Dharmapala Thangka CentreIconography

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

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

Style and Technique

Descriptions and definitions of style are essentially the concern of the art historian; technique is the means by which the appearance, and thus the style, of any particular painting is achieved. Technique might be seen as the exploitation and manipulation of the materials available to the artist, to conform with cur-rent practice, or to fulfill the expectations of religious, social, or historical demand, determined by patronage and, ultimately, by the artist's individual talent.

Throughout its history, European art has been affected by the constant introduction of refinements and innovations in materials-and thus in techniques. Artists developed and exploited these with often striking individuality; influenced by precursors and influencing successors, they were easily identified as active within regional schools. In the history of Tibetan art there are no such significant changes or additions to the range of available materials, nor can many inspirational individual masters be identified. But what is significant in Tibetan art are the variations in the manipulation of these simple resources and the manner in which the pictorial image is achieved. This can be seen as the evolution of technique and consequent development of style.

A faithful modern copy of a fourteenth-century painting made with similar materials might appear identical in a photograph, but it is unlikely to seem so under scrutiny; the style may be the same, but almost certainly not the technique.

Tibetan paintings are constructed with three separate yet intimately interdependent layers. The physical nature of each governs the properties of the next and, ultimately, the appearance and quality of the pictorial image that can be achieved. The thread, yarn, and weave of the support will limit the type and the behavior of the ground layers that can be applied, and the constituent binding and surface preparation will enable, but also dictate, the subsequent applications of drawing and of paint. The artist can, therefore, define the criteria, from available resources and practice, that will allow stylistic expression and individual realization of a particular doctrinal commission.

The preparation of the materials and their application were crucial, not only for the painting's execution but also for its use in practice and, indeed, its survival. It is astonishing that so many works of devotional art, some nearly a thousand years old, retain the flexibility that has allowed them to be rolled and unrolled over the centuries. To invest a painting with such a quality required a profound, if received, understanding of the properties of the materials and techniques.

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