The content of Thangka has various subjects such as historical events, personage biographies, religious doctrines, Tibetan natural conditions and social customs, folklores, mythical stories, images of great deities and Buddhas, and Jataka stories of the Buddha, etc., involving politics, economy, history, religion, literature and art, social life, Tibetan astrology, pharmacology, theology and many other respects. The structure of Tibet Thangka is precise, balanced, plumpy and changeful. The painting methods are mainly bright color and line drawing.
Thangka always has a theme of Buddhism, and the artists must follow the sacred laws for portraying gods and Buddhas. Passages from scriptures are written in vermilion on the back, and Thangka is always unsigned, so it is next to impossible to know the painter and the age of ancient Thangkas.
Thangkas are usually placed upright in a rectangular shape while there are a few that deal with subjects of Mandala that are square. Cotton canvas and linen cloth are the common fabrics on which pictures are painted with mineral and organic pigments (important Thangkas use ground gold and gemstones as pigments). A typical Thangka has a printed or embroidered picture mounted on a piece of colorful silk. A wooden stick is attached on the side from the bottom to the top to make it easier to hang and roll up.
Painting a Thangka usually starts by stretching a piece of cotton cloth on a wooden frame along its sides. Then, a certain type of gesso is spread over both the front and back of the canvas to block the holes and then scraped off to produce smooth surfaces. Afterwards, some orienting lines are drawn to guide the sketching. By following a fixed proportion, images are then roughly drawn. The featured deity or saint occupies the center while other attendant deities or monks surround the central figure and along the border, and is comparatively smaller in size. Next is coloring. Painters apply pigments on the sketch. Black, green, red, yellow and white are the basic colors used in coloring. All the colors are mixed with animal glue and ox bile to keep them bright. Shading is then done to produce better pictorial effects. At the final stage, facial features and eyes are finished, which is sacredly done only after a ritual held on a fixed day. After detail finishes, the canvas is removed from the frame and mounted on a piece of brocaded silk. The wooden sticks are attached to the top and bottom of the silk. After a dust cover of gossamer silk is attached it is ready to be hung up.
Thangka can be made in a wide variety of techniques: silk tapestry with cut designs, color printing, embroidery, brocade, applique, and pearl inlay. The content ranges from Buddhas to the history and folk customs of Tibet. Hence the various types.
The common appearance of Thangka, with a scroll at the bottom, is usually 75 centimeters long and 50 centimeters wide. Besides, there is the banner style, and this kind of Thangka is 1.1 meters long and about 3.5 meters wide.
According to the material, Thangka can be divided into two types: one is made of silk and this kind is called gos-thang; the other, called bris-thang, is made of pigment. The gos-thang is printed on the canvas while the bris-thang is painted on the canvas.
According to the different kinds of silk, gos-thang can be divided into five classes:
(1) tshem-drub-ma is made of different kinds of silk woven by hand.
(2) lhan-dr-ub-ma or dras-drub-ma: To make this kind of Thangka, different kinds of silk are first cut into different shapes and then connected with needles.
(3) lhan-thabs-ma: This kind is a little similar to the second , but to make this kind of Thangka, different shapes of silk are agglutinated by the glue water.
(4) thag-drub-ma: This is a Thangka woven by hand.
(5) dpar-ma: To make this kind of Thangka, moulding board is necessary to print the pictures into the silk.
The largest Thangka of gos-thang kind is called gos-sku which is too big to be put on. In fact, it is only used at some special religious rituals. In the Potala Palace, there is a gos-sku with a length of 55.8 meters and a width of about 46.81 meters, made during the 5th Dalai Lama period.
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