Monday, November 1, 2010

Interview with Elaine Sweeney

Green Tara by Elaine Sweeney, Gouache, 2010

[Paul Ferguson] 
Do you remember when and where you first encountered a thangka painting? Looking back do you think it was a factory painting?

[Elaine Sweeney]
Yes, it was in San Francisco in the late '70s. My then-husband found out that an old schoolmate of his was living there and we went to visit her.

She was working on a thangka painting - her Tibetan Buddhist teacher was teaching her. She had the drawing transferred to canvas and was doing the dry-shading of the sky with this little little light blue strokes. I was utterly horrified.

I don't know what the subject was or who her teacher was, but it definitely was not a factory painting. 

[PF]:  What aspect initially attracted you?

[Elaine Sweeney]:
I think I became attracted to Tibetan Buddhist art in general because it was so *dense* in terms of what was going on and there was a
horror vacui that appealed to me. I saw a huge Yamatanka wooden statue in Richmond Virginia that mesmerized me - I couldn't forget it, and I resolved to get to Tibet sometime. Mostly from the impact of that sculpture. I think I was still appalled by the 'fussiness' of the painting styles then. 

But once I got to Nepal and Tibet in '97, I became much more interested in the painting and in Buddhism in general. There would be a huge temple with one 40-watt light bulb in there, and some butter lamps on the altar, and all these ... *things* ... going on, on every surface. I especially enjoyed the wall paintings peeking out of the gloom.

And I think the factory paintings influenced me too - there were streets of hole-in-the-wall shops with piles of every sort of thangka-like painting you could imagine. It gave me some idea of the possibilities out there. And the ubiquitousness of the sacred in Nepal. You'd bark your shins on cinder block altars people built in the middle of the sidewalk, stuff smoldering on top. Red pigment sprinkled on sleeping dogs.

[PF]: What made you decide to take a thangka painting class? How did you initially hear about it?

[Elaine Sweeney]:
I'm not sure how, but I heard about the Tsa Tsa Factory when Blase first started it, and I took a tsa tsa casting workshop from him. He talked - hesitantly - about how his teacher had given him this practice and what it was like. I was impressed with the discipline and the ritual.

At some point later I heard about thangka painting classes there from mailings but it was quite a while before I had any time to actually check it out. I have a MFA in painting and drawing so I thought working on thangkas won't be a huge learning curve. (HA HAHA AHAHAHAHAH HAHAAHHHA!)

I guess I did have an advantage in knowing how to handle a pencil, mix color and work with paint but I was really taken aback by how much I had to completely start over on the technique level.

By this time I had a Soto Zen practice, and I really craved having some disciplined practice with a visual art component. People have said to me, I can't believe you drive from the South Bay to SF/Oakland/Berkeley every week for a class but there just aren't that many opportunities to learn to draw the Buddha.

[PF]: How has this practice changed your relationship with the dharma? 

[Elaine Sweeney]:
I think I do much more visualizations than most Zen students, though they are not formal practices. Seeing thousand-arm Avalokitesvara in the plaster of the wall while sitting zazen, seeing the ancestors appear and bow in the dedication verses of the services. This is sporadic, not constant, but it's very vivid.

-I read a lot more from different lineages. Sometimes texts Tsherin suggests, sometimes other Tibetan texts, sometimes Pali Canon.

-I've developed a lot more patience and discipline around activity (art) rather than 'just sitting'.

[PF]:Have you encountered any difficulties doing a Vajrayana art form while being a Soto Zen  practitioner?

[Elaine Sweeney]:
The biggest difficulty for me is Tibetan deities that I don't have a Zen metaphor for. Compassion-based deities such as Chenrezig and Tara aren't hard for me to approach because Zen has such a strong Bodhisattva concept. The wrathful/tantric deities I have difficulty approaching. (This in spades in Dinesh's class, where you start with Ganesh...)
The next area is lack of interest/support from a Zen sangha. It's viewed as something interesting and maybe simpatico, like yoga, but it's not in the picture of Buddhist practice for Zen. There's just not a big focus on imagery and where it shows up, it's automagically appearing from Japan. This disinterest has lessened as I have shown people in the sangha completed and more complicated thangkas. And I have a personal worry that by bringing in other philosophies and practices that I may be diluting my Soto Zen practice, as there's only so much time and energy to go around.

