The Art Of Mastering and outlining of Tibetan Thangkas

Almost every object depicted in a required outlining or linear detail. Outlining proper (bead) served to set off most objects from their surroundings, and it was used to demarcate the main subdivisions within them. also used line to develop the form or texture inside a given area, for instance within a swirling mass of flames or within the hair of a deity.

Furthermore, fine linear drawings were the main way of indicating any other details within an object or field. Examples of this include the repeating on , and the radiating golden light rays ) within a nimbus. Finally, also used line drawings to indicate any small or thin detail on small deities, such details as eyebrows, eyelashes, and ornaments of gold and bone could only be executed by thin line drawings.

Many linear details were final touches that completed the area being painted. Once the artist began outlining, they knew that the completion of the was drawing near.

Colours Used in Outlining

Of the various dyes used in , only two were widely used during· outlining: indigo and lac dye or lake. To create a satisfactory outline these colors had to be sufficiently dark to contrast sharply with the base color and background, so the painters prepared them in solutions that were more concentrated than those used during shading. These dyes, however, could not be so thick that they would not flow freely from the brush. Outlining always required colors that could be applied in smooth, continuous strokes.


used indigo for outlining the areas that had already been shaded with indigo. These included many of the blue and green areas of the thangka. In addition, painters also employed indigo for outlining deep vermilion and maroon areas, such as robes, some nimbuses and jewels, and so forth. The reason for using indigo in the latter cases was that lac dye, being itself a deep reddish shade, could not provide enough contrast when applied over a vermilion or maroon area. Finally, we should note that the artists also outlined a few white objects with indigo, such as white robes, draperies, and ornamental scarves.

Lac Dye

Lac dye was used as an outlining color mainly around those areas that had been shaded with the same dye. This meant that most areas with base coats of warm colors were outlined with this color, the main exceptions being the deeper vermilions and maroons as mentioned above. Also outlined with lac dye were many white areas and areas painted with gold. A particularly important application of lac-dye outlining was to the bodies, faces and limbs of all figures except those that had been painted blue, green or vermilion.


In addition to the two main dyes, several other colors were also used for painting linear details. These colors were applied after the ordinary outlining, and one of the most important of them was white.


White was indispensable for putting the finishing touches on , primarily to give waves their final outline. The artists applied lines of white next to the dark indigo outlines of waves that had already been painted. Often they applied the white lines (dkar bead) just beneath the indigo, especially on surface waves. In the painting of minor waves lower down, however, the white lines often appeared above the indigo. Finally, the artists used white to paint in small ripples and bubbles on the surface of the water.

Bone Ornaments

The painting of the small bone ornaments of deities was another important application of white line drawings. Here white was not used for out· lining per se, but rather for the actual drawing of these details. The. bone ornaments of large deities were sketched and painted in individual sections that then required final outlining with lac dye.

But for small figures, the bone ornaments were too fine to be depicted in this way, and therefore these ornaments were executed by means of simple white line drawings. For deities of sizes, a middle course was also possible the thicker bone ornaments such as the main of bone aprons were painted in full detail, complete with lac-dye outlining, while the smaller ornaments, such as bracelets, armlets, and anklets, were painted freehand without a preliminary sketch.

Expert artists experienced no particular difficulty when painting such complicated bone ornaments in this way. As in the drawing of so many other designs in , here it was a matter of first establishing the main divisions of the pattern and then filling in the intermediate details.

For white outlines and finishing details the painters used their ordinary white paint, here made just thin enough for the fine application. But when painting the bone ornaments of white tantric deities or clakil) is a little yellow or ochre was mixed into the white so that the resulting yellowish-white details would stand out against the white base color of the bodies.


In most , gold was used much more frequently than white. Like white, it was applied after the indigo and lac-dye outlining, because both white and gold were used for details that lay on top of the surrounding areas in the . Gold ornaments, for instance, had to be painted over the limbs or bodies of the deities, which by this point should have already been completed through outlining.

Gold had a wide variety of applications in outlining and linear details. For simple outlining, the artists commonly laid down one or more lines of gold inside and parallel to the outer dark outlines of such objects as nimbuses, seats, flower leaves, robes, multicolored lotuses, and rocky crags.

Sometimes the gold lines were applied in a thin line just inside and contiguous to the dark dye outline, but usually the artists placed them a little further inside the outline, leaving a thin strip of undercoat color between each gold line and the outer border.

Another common use of gold was to finish the interiors of nimbuses with evenly spaced radiating lines that represented emanating light rays (ad phro).

The artists drew these light rays either radiating out in all directions from the center of the nimbus (this was most common) or else as rays that spread out along flatter, mainly horizontal paths. In order to be able to place all the light rays at even intervals, the artist first drew in, say, every fourth ray, so as to subdivide the whole nimbus into larger sections of equal intervals.

