Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Endless Knot

Finished the first of the eight auspicious symbol project. I've been using Holbein acryla gouache which is halfway between the consistency of goauche and acrylic. It has a very flat appearance once done but you have to put on many coats of paint to achieve that effect which takes extra time. Another benefit is that the bottom layer doesn't pull up when you are dry-shading.

The main hindrance I found was that the paint doesn't flow as well from my sable brushes. I recently bought some cheaper acrylic brushes which seem to work wonders. I'm sure I'll figure out more tricks as I move on to the conch shell next.

The Endless Knot symbol itself was a bit confusing to figure out. Tsherin gave me some basic instruction on how to figure out the image I was working from. I managed to recreate it after three tries but I didn't have confidence in doing it successfully again next time. Luckily, I went to Andy Weber's workshop at Rainbow's End Farm earlier this month. He gave me a simple grid system to figure out it out. Now I have much more confidence and can create a sketch of one in about 10 minutes.

I'd love to experiment more with this symbol and materials. I'm pondering using copper leaf as an exercise.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Facebook "Thangka Artist Group" Introduction

Hello everybody,

I wanted to start a new introduction thread on this facebook group so we can have a better chance to get to know one another. [Note: if you are a thangka artist and would like to join this facebook group, please contact me]

I’ve felt for a while now that there is a wealth of thangka and dharma artists out there creating wonderful new pieces. However, it always seems that we are creating in insular groups without much awareness and connection to the teachers outside our own circles.

In the bay area, we have at least three great thangka masters, Ang Tsherin Sherpa, Dinesh Shrestha, and Jamyong Singye. I’m sure there are more that I’m not even aware of yet. Each of these artists works in a completely different style: Mendri, Newari, and Karma Ghadri. I’ve been so fortunate to see works from these masters as well as artists from afar through scholars and promoters of the art-form such as Siddhartha Shah.

About two years ago I started my thangka blog, western-wind.blogspot.com to document my process. Through that I’ve met many thangka artists outside my circle who have become part of my art sangha. I’d love to see this develop more through this facebook group as well as our personal blogs and classes. We are part of a second generation of western thangka artists who will have much struggle ahead to preserve this tradition as well as keeping it as something useful for current Buddhist practitioners.

I’m not sure when I first encountered a thangka. I must have seen some reproduction from the first generation of western artists such as books by Andy Weber, Robert Beer, David Jackson, or maybe Romio Shreshta HUGE thangka book [I didn’t encounter Jack Niland’s more radical approach until much later] Maybe a combination of these influences and seeing a factory thangka at our dharma center start many of us on our path. This is also a common point where most of us get stuck. Finding an actual lineage holder in our immediate area is such a jewel. We are blessed in the bay area. Many of you had to travel across the world to Tsherin Art School in Kathmandu to find your teacher as did many of the first generation of western artists.

I first started reading about Buddhism during my college years in Michigan, not really knowing of any dharma centers to check out. The web was in its early days so it wasn’t quite as easy to google “Michigan Buddhist Centers” and stumble upon some center I never heard of. It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco in 1998, that I had easier access to the dharma. In 2000, I had two friends die within two months of each other, which sent a shock to my system. It gave me the courage to enter San Francisco Zen Center for the first time. Their setup is very welcoming to a newbie. I also wanted to find a Buddhist art practice to go along with my meditation. In my naivety, I thought a sand mandala instructor might be the easiest to find. I had no notion of initiations and such at that point.

In 2001, I stumbled upon a flyer for Ang Tsherin Sherpa’s art courses at Tsa Tsa Studio. Tsherin was also fairly new to America at that point and new to teaching westerners so it was a great learning process for all involved. We created very simple deities without much background or detail. Through that process my mind started opening to something new. A dharma was being transmitted through the brush. It was a form of meditation that I couldn’t really put into words but drew me in further. I was a zen practitioner so I didn’t have a much deeper understanding of the deities than what I read from Andy Weber’s books or what Tsherin would teach us but the process still held deep meaning for me.

Even after those early days, I still study next to a few who have maintained the practice throughout the years. It’s been wonderful to see how we have grown over the past ten years. Although my study with Tsherin has been off and on throughout this period for many reasons such as him being out of the country or me being too busy with work, I was always drawn back.

The last two years have had an increased focus for me. Many years ago Tsherin introduced me to his teacher Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Norbu through audio recordings. These past ten years I’ve wanted to get into my thangkas on a deeper level through vajrayana practice but just haven’t been able to find a bay area teacher that resonated with me. I was waiting for Khyentse Norbu to return to San Francisco for a teaching but then I discovered his newly forming 10 year modern “Dharma Gar” retreat. It was a little more than I wanted to get involved with to start out but it also seemed like quite an amazing opportunity as well. So I jumped in… And survived this first year and looking forward to my second...

The Dharma Gar daily two hour meditation commitment has given me a deeper connection to my painting and its challenged me greatly in many ways as well. My guru doesn’t want us to only image Indian style jewelry and forms of the east. So how do I translate that into my painting? Do I need to learn more skills as a sculptor to help see the deity in three dimensions like I imagine in my mind?

Those are the things I’ve begun to explore lately as well as new and older types of art materials. I’ve begun a series of the eight auspicious symbols but using Holbein acryla gouache as the medium. Tsherin has been using this paint for his contemporary pieces thus my interest. The paint is halfway between gouache and acrylic. The matte quality and permanence is amazing once it is down on canvas but I still have not achieved a natural flow between the brush, paint, and myself. I’ve begun to react against this new paint by wanting to explore traditional pigments. I’ve just received a glass muller, gum arabic, and a basic set of pigments to make my own paints. By exploring both the traditional and the modern I’m trying to find some form of balance.

Tsherin has given me a “10-year” assignment to go alongside my dharma gar practice which consists of individual paintings of figures from the Longchen Nyingthik lineage. I have no idea if this can even be completed in 10 years. It might turn out to be a lifelong project but I’m taking it one painting at a time.

Anyways,I look forward to getting to know all of you. Hoping you will also share your “achievements and failures” of trying to be a western thangka artist. I hope to study under different masters as time and money allows so I can get a feel how others approach dharma art. But in essence, I believe we need a community to help us to stay in line with our ultimate intentions of bringing dharma in the form of art to our generation. I look forward to getting to know you, debating with you, sharing techniques, and art material recommendations.

Friday, February 4, 2011

White Tara- Finished

I finished my painting of White Tara last month. It's been a long year working on this project for ACTA but it's given me a new level of self-discipline. I've begun to feel myself on the path of the masters. My eyes have changed drastically over the period of this time. I remember years ago looking at Pema Namdol Thaye's book with utter amazement, thinking i will never attain that level of mastery but I can see myself being able to reproduce that level of quality in the upcoming years. Now when I look at a master's artwork, I focus in on tiny details that i want to learn how to create rather than just the dazzle of the overall composition.

I've recently begun my next project which is doing the Longchen Nyingthik lineage tree, completing individual paintings for each figure within the tree. Giving them all a voice for the next generation who may not understand their buddhist ancestors. It's going to be a long and difficult process. Tsherin wanted it to go concurrently with my 10 year Dharma Gