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)