, philosophy and art occurred
in 1986. buryatian Lama Dharmadoddi and abbot Jimba-Jamso were his
first spiritual teachers. Later, Nicolai met his main spiritual master
Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. At the beginning of the 1990's he began an
intensive study of thangka painting with visits to Mongolia, Nepal
and India. Following this was a year-long period of work and education
at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA) in Dharamsala,
India under the guidance of Ven. Sangei Yeshe, the personal artist
of HH the Dalai Lama.
Art Studio Website
Terris and Leslie
Nguyen Temple are Buddhist artists who worked on the giant thangkas
in Tibet for His Holiness the 17th Karmapa. email: firstname.lastname@example.org