In 1998, my soon to be husband and I decided we wanted a spiritual path to inform and guide the rest of our lives. I was working as a hospice nurse at the time, and was drawn to the practices of Tibetan buddhism, where the experience of death is viewed as the ultimate doorway to liberation. Vajrayana buddhism became our path, and it was only natural for me to be drawn to the painting of the deities whose saddhana we would be practicing. I was fortunate to meet a master Tibetan painter, Ang Sherpa Tsherin, with whom I spent 10 years studying the traditional techniques.(See my book: "Tibetan Buddhist Thangkas")
What is a Thangka ?
A Tibetan thangka (literally, “written record”) is much more than a decorative piece of artwork. The sacred images of thangka art represent enlightened energy. Used for visualization practice in Vajrayana Buddhism, they are meant to be internalized at the deepest levels of our being as a means of inner transformation.
Each sacred deity depicted in a thangka is carefully drawn and painted according to scriptures and established iconometry. Every item or implement has a specific sacred meaning. Actual gold is often used to enhance the painting and as an offering. Traditional framing includes colorful silk brocade, as well as red and gold brocade strips around the image, called rainbows.
Traditional Tibetan thangka painting consists of a specific set of steps. First, a thin smooth cotton is stitched onto dowels and a stretcher bar. The cotton canvas is primed with rabbit skin glue on both sides, followed by gesso mixed in with the glue. When dry, the canvas is polished on both sides until completely smooth. Then, a grid of guidelines of the chosen deity is drawn onto the canvas. The artist then hand draws the deity image with every detail carefully applied according to Buddhist iconography. This is the most important part of the technical process.
Once the deity is placed, then the background is drawn according to the artist’s preference. Beginning with the sky and working forward, gouache (opaque watercolor) is applied, then most of the images are outlined in indigo or alizeran crimson watercolor. Dry shading is done using watercolor and small brushes, applying layer after layer until the desired effect is achieved. Actual gold is painted onto jewelry, nimbus, halo, etc., then burnished to make it shine. Opening the eyes of the deity is always the final step of the painting.