To draw these preliminary lines some artists now use chalk, and previously in , they used sticks of the fa dkar or rdo rgyud (soapstone). Then these sections could each be mled in with three evenly spaced light rays. For greater effect the artists commonly alternated the shape of the light rays, making every other one wavier.

Gold Brocade Designs

The most noteworthy use of gold in , however, was in the intricate repeating patterns used to complete depictions of brocades and other objects. In general, were fond of decorative designs and minutely executed details, and here in the painting of golden brocade designs (gas ris) and similar details, we find this tendency reaching its fullest expression.

Some of the most obvious objects to receive such decoration were the brocaded robes of the or saints. But the artists also applied gold brocade patterns to almost any area that could conceivably consist of cloth, including cushions and certain types of back . Brocade motifs being among the showiest details in a thangka, they gave the artist with a flair for detailed another chance to excel.

Tibetan artists possessed a of decorative motifs that were perfect for repetitive application as brocade designs. Many of the motifs originated from the designs found on actual Chinese brocades. Some were extremely complicated, consisting of a series of stylized peonies, lotuses or . On the other hand, many of the most commonly used patterns were very simple.

For less important commissions, or for the smallest figures in any painting, the artists used a series of simple gold dots, or crosses to complete the areas of cloth or brocade. Here we will describe and illustrate just a few of the main designs used by our teachers, illustrating how the painters positioned them in relation to the underlying robes or cloth.

The two main types of brocade designs were linear borders and designs repeated in large fields. The artist drew from large repertoires of patterns for both classes of design.

Border Designs

Linear border designs (mtha’ ehag ri mo) were used for representing strips of fine brocades occurring along the cuffs and edges of robes. These designs consisted of repeated motifs enclosed by gold outlines along the edges of the strips. The artists executed such designs not only on the edges of robes, but also at the borders of the patches making up a bhiku’s upper robe (ehos gas), and on almost any strap or band, including the bands (sgom thag) of siddhas.

An artist sometimes painted the borders of robes with base colours different from those of the main parts of the robes. Occasionally they also shaded the undercoat colours with dyes. (Similarly the undersides or inner linings of robes were also set apart from the outsides by being painted in contrasting colours such as yellow, pink or pale green.) Then as the final preparation for finishing with gold outlines and designs, the painter used indigo or lac dye to outline the edges, seams and folds of the robe.

When it was to apply the gold, a painter first laid down one or two plain gold lines on either side of the garment’s border. These lines were called “border outlines” (mtha’ bead). Then having decided which design he would use, he divided the border into regular segments. Most designs alternated back and forth with symmetrical halves on either side of the strip. Thus, when using a common zigzag pattern as the basis for the design, he would first draw in the basic zigzag down the center of the strip. This established a series of triangular on either side of the border, and the rest of the job was to fill in each of these triangles with the same design.

A similar brocade design for robe borders was built round an undulating, wavy line:

Having drawn such a line down the middle of the border, the artist then filled in the newly demarcated areas with semicircular elements such as half-flowers.

Whether zigzag or undulating, the line had to be drawn with regular intervals so that the overall design was balanced and pleasing. On the upper robe of a bhiksu, the gold designs of each square patch were commonly painted freehand.

Here, for added realism, some artists slightly staggered the gold outlining of these patch designs (dra bead) at folds in the robe

Brocade Designs for Large Areas

A somewhat different set of designs was required for filling in the large areas of cloth within the borders of robes. For such large fields, the painters used both simple and complex designs. Since the beauty of the design depended on a regular repetition of the elements (in imitation of the designs on Chinese brocades), it was important first of all to align the elements of the design at evenly spaced intervals. The artist often placed the brocade motifs in successions of parallel, more or less vertical lines.

By spacing each element in the next line halfway between (and equidistant from) the elements of the previous series, the elements also became aligned along diagonal lines. The repeated motif could be as simple as a small dot or circle, or it could be as ornate as a detailed cloud or flower, but as long as the elements were placed in the regular sequence they would produce the effect of a design woven with gold threads in brocade.

It was more difficult to position the larger design elements at regular intervals when drawing them one at a time freehand hence for such patterns, the painter often began by laying down a series of simple dots to determine the centers of the repeated motif. Some beginners even sketched their brocade designs with charcoal before painting them. As with the border designs, so also here a slight staggering of the design at creases and folds in the fabric lent a greater realism to the painting.

Sometimes the artists combined simple and complex elements for their brocade designs. First, a series of large, complex elements were painted at regular intervals as described above, and the in between the larger elements was filled in with repetitions of a simpler element, such as a dot or circle. For a more striking result, the artists left a thin border of the unpainted area between the large elements and the surrounding field of small elements.

