Final Touch and Finishing Details In a Traditional Thangka Paintings
Table of Contents
The last main step involving the application of colours was the rendering of the faces of the main figures. This was in effect the final stage of outlining, and sometimes a master painter would step in at this point and complete the painting of his student.
Of all the finishing details, the facial features demanded the most attention, and among these it was the eyes that received the greatest care. The painting of the eyes of a deity was one of the acts that brought it to life.
“Eye opening” (spyan dbye) through painting in the eyes was one step in the elaborate consecration or vivification (rab gnas) ritual, and therefore for special paintings that required more than the usual abridged ritual the artist would wait until the consecration ceremony to complete the eyes.
As the first step in painting the eyes, Wangdrak redrew all the facial features with charcoal. He began by drawing the central axis of the face, and then drew in the outline of the head and face. These lines guaranteed that the facial features would be balanced and correctly aligned.
Here and in other cases where sketching was done over areas of flesh, charcoal was superior to graphite pencil because charcoal lines were so easy to erase. Then he did the outlining of the face, a continuation of the flesh outlining (sha bead) already begun.
Varieties of Eyes
Iconographic custom determined the shapes and dimensions of the various facial features. Buddhas and peaceful bodhisattvas, for instance, were always painted with “bow eyes” (gzhu spyan), while goddesses, saints and ordinary humans had “grain eyes” (nas spyan). 1 Distinct from these two types of eyes were the round and square eye shapes of wrathful deities. As with eyes, so too with mouths there existed several types, each appropriate only for certain classes of deities.
Although the main features thus depended on iconography, certain characteristics depended on the skill of the artist. Wellexecuted eyes, for instance, might give the illusion of following the viewer (gar gzigs) even though that was not one of the compulsory features of the deity according to its iconography.
Although the techniques of our main informants for painting eyes were basically similar, they were different enough to prevent us from describing them in a single, unified account. Instead we can make the general technique clear by comparing the methods of two artists, Wangdrak and Legdrup Gyatsho. Here we will describe in particular the techniques they used for· painting the eyes of peaceful deities and gurus.
For both artists the painting of an eye presupposed a finished sketch and a coat of white paint on the white of the eye (such white paint had the technical name spyan dkar). Wangdrak then began by applying a line of lac dye to the bottom eyelid. Then he painted the corners of the eye with a dilute orange, succeeded by a light shading with dilute lac dye.
Next he painted in the eyelid base colour by applying a line of light blue to the upper lid. (In his painting style this light blue was also one of the main colours for other facial hairs such as eyebrows, mustaches and the goatees of peaceful figures). With the same light blue he also painted the iris.
Next, he underlined the light blue eyelid edges with some dark blue indigo, thus indicating the eyelashes. Finally with the same colour he also outlined the outer edge of the iris and provided it with a small dot in the middle for the pupil.
The technique of Legdrup Gyatsho was similar. Starting with the drawing of the eye and painting the white, he then applied a line of light blue (or for some other figures, light brown) to the upper eyelid. With the same colour he also painted the iris. Next, he outlined the upper eyelid and iris and painted the pupil as above, except that he used black ink instead of indigo.
If the figure was sufficiently large, he liked to create a gradual transition from the black eyelash into the light blue eyelid by means of shading. Then he filled in the corners of the eye with faint orange. Finally, he completed the eye by shading the corners with dilute lac dye, and outlined the bottom lid of the eye with the same colour.
Some other artists did not apply an undercoat of light blue or light brown to the eyelid, and some preferred a brown or yellow colour for the irises of the eyes of both peaceful and fierce figures. For wrathful deities a number of artists painted the whole iris black, and then indicated a pupil with a thin circle of yellow or gold.
When painting smaller figures the artists could not follow in every detail the techniques described above. Instead, they depicted rudimentary eyes by laying down a line of lac dye for the bottom edge or eyelash, a dark blue or black line for the top eyelash, and a black dot in the middle of the white for the iris and pupil. Once again, the artists here speeded up their work by painting at one time all areas requiring the same colour.
Outlining the eyes and other facial features required the greatest care and control. Dorje Gyaltshen stated that to steady their hands the artists of his tradition used to hold their breath for the duration of each stroke. He was taught by his teacher that detailed outlining should be done on an empty stomach if possible, and never immediately after a full meal.
A full stomach was thought to impede one’s ability to hold one’s breathe. Similarly outlining should not be undertaken after strenuous physical work, for at such times one’s hand tended to become shaky.
Burnishing the Gold
The final step for many areas painted with gold was burnishing. In an ordinary -full-colour (rdzags tshan) painting the artist did not burnish every area of gold. One master painter from Central Tibet’stated that in general the main places needing burnishing were depictions of objects that were made of shiny gold in real life. Gold jewelry, for instance, needed burnishing, while faces and bodies painted with gold were to be left with an unburnished, matte finish.
