Dharmapala Thangka CentreSchool of Thangka Painting

Tibetan Iconography

Early Paintings from Central Tibet

Excerpted from Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet,

by Steven M. Kossak and Jane Casey Singer, with an essay by Robert Bruce-Gardner

Copyright 1998 by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Reprinted by permission


When the desired ground surface was achieved, the composition, within prescribed parameters, was established. First, however, given the canonical rule of iconometry and hierarchical strictures, a basic l grid was most often imposed, either with the use of tensioned thread that had been dipped in pigment and "snapped" against the surface - creating a straight line with a distinctive impact mark - or drawn freehand, which produced characteristical imperfect lines of varying width and density [the cc sequence of the irregular pressure of the hand] and the fading of the line from the point at which the brush was reloaded.

How extensive and elaborate these grids might have been, habitually or individually, is unclear, sin they were ultimately obscured by paint. The grid m, be seen at the margins or, where it has been applied in black, it can be detected in infrared examination in which the carbon of black appears dark. But the grid and the preparatory drawing were often applied in a deep shade of red, which reflects in infrared and thus remains invisible. Therefore, it is not safe to assume that if a grid cannot be seen, then it is not present. It is possible, of course, to note the presence of colored grids or under drawing in instances where small areas of the overlying paint have been abrade or lost, but exactly how often the basic grid was use cannot be determined.

The simplest gridlines define the compositional borders and margins indicating where the support is to be cut from its strainer on completion, with a central vertical axis marked, occasionally using corner-t corner diagonals to locate the center point. An example of a more detailed grid structure, with a fluid line under drawing, can be witnessed in an inexplicably abandoned composition, on the reverse of a painting which it closely resembles The limited extend of the extent of the drawing would seem to be typical, in basic outline, with only notational details of the physiognomy and drapery folds of the figures depicted within the basic structure of the composition. This type of drawing is naturally a prerequisite for painting and is based on the observance of iconographic demand, whether for portraiture, the representation of a particular deity with attendants, or the conventional geometry of the mandala. The drawings wereexecuted in a thin fluid paint, but it is not possible to establish whether a preliminary composition was customarily made, using a less permanent medium. If there was a drawing in, say, charcoal, it would have been erased before paint was applied. This may be likely, because some residual evidence of such a stage may be detectable in, for instance, passages of exposed thin red paint lines. There is considerable range in the line of individual artists' drawing; some are rather formal and careful, others more free and expressive or blandly formulaic. Brush widths vary, and this is a factor seen in the quality and finesse. In essence, underdrawings pro-vide evidence of process rather than of creativity.

There is little advantage to the artist in pursuing the under drawing beyond the outline, as the first stages of painting obscure any additional detail. Many instances of apparently imprecise rendering in paint of an underdrawn composition are interpreted as adaptations or changes of artistic intent. More pragmatically and simplistically, this probably only reflects the practice of painting: the first layer of paint is a flat, opaque field of color that obscures the drawing, and the exact repetition of any detail would be a matter of chance. As most under drawing is loosely rendered and limited to outline and basic detail, significant adjustments would be obvious and, as such, seem to be rare. More detailed drawings may have been prepared for the inspection and approval of the patron before the painting itself commenced.

Pigments ...