Tibetan Thangka Painting

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Thangka of Shakyamuni Buddha
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Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva & Manjusri & Vajrapani

Intent, In Tents and Intense from Ann Shaftel


The concept of Original Artistic Intent is difficult to apply to Tibetan thangkas. Thangkas are composite objects produced by painters and tailors with differing intents, skills and training. Iconographic specifications, regional and doctrinal differences in style, changes in form from harsh treatment and altered mountings all complicate the issue.


A thangka is a complicated, composite three-dimensional object consisting of: a picture panel which is painted or embroidered, a textile mounting; and one or more of the following: a silk cover, leather corners, wooden dowels at the top and bottom and metal or wooden decorative knobs on the bottom dowel.

Can you say that there was an artist who had a prevailing artistic vision over the entire composition? Rarely. Is the thangka which you are examining in your laboratory today in its original form? Probably not.


What is the purpose of a thangka, what use was it originally intended for? Thangkas are intended to serve as a record of, and guide for contemplative experience. For example, you might be instructed by your teacher to imagine yourself as a specific figure in a specific setting. You could use a thangka as a reference for the details of posture, attitude, colour, clothing. etc., of a figure located in a field, or in a palace, possibly surrounded by many other figures of meditation teachers, your family, etc..

In this way, thangkas are intended to convey iconographic information in a pictorial manner. A text of the same meditation would supply similar details in written descriptive form.

Does the concept of artistic intent apply to thangkas? Only rarely do thangkas express the personal vision or creativity of the painter, and for that reason thangka painters have generally remained anonymous as have the tailors who made their mountings. This anonymity can be found in many other cultures.

There are, however, exceptions to this anonymity. Rarely, eminent teachers will create a thangka to express their own insight and experience. This type of thangka comes from a traditionally trained meditation master and artist who creates a new arrangement of forms to convey his insight so that his students may benefit from it. Other exceptions exist where master painters have signed their work somewhere in the composition.

The vast majority of anonymously created thangkas, however, have taken shape as a scientific arrangement of content, colour and proportion, all of which follow a prescribed set of rules. These rules, however, differ by denomination, geographical region and style. The Conservator is left with the responsibility of caring for religious objects that usually carry neither the names of the artists, nor information about their technique, date or provenance. But we do know that the intent of the artist was to convey iconographic information.

There is a vast amount of iconographic information provided in thangkas, some of it literally spelled out for you. If you look closely, many thangkas spell identification of figures and scenes in formal and delicately rendered scripts. In damaged sections of thangkas where paint layers are missing, letters which indicate the master painter’s choice of colour are sometimes visible. These letters were not intended to be part of the final composition and should not be confused with the former. But given the breadth and variety of the iconography of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, it is virtually impossible to extrapolate the information that would be required to fill in figures that are missing or to complete the sacred objects that the figures hold in their hands. Where inpainting is required, the definition and clarification of artistic intent is a complex issue.

Since even indigenous Tibetan scholars trained in the iconographic details of Buddhist deities generally would not presume to know the iconography associated with every deity, it is unlikely that most Conservators could guess the identity and details of unfamiliar figures. In this case, speculation as to the artist’s intent tends to be a particularly unrewarding strategy.

In the twenty five years during which I have been working with thangkas, I have chosen never to guess, calculate or presume to identify missing iconographic facts. To do so would, in my experience, contravene both the ethics that are required of professional Conservators and the integrity of the objects that have been entrusted to us. Even a subtle change in colour alters the message of an icon.

For example, a particular shade of the colour green indicates effective activity, while a white often indicates peacefulness and unassailable compassion. It is significant therefore if the same form of a feminine figure is rendered in green or white.

Is the colour you see before you the colour which the artist intended for you to see? Sometimes water damage (yak-hide glue is susceptible to water damage) washes away several fine layers of pigment on final paint layers or shading layers. This damage exposes either underdrawing or flat colours which the artist never wanted you to see. Although some details may be present, unless the artist has also left a notation as to the specific colour (sometimes revealed by paint loss), an error would be made if the Conservator were to reconstruct something in an inappropriate colour.

Often, a combination of water-damage, greasy butter lamp soot and smoky incense grit permanently alters the original colours. Evidence of this is often seen at the edges where a mounting has protected the original colours.

In Tents – How Tradition Contributed To Damage

Damage was particularly likely given the tendency of Tibetans to travel long distances in harsh conditions. Thangkas were important articles of the tent culture of nomadic monastic groups in medieval Tibet. It was not unusual for a group of scholars, yogins and priests to travel by yak to distant regions, set up tents, unroll the thangkas and serve the local people by teaching before moving on to another area.