 Like you mentioned, having an artistic background makes it seem easy to transition to thangka paintings with their grid systems. Some might think it would be easy to do the same deity over multiple times.  Could you tell me some of the differences you've experienced painting thangkas versus other art forms?

[Elaine Sweeney]: 
The biggest difference (and challenge) is that it's hard to think creatively when you get sucked so deeply into mastering technique. I try to counter this by working in a sketchbook (mostly in pencil) with ideas. But I still find I have hordes of concepts I never get to, because the time and focus to produce traditional thangkas is intense.

Another is that the length of time to complete a painting requires a quantum leap of care in handling it. This encourages mindfulness but it's also an anxiety, especially with the paint surface not being water-resistant.

Another is that it is easy to 'lose' much of a painting's qualities in presentation. Framing under glass, which is almost required because of the fragility of the surface, introduces an unwanted distance. Reproductions completely lose the level of goldwork and often much of the brush line quality. It's curious to have something so delicate and ephemeral in transmission.

Paint quality I struggled with for a long time, as I had mostly worked in oil previously. Luminosity and 'juiciness' with oil just does not occur with gouache. I have thought a lot about attempting an oil-based thangka but the time to execute and transliterate into the other media has not been there.

[PF]: We have many obstacles in the west to painting thangkas. Be it work, time, money, etc. What problems have you encountered with taking up this practice while living in the modern world?

[Elaine Sweeney]:
It's similar to my Zen practice in that it's out of step with cultural attitudes in the US - general casualness about Buddhist thought and imagery ... lack of respect ... disregard of the power. Buddhism has this 'hippy' aura, or it's muddied up with peace-and-love, Feng Shui and home decor. Sacred works and ceremonies are treated as entertainment or brushed with funky interpretations. There was a yab-yum thangka on craigslist earlier this month as a "perfect Valentine's Day gift." The further I go into thangka work, the more easily I feel taken aback by this stuff.

And I think the time factor is significant. It's almost impossible to sit down and spend 15 minutes with a painting or even a grid drawing - your hand isn't even awake by the end of that time. Once you get warmed up - maybe a half hour - it feels as if you need to spend an hour to get the benefit of the warm-up, or more. Just like sitting down to meditate just doesn't happen unless you have it "scheduled", day in and day out.

[PF]:Tsherin told me that his father studied with six different thangka artists that helped him to develop his style. You have studied with two teachers, Tsherin and Dinesh. Could you tell me if studying under a second teacher has changed how you approach thangka painting or given you any new insights?

[Elaine Sweeney]:
When Tsherin went back to Nepal and it became totally unclear when he would be able to return, I saw I was having problems staying motivated on my work without someone regularly looking over my shoulder. I happened to find out about Dinesh's classes and signed up.I think the most interesting thing has been having two very different perspectives on art and culture in the Himalayas. There were other differences in use of color, technique, iconography, but having that experience of the two different visions has made the most impact.

While our teacher, Tsherin, was away in Nepal trying to return to America both Tod and you continued to hold classes at Tsa Tsa Studio. Could you tell me a little bit about this experience and what you learned from it?
[Elaine Sweeney]: 
Tod was really the driver on the classes; initially he told me that the Tsa Tsa Studio had asked him to do a weekend workshop and I said I would be willing to help if he liked. I had the impression that the Tsa Tsa Studio could use the workshop fees, so he and I did a number of them over ~a year and a half or so.

First they were quite exhausting - people came into the classes at every level of ability and knowledge. The students were usually full of a wide range of questions and often they were quite nervous about drawing the Buddha. It was a handful to get them started with pencil and paper and a grid and keep them moving on the drawing. I had taught art before in graduate school as a TA but I did not have the same level of confidence in teaching thangka art. I think that was the biggest thing I remember, feeling my 'lack of competency' but trying to push through it. It was also a challenge in not having perceptions about what would happen; sometimes people had pre-registered, but more often they just came, or not.

You worked with whoever showed up, whenever they showed up. Sometimes they had preconceptions of what the class was about, and were taken aback at what was entailed - that the layout of the proportions was a significant part of the time.I developed a real appreciation for how skilled Tsherin had been as a teacher - how patient he was, how he knew how to 'move' students along with prompting and help without being untoward.

[PF]:  What other ways do you think our generation of thangka students can help continue to preserve this tradition?

[Elaine Sweeney]: 
Well this is really the $64 question, and I don't know that I have any good answer beyond the obvious - support the teachers that are out there, support fellow students, encourage the exposure of both traditional and contemporary Himalayan arts. 