However, in actual practice this artist also burnished the gold line drawings executed in a few other places such as the rocks in the landscape and in the flames. Most artists were freer than this in their use of the burnisher, some even burnishing gold faces and bodies. Nevertheless, few of the Tibetan painters we worked with burnished every bit of gold in the painting.
There were two principal types of burnishing. The first, called “flat burnishing” (leb gzi), consisted of the uniform polishing of a whole line or an entire area of gold.
The second type consisted of selective burnishing, whether by drawing designs onto an area of gold using the point of the burnisher, or by partial flat burnishing of a large area of gold.
In thangkas where gold was used only for minimal outlining and gold ornaments, most or all of the gold received a full burnishing of the first type. The more gold the painting contained, however, the more important the matte areas and etched designs (gzi ris) became.
In gold thangkas, for instance, selective burnishing came to perform some of the functions that would have been fulfilled by shading and outlining in an ordinary thangka. On large areas of gold the painter could both draw in detailed designs with the burnisher and also create an illusion of volume through gradually burnishing some areas while leaving other parts unburnished and thus of a darker, matte appearance.
The burnishing of gold required two main tools. To begin with there was of course the burnisher (gzi) itself. This was a polishing instrument with a hard, generally conical end. Some artists actually used two burnishers, one for each type of burnishing.
The one employed in flat burnishing had a point that was smooth and slightly rounded. The one used for executing drawings on gold needed a sharper point. Often these burnishers were made by mounting on a handle a gzi stone, a small cylinder of banded onyx with one end ground to a tip. Some painters had burnishers that consisted of gzi-stone tips mounted on elaborately chased silver handles and among all the tools possessed by a Tibetan painter, his burnisher was often the one that he prized most highly.
The fact that in Tibetan the word for “gzi stone” is synonymous with “burnisher” possibly indicates that the use of gzi stones in this capacity goes back a long way. In general, Tibetans traditionally believed that gzi stones worn on the body were effective in driving away harmful influences. This esteem for the stone may have helped them become established as the burnishing stone par excellence. Most Tibetan artists would choose a gzi stone over an ordinary agate that was equally suitable.
It is likewise possible that the use of gzi-stone burnishers derived from the practice of early Chinese artisans. Such burnishers continued to be used in China down to the present century, for instance by the silver gilders of Kansu Province. Daniel V. Thompson, an authority on European medieval painting methods and materials, visited Western China in the first decades of this century, and there he discovered how highly the Chinese artisans valued their gzi-stone burnishers.
Other Finishing Steps
With the completion of the faces and the burnishing of the gold, the production of the painting came to an end. Some fine thangkas, such as those belonging to a large set, at this point received gold inscriptions beneath each major figure. It was important to do this with correct spellings and in a fine hand. Therefore, if this was beyond the capabilities of the artist, some other person such as a learned lama or a scribe would be called upon to help.
Next some artists gave the completed painting a final dry-polishing on its back. Wangdrak was one who did so, and it made his finished paintings soft and resistant to cracking. First he laid a flat sheet of wood on a smooth surface and covered it with a clean cloth. Then he placed the stretcher face down on the cloth and rubbed the canvas all over with his dry-polishing stone.
Finally, to function as a sacred object of worship the painting had to be mounted in a cloth frame, and then consecrated through the ceremony of vivification (rab gnas). As a preparation for this consecration, while the painting was still in the stretcher many artists wrote in the sacred syllables OM AH HUM on the back of the canvas behind the forehead, throat and heart of each main figure. These syllables represented the essence of the enlightened body, speech and mind with which the figures were to be imbued during the consecration ritual.
In special instances, other syllables also had to be written on the back of the painting in their appropriate places. To position each syllable correctly, some painters first held the canvas up to a light source and put dots of vermilion at each of the spots needing a syllable. The dot was later incorporated into the head of the syllable.
When the syllables had been written in with red letters, nothing remained for the painter to do but to clean the painting once more (with tsampa dough or a clean rag) and to remove it from the stretcher. For the latter task he took a sharp knife and carefully cut all four sides leaving only the corners uncut.
Then, holding the painting in place with one hand, he severed the four corners, first the bottom two and then the top ones. The artist had to take care to leave enough of a border (approximately half an inch on each side of the painting) so that a brocade frame could later be sewn on without damaging the painting itself. This was not difficult, for the red border strip around the edges of the painting gave him a guideline for the width of the required edge.
Once the painting was removed from the stretcher, the artist rolled it up, tied it with a strip of cloth or a piece of twine, and kept it carefully until the patron called for it. The painter then needed only remove the remaining edges of unused canvas to free the stretcher for his next painting.