This was good for the people but intense for the thangkas! Rolling and unrolling was, and still is, unavoidably damaging for thangkas. Rough handling and damp walls damaged both the paintings and their mountings, in medieval Tibet and today as well. I have studied the handling of thangkas today in existing traditional monastic settings. I was invited by the Abbot of a major monastery on the Tibetan border to work with the monks on proper care and handling of their thangkas. During the year, according to religious holidays of the lunar cycle, specific thangkas are removed from storage, unrolled, hung up in damp and smoky shrine halls, and then taken down, stacked for rerolling and placed back in storage. Storage consisted of airless tin trunks designed to protect thangkas from rodents. The trunks smelled of bacteriological activity.

The monks in this monastery value their thangkas. But rolling and unrolling combined with rough handling and poor storage constantly damages their treasured thangkas.


Now if you are feeling that the subtleties of colour and iconography are overwhelming, we can continue on to style and technique! If you feel that the original artists were working by a set of rules to which you have little access, let us reinforce that tense feeling by looking at the range of traditional styles and painting techniques, which the original artists were guided by. Then we will continue on to discuss the mountings which were made by tailors who worked by a completely different set of guidelines.


Basic painting technique differs with regional style, training of the artist and the funding available to purchase gold, expensive pigments and so on. Also with the number of students or assistants the master painter employed.

Did the artist contour areas of iconographic and non-iconographic detail (such as sky or grass) with wet shading, dry shading or a combination of the two techniques? The Conservator would have to study thangka painting technique to understand. A good way to recognise these techniques is by learning to paint thangkas or by studying incomplete thangka paintings.

Did the artist apply many fine layers of paint one upon the other, or one heavy layer? Regional styles differ in the technique of paint application.

If the paint layers are lost and damaged, can the Conservator judge the artist’s intent from the surrounding areas? Should the Conservator tone in lost areas of non-iconographic detail? Private collectors and dealers, for example, often request a Conservator to inpaint all damaged areas.

Although some of these questions are standard conservation issues, they are further complicated when religious and iconographic message must be respected and maintained.


Thangkas are not only paintings. Their textile mountings are very important. When dealing with the mountings, a new set of questions arises. Did the artist of the painting have any control over the style and proportions of the mountings which surround the painting? Was the original choice of mountings that of the patron or that of the tailor? Is the tailor to be considered in a discussion of artist’s intent? Was the painting created in one part of Tibet and framed in another part of Tibet, China or Northern India? Did the silk come from China or the Middle East along active trade routes? Is the mounting done in a different style, technique and aesthetic from those of the painting?

Is the silk brocade mounting currently part of this thangka in fact the original mounting for this picture panel, or could it be the third or fourth replacement? The answer to this last question can often be found on the edges of the support where several row of stitch holes can indicate that the mounting has been changed.

Does the mounting obscure significant sections of the painting? Tailors have been known to sew mountings with a window so small that it covers important iconographic and aesthetically relevant sections of the painting composition. The form of the mounting therefore may alter the artist’s intent by obscuring details significant to the iconography and aesthetics of the painting.


The conservation treatment of a thangka is a complex process that reflects the complexity of the original composite object. All of the issues raised above must be evaluated in deciding on the appropriate treatment for a specific thangka.

For example, a Conservator must look carefully for any exposed colour notations and not confuse them with iconographic lettering on the final paint layers. A Conservator must evaluate what regional and stylistic techniques were used in producing the painting and mounting and also look for damage from past handling. And finally, the Conservator must examine the current mounting to determine its relation to the painting and document whether it covers significant sections of the painting.

In summary, thangkas are complicated composite objects which are designed to communicate iconographic ideas in a beautiful and practical form. A thangka in your laboratory or collection may be the production of many painters and tailors with differing intents, and differing skills and training. The textile mounting may have a completely different style, date and region of origin from those of the painting.

Pure, single artistic intent is lost through a combination of iconographic specifications, regional and doctrinal differences in style, changes in form subsequent to the original creation and many years of harsh treatment.


The Author is indebted to the late Vajracarya, the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, the late H.E. Jamgon Kongtrul, Rinpoche, and to Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso, Rinpoche.

Copyright © 1993 by Ann Shaftel

Ann Shaftel is an Elected Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation and the International Institute for Conservation. She has published and lectured on thangkas and served as consultant and conservator for monastic and museum collections for the past 25 years. She holds an MSc in Conservation from Winterthur (1978), an MA in Oriental Art History from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (1972), and a BA from Oberlin College (1969). She also studied at UNESCO-ICCROM. She apprenticed to Tibetan master painters for 15 years.

With kind permission of the Dharmapala Centre – School of Thangkas Paintings.
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