I think there does need to be 'communities' that nuture this - maybe it is sanghas and maybe it is Tibetans and Nepalis, maybe it is artists and patrons. Once there is a nucleus of energy, I think creativity is going to go by leaps and bounds.

It would be great to get to the point where people feel it is important to have artwork in their Dharma Centers and personal shrines as a matter of course. I always love to see new work being dedicated - I think Berkeley Shambhala got a new painting not long ago and they had a nice flyer available on the work.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

New York Panel Interview

Tsherin will be having an interview October 7th at 6pm [New York Time]    The panel will be streaming live on the Trace Foundation website and probably archived afterward.

Trace Foundation Site

Monday, September 6, 2010

Dry-Shading and New Sketch

Here's some updated images on what I've been working on.  The dry-shading never seems to stop on this white tara.  I'm learning much about subtlety and patience from the practice.  I'm currently doing the first layer of dry shading for the waves which gives them a basic outline/fade.  Next week I'll be giving them a second layer for more structure.

I've been practicing drawing skills on the eight auspicious symbols.  As much of the practice, it appeared to be easier than it actually turn out to be.  Took me about three attempts to get the endless knots proportions correct.  Now it's learning more about drapery but without the confines of a deity's body to lay upon. 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Dry Shading

Practically all of the flat and wet-shaded underpainting have been completed.  Now the detail work begins. I'm currently dry shading the clouds and flowers.  The technique is challenging since you not only need to know the dampness of the brush but how much pigment is on it.  The goal being to make small marks that don't have a distinct edge.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Traditions Transformed Exhibit

The Rubin Museum had its opening for the Traditions Transformed exhibit this past week. Tsherin along with eight other contemporary Tibetan artists were involved. From what I hear, the opening was one of the most successful that the Rubin has ever had. Congrats!

Click here for images from the show

Monday, June 14, 2010

Art Sangha

Last week I had a powerful experience while painting the body nimbus of White Tara. At a certain point, the background had the optical effect of receding while the remaining body sketch moved crisply into the foreground. At this moment of arising, various connections fired off in my brain. I realized that over the years I've not only found sangha within my buddhist community but also in the bay area art world. Mental blockages just dropped away and a new path beckoned.

Part of this process has come from my apprenticeship w/ Tsherin through the support of ACTA. Part of it has been the space created by the current poor economy which has given me extra time. Normally I wouldn't be pushing myself to complete a series of paintings in one year. Typically it can take a year to complete just a single thankga but I'm attempting to do three large ones in 2010. Another aspect of this inspiration is for organizing the thangka art show that will include paintings created during the ACTA period. I'm hoping to get more of Tsherin's students involved since they have been such a great support to me. I need to talk with Tsherin about my ideas once he gets back from New York.

Saturday night I ventured out to the 15th Anniversary exhibit of the Women's Environmental Art Group [WEAD] which was hosted by JFK University's Arts & Consciouness gallery.  I got the chance to reconnect with one of my art teachers and mentor, Andree Singer Thompson.   Andree's Eco-Art course taught me how to feel more comfortable with creating formal art proposals. This process gave me the confidence and knowledge to apply with ACTA. She's currently creating an art car to ride in the "How Berkley Can you Be" Festival, Maker Faire, and other art car  and ecology events. I've been invited to participate in painting it. I'm looking forward to working again with Andree as well as getting advice on exhibit proposals for the thangka show.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Thangka Student Interview: Reed Malcolm

Above is Chenrezig Mandala [Gouache on canvas 20" x 20"] completed by Reed in 2009.

PF: Do you remember when and where you first encountered a thangka painting? Looking back do you think it was a factory painting?

RM: I'll never forget the first time I saw a thangka. I was in Kerala, South India. It was a wheel of life painting, and most certainly a cheap factory painting. I think I saw it in the window of tourist shop. It made a huge impact on me (although I didn't buy it). I spent a month or so traveling north through India, thinking about that painting, and eventually wound up in Kathmandu -- the hub of cheap factory thangkas. Of course, like any novice, I had no idea about the difference in quality -- tourism thangka vs. proper thangka. To me they were all amazing, and all beautiful. I often wish I still had that same openess and indifference to quality, and hadn't become such a thangka snob.

PF: what aspects initially attracted you?

RM: What I loved about thangkas are their complexity, symmetry, and colors. For me, they are art of a spiritual nature, and leave a deep impact. The same way music, or literature, might for other people? Interestingly, I think one thing that attracted me in the beginning was also the brocaded frames found on most thangkas! I had never seen anything like this, and looking back I think they added to the regalnes, and other-worldliness of thangka painting.

PF: What made you decide to take a thangka painting class? How did you initially hear about it?

RM: I had been self-taught for a while, and not very good, but really enjoying the process of copying other thangkas. I later got involved studying with a Tibetan teacher in SF, who subsequently moved back to Nepal. So I signed up for a Newari painting class with an incredible teacher and painter in Berkeley, Dinesh Shrestra. Although I found this class quite useful, it was not exactly the Tibetan/thangka style I was after. A fellow student told me about Tsering Sherpa's class, and the rest is history. I've since benefited greatly from the instruction and inspiration received from Tsering. He's a fantastic teacher, apart from being a superb painter in his own right.

PF: I'm curious what methods you used while you were in the initial phase of teaching yourself. Did you use any books such as Robert Beer's "Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs" or David Jackson's "Tibetan Thangka Painting: Methods and Materials"?

RM: I started with David Jackson's book, which is really the only one readily available in terms of supplying thangka grids. Beyond that, when I started out I was mainly just copy other thangkas. My work was never very good, nor the details ever "right" from a technical perspective. But I wallowed blissfully in my ignorance for years, and had a real "beginner's mind" approach to the painting process. Now I know too much, which means I can't look back at that older work now without cringing at my mistakes.

PF: How has this practice changed your relationship with the dharma? Have you encountered any difficulties doing a vajrayana art form while being a Soto Zen practitioner?

RM: I can't say for sure. Some people -- like my mother -- often ask me if I recite mantras while I paint? Some ask me if it's my form of meditation? And while it could be a form of meditation, and while I probably should recite mantras, the truth is I mainly listen to the radio! I will say however that since thangka painting is so painstakingly detailed, often requiring months if not years to complete a single work, one does acquire a strong sense of patience, and the benefit of learning to be present while only focusing on the small details right in front of you, not worried about finishing the entire painting. I'm convinced now that anyone who calls themself a thangka painter must be clinically crazy......Who in their right mind who embark on a work that can take months or even years to finish?! My (Zen) teacher supports the practice, and even used to paint thangkas himself.

PF: We have many obstacles in the west to painting thangkas. Be it work, time, money, etc. What problems have you encountered with taking up this practice while living in the modern world?

RM: Lack of time is the biggest problem, especially for us householders with families and full-time jobs. The other obstacle I would say is that there is neither a strong commercial nor any monastic demand for thangkas in the west. Most people don't understand them or their purpose. Tell someone at a cocktail party that you paint 'thangkas,' they'll think your refering to toy trucks.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Wet Shading

Spent the day at Tsherin's new art studio working on wet shading the background. The technique is when you are blending a lighter shade into typically a darker one. With three brushes, you put down one color, then overlap with the second, then use a third flat brush to blend. The process has to take place VERY quickly since the gouache paint dries rapidly. Like under a minute sometimes! We've been having a mini heatwave in the bay area, so this is making the process even more challenging. And of course this large White Tara painting has huge spaces to fill up. Instead of the two blue shades for the sky, I also added a third light yellow shade for mist behind the lower mountains. Overall, it turned out decent. I'll probably start dry shading on top of this paint, later this week

Friday, May 28, 2010

A First Generation Western Thangka Painter Journey

Some days I start my morning with a cup of coffee and a random google search on thangkas. From time to time, I come across another artist with which I'm unfamiliar. From my experience, the individuals or circles working in this tradition have very little knowledge of each other. I envision a network gradually building were we have forums to discuss the various distinct aspects of our art lineages. Step one of this process is adding the names to my blog's sidebar for others to become informed of each other. The next step which I've just begun is to begin some dialogue as well.

Today I discovered an article about Cynthia Moku in the Shambhala Time newsletter. Similar to Jack Niland, Cynthia also studied under Chogyam Trungpa in the 1970's. I consider both to be part of the first generation of western thangka painters. Currently, Cynthia teaches thangka courses at Naropa University. Enjoy this four part article!

Article Link

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

White Tara + Kurukulla

These are latest images of the two manifestations of Tara I'm working on. I'm fascinated how one day I like the direction a drawing is going then the next day I see all the flaws. Thangkas are such a slow process that one always goes through a multitude of progress as a painter by time it is finished. You see the imprints of your mind from five months ago.

Scooter pointed out how the upper torso on Kurukulla looks too huge and the breasts out of place. I'm wondering if the original grid wasn't as refined since Kurukulla is a more obscure deity. I'll have to find out from Tsherin when I see him tomorrow.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Seems like everybody I know is growing through transitions right now. Either graduating from masters programs or becoming laid off. I, as well, am going through a change in my apprenticeship.

Next week, I will begin the painting of the White Tara. The detailing of the background took way longer than i expected. However, i now feel much more confident in capturing the essence of clouds. We'll start out painting the background before the deity which is the traditional sequence.

I started the grid and sketch of my second painting in the Tara series: Kurukulla, who is a wraithful form of Red Tara. I needed a switch from the posture and attributes of a peaceful deity. On Kurukulla, I'll be able to work on flames!

Back in February, I started the 10-yr Dharma Gar retreat that I mentioned in a previous posting. The refuge yoga section of this ngondro training has been killing my body. However, the combination of prostrations and visualization of the refuge tree has been aiding in my art. During the hynagogic state immediately before sleep, I notice the day's thangka elements vividly in my mind. I'd like to ask rinpoche about this phenomenon to see if it common.

Tsherin suggested that I begin another new project to work alongside the 10-years that I spend in dharma gar. The project would consist of completing small thangkas of all the individuals within the refuge tree. It's a large undertaking but it does sound like it could be fruitful. I'd have to begin slow this year since most of my energy will be focused trying to finish the Tara series.

We've been hunting for Tsherin's new studio space for months now. Last week, I found an ad on craigslist for an art studio compound in Berkeley. He's currently filling out paperwork for it. As soon as next week he could be moving in. This in turn means more time for me to be studying under him.

In 2011, I was asked to visit Nepal for at least a month. Tsherin is setting up a sculpture studio there to have Nepalese artists fabricate his contemporary sculpture designs. I would go see part of that process as well as study thangka painting under his uncle and dad. Plus there are some lamas he wants me to meet at the Rangjung Yeshe Foundation which is three blocks away from his dad's house. Now to come up with a means to fund it. Guess I'll be hunting for more scholarships as well as learning some basic Tibetan.

Finally, If you are in New York City, check out this contemporary Tibetan art exhibit that Tsherin is a part of at the Rubin Museum

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Interview with Tod Nielson

Back in February while Tsherin was away on retreat, I started some interviews with other fellow student thangka painters. I was stuck on my current thangka painting without Tsherin's assistance, so I figured I would work on the interview project for a bit. It was initially inspired by Buddhist Geeks announcement that they will be taking articles from their website from listeners. I thought it would be great to share some of the wonderful experiences of thangka students. Here is the first interview with student Tod Nielson. Tod was one of the first students to study under Tsherin when he arrived in California. Enjoy!

PF: Do you remember when and where you first encountered a thangka painting? looking back do you think it was a factory painting?

TN: Hmmm.. I think I first saw them in books, but the first time I saw them "in person" was at Tse Chen Ling when I started taking classes there. That was some time ago - I think the mid 1990s. I'm pretty sure they were high-quality thangkas.

PF: what aspects initially attracted you?

TN: The initial attraction was an artistic one - color, composition, details. But when I started learning which deities and events were being depicted, and why, they became all the more interesting. Actually, both my parents died in the winter of 96/97 (?), and I decided to commission a thangka of "The Buddha Descending from the Heaven of the 33 Gods" - because it deals with filial piety - in their honor. But I didn't know any thangka painters. That Christmas, Tse Chen Ling was having a "Winter Fair", and I met Tsherin at that time. He was helping a friend of his sell jewelry. I mentioned my wish, and he agreed to do the thangka for me! I really liked the final product! We had it "framed" in brocade.

PF: What made you decide to take a thangka painting class? How did you initially hear about it?

TN: Tsherin and I became good friends, so when he started teaching classes, it was natural that I join in, even though the last time I took art was in High School, (a long time ago!). We (the other students and I) had a lot of fun, plus the painting itself teaches patience and concentration - not to mention the gaining of merit. Anyway, I was sad when I retired and moved, because there are no classes like that here in Lake Geneva, WI! But of course, I still see Tsherin occasionally when I go there or he comes here.

PF: You mentioned that the painting practice helped teach patience and concentration. How else has this practice changed your relationship with the dharma?

TN: Painting thangkas has helped me to appreciate the width and depth of the dharma. It's a different approach from the purely intellectual and/or experiential. It's visual - as in "visualization meditation." And of course, it's a perfect vehicle for expressing one's devotion.

PF: Like you were saying, we don't initially know all the iconography and specific aspects of a deity when we begin painting it. For me, I've now painted Green Tara three times. Two when I was just starting out around 2001 and one just recently. This time around, I felt more confident and had more knowledge thus a different energy became embodied in the painting. Could you tell me more about the experiences you've had as you get to know a specific deity?

TN: Hmm.. Well, discovering what all the accoutrements and settings of the Dieties represent does encourage one to do a bit of research! And being able to understand them, and explain them to fellow practitioners is gratifying. A good example is the (almost always) depicted "Offerings of the Five Senses." Who knew?

PF: We have many obstacles in the west to painting thangkas. Be it work, time, money, etc. Now you are half way across the united states. What problems did you encounter with taking up this practice in the modern world?

TN: There are not many problems, if one has a good teacher, and the support of fellow students. But the lack of them is certainly a detriment to continuing painting! If I have a question, I have to scour my old notes... not always helpful. But I've been branching out to non-religious art, too, so that's good.

PF: So, I guess my next questions are how things have changed since being away from Tsherin's instruction. For me, this past month has been a challenge with him gone on his vermont art retreat. When present, he can easily fix some aspect of the drawing that i've been struggling on in just a few seconds of demonstration. Have you tried a new thangka painting since moving away?

TN: I'm still working on the (simple) one I was when I moved! Also, I've done some grid/pencil line drawings - including an Amityus that I really like. Now that I'm in school full-time, [I'm getting a degree in Hotel/Hospitality Management], I haven't had a lot of time to paint lately.

PF: What other styles of painting [you mentioned non-religious] have you been working in? Have you found yourself using techniques from thangka painting when you are working outside the iconography?

TN: Right after I moved, I enrolled in a watercolor class here. That was a disaster, because watercolors are about as "opposite" from thangka painting as you can get. I kept feeling "sloppy" as I tried to paint landscapes, flowers, etc. in watercolors. I felt I should be paying attention to the details - which is virtually impossible in watercolors.

PF: Has any of your accumulated knowledge of thangka painting been passed on to your new sangha? When at buddhist centers, I always find myself explaining aspects of their thangkas while we are on break from dharma talk.

TN: Right now, I am affiliated with a Theravadan group, lead by Sri Lankan Monks and Nuns. But they (and the other practitioners) are very open to learning about all Buddhist art. Once a month, I bring a thangka or statues to the Meditation session, and explain the meaning of the deity, implements, and other aspects of the piece, and also the techniques used to paint or scupt the sacred object. Everyone is always very curious and impressed.

PF: Our teacher, Tsherin, was away for a few years in Nepal while trying to return to America. During that time both Elaine and you still continued to hold classes at Tsa Tsa Studio. Could you tell us a little bit about that experience?

TN: The classes were held at the "Tsa Tsa Studio," which is affiliated with Tse Chen Ling. The building was really decrepit, and the owners were renovating the flat above us - VERY slowly. The place was infested with fleas, windows were broken, and the restroom was a disgrace. All in all, very interesting! Most of the time, it was just Elaine and me supporting each other in our endeavors, although some interesting people showed up occasionally. I can't speak for Elaine, but I really didn't feel qualified to "teach" anyone, be I could encourage them, and answer a few questions.

PF: What other ways do you think the new generation of thangka students can help preserve the tradition?

TN: One thing I noticed about the Dharma centers I've gone to is that "Buddhist Art" per se is not really discussed or taught. I think that if some well informed individuals were to take up that task, it would help - not just Tibetan art, but all Buddhist art.

PF: Any final thoughts you would like to add?

TN: No final thoughts - only that painting thangkas has been a joyous and gratifying experience for me. I'll attach some paintings I've done. (For some reason, my camera makes everything look rather garish)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Background Sketch

I transferred the inked deity image over to my final canvas and redrew enough detail to start painting that section. First though, I'm sketching in the background for the painting. I finished the small flowers on branches surround the body aura. This week I've been practicing the larger flowers before adding them to the painting. Next week will be clouds and rainbows!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

White Tara Inked

The past two months have been a little slow with Tsherin gone on his Vermont artist retreat. I've found a new "habit" for when I get stuck on a painting. I randomly open up Robert Beer's "Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs" then copy something from the page. The process seems to help get me started since I don't get as intimidated from the smaller drawings. You lose the feeling that you'll mess up the next step on something that is larger. It's a good practice.