Although brocade designs on areas representing cloth were the most common application of gold finishing details, similar detailing was also applied to other objects. The various depictions of chain-mail armor, for instance, could be finished with gold outlining. In that case, the design was already established by the dye outlines, and the gold was just a secondary outlining applied as a finishing touch.

Gold Details on Back Curtains

Nimbuses, it will be recalled, were usually completed with undulating gold lines that represented radiating light rays. However, for a backrest or “back curtain” (rgyab yol) – the other main type of background for a figure the artists did not employ light rays. Instead, they completed it by means of various brocade motifs.

The painter Wangdrak depicted two main types of back curtains. Both were of similar shape, but while one type portrayed a smooth cloth curtain hung over a blue, disc-shaped background, the other type represented a blue or greenfield draped with a white cloth or ceremonial scarf on the top and sides.

Since the first type mainly consisted of l cloth, the gold details were no different from those used for finishing brocade robes. The large field in the middle required one of the usual repeating brocade motifs, while the blue or green edges of the cloth curtain could be completed with one of the standard brocade border designs.

By contrast, the second type of backrest a blue or green disc-shaped field draped with a long white scarf – required some characteristically different gold designs. To execute these designs the artist began by dividing the blue or green background field into upper and lower parts.

During the shading stage, he would darker either the top or the bottom part of the backrest using indigo washes. Then during outlining he would produce a more pronounced division of the field by means of one or more horizontal gold lines near the middle of the field.

Once the field was so divided, the artist would finish this middle horizontal band by developing it into a gold border design that incorporated the original lines. Then he would fill in the empty space in the upper half with large repeating brocade motifs.

One characteristic feature of the gold brocade designs used in the top half of the backrest field was the employment of stylized crags, water, and clouds along the bottom edge of the area, just above the central strip. This elaborate design was a well-known motif taken from Chinese brocades, but our main informants commonly used it in only on such back curtains.

Beneath the central border strip, the artists used another characteristic design, one which originated from . This was a depiction of hanging loops and strands of precious beads (dra ba dra ba phyed). Such auspicious decorations were thought to be essential features of palaces, and Tibetan artists also commonly depicted them when painting the walls of , palaces and so on.

Gold Details on Seats

The paintings of thick, padded seats (‘hoi gdan) were usually very simple affairs. Their frontal depiction consisted only of one or two flat rectangles, usually painted blue or green. The finishing of these seats with gold outline and detail, however, could be either simple or elaborate.

The simplest finishing of such seats consisted of single gold outlines along the top and bottom of the form. The same rectangular areas could also be filled with gold brocade border designs since the front covers of the seats were meant to be made of strips of cloth. If the painter was inclined to do something more elaborate, there were also some special brocade designs that he might employ here. The painter Wangdrak, for example, drew large and intricate brocade designs on the front of double seats in his thangkas of the Sixteen “”.

For this, he first divided up the two rectangles that framed the front of the seats. On one strip he determined three segments of equal length and then established three interior areas by drawing an oval in each area. On the second strip he divided up space in a similar manner, but with the ovals staggered so that they were centered at the gaps between the ovals of the first strip. In the second strip, two full ovals were placed in the interior of the strip, while only half ovals would fit at either end. Finally, all the ovals were filled with large brocade motifs, usually ornate flowers or auspicious objects.

For the painting of the long straight lines at the top and bottom of the rectangular seats (as well as elsewhere in the painting) some artists guided their brushes with a wooden straightedge (thig shing). Dorje Gyaltshen was one artist who used this method. He first placed the straightedge a fraction of an inch away from where the line was to be drawn.

Then he put the brush in place at the starting point, leaning the side of the brush handle against the top edge of the straightedge. Finally, he painted the desired line by moving the brush along the edge of the straight piece of . The brush hairs themselves were not to touch the straightedge, and for this reason the straightedge had to be fairly thick. The one that Dorje Gyaltshen used was about three-quarters of an inch thick.

Gold Jewelry and Ornaments

Gold ornaments, like the bone ornaments described above, were rendered in both simple and detailed manners. In large paintings or depictions of large figures, the artists drew the ornaments as part of the original charcoal and ink sketch. Like all sizable areas painted with gold, large ornaments were first painted with ochre as an undercoat.

Then, having coated each area with an application or two of gold, the artists gave each ornament an outlining with lac dye (or with a thin orange paint, in the case of Legdrup Gyatsho). Finally, as the finishing touch, the artists depicted the small jewels set in the gold ornaments, painting them as small circles of pink or pale blue with a dot of white in their centers.

In small paintings or for small figures, however, it was not practicable to sketch each tiny ornament or to give each an undercoat of ochre. Instead, the artists merely painted freehand the various necklaces, bangles, anklets, and so forth, applying gold paint in thin line drawings over the already painted areas.


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