I finished inking my White Tara. Even though my line work has a long way to go, I've noticed myself getting more comfortable with the brush. My hand turns automatically on curves where before I usually had to over think everything. I'm beginning to enjoy the process.

This past week I transferred the inked image onto a larger watercolor paper. That process was daunting. I've never used heavy weight watercolor paper in such a large format before. The paper had a tendency to want to buckle and remain rolled up. I ended up having to improvise so i used an iron with steam to get it to stay. If anyone has a better method of "stretching" watercolor paper please let me know. After cutting and pressing, I ended up with a 24" by 28" piece of paper on a larger backing board.

We use carbon paper to transfer the inked image over to the final paper. This process reminds me of those blind contour drawings that one is forced to do in early drawing courses. Even though you are working with a good image, the end result never looks right. You always have to spend a bunch of time cleaning up the final image again after you perfected it once already. A tribute to impermanence!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Pata Practice

This week I've been practicing "Patas." Pata is translated as leaf. The spirals are dazzling to the eye when done correctly. The process starts out with one hook then you build counterpoints to that main spiral. After that, it's kind of like connecting the dots while maintaining a harmonious width.

Tsherin told me that if you look closely at well done patas you will notice that none of them look alike. If you only do a "stencil" then they look stiff. In order to trick the eye into seeing them as continuous, one must alter each section individually.

Soon, I'll begin drawing the patas in the outer portion of the body aura. I've also begun finalizing the lines on the sketch before the inking process

The Pata practice has peaked my interest into other forms of ornamentation. I hope to pick up a history of ornamentation book from the library soon.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Attainment Mind

The initial sketch for White Tara is nearing completion. Since Tsherin is leaving shortly for his two month art retreat, my "attainment" mind sometimes wants to rush ahead to get the basic layout done. I need to keep that aspect of myself in check. And I only have two weeks left before he leaves.

Lately I've been increasing my daily meditation time towards two hours. This amount is the commitment required for a ten year buddhist retreat that I applied for. This practice has helped in slowing down my drawing process. As you slow down, the subtle curving of lines come into your awareness. It's amazing how much we never see since we always try to rush ahead!

I've accomplished quite a lot already on this project. In comparing this White Tara to the one done in 2000, I've come a long way. I'm curious what changes will occur in another ten years going down this path. I can only hope that each new painting will bring forth a better vessel for the deity's energy to inhabit.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Grid System

The underlying skeleton to thangka painting is the grid system. The lines help define how the body is to be positioned. Thus having a master's grid will achieve more than lots of decorations that tempt the eye. If the grid is poor, then the beauty is corrupted thus not making as suitable a home for the deity's energy to inhabit.

The grid for the White Tara that I'm currently working on comes from the personal artist to the previous Panchen Lama. A compilation of his grid systems were put together in a book for future students. Tsherin's father gave him a copy the last time he was in Nepal.

Tsherin is having me look at other reference books to see the differences between this grid and other grid systems used for White Tara. This tradition is a subtle way to train the apprentice's eye. After staring at these other paintings, I'm beginning to see slight variations. Even though the line work and everything else seems perfect, if the underlying grid isn't good then the deity will look stiff. Once you see this flaw, one's mind wants to give the deity a yoga adjustment for correction.

The below picture was taken when I had just completed the initial body sketch. The previous Green Tara that I created, helped me to see the underlying body much easier. The complex New Mendri style clothing used in this grid is more challenging than I've ever done. At some points the body lines were hard to find, since so much flesh is covered up. The process has become like combining sculpture with drawing. I'm refining the most minute details of the line trying to find the perfect harmony.

The older Mendri style is what Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche asked Tsherin to preserve. Since it has closer ties to Indian and Nepalese art, many Tibetans don't consider it as pure. However, the Mendri style has less ornamentation for the eye to catch on. This style may be easier to use to practice visualization rather than letting the mind wander therefore it is of great importance to maintain.

The Red Tara in my series will be done in Mendri style. I hope that having just done a complex New Mendri style White Tara, I will be able to have fresh in my mind the changes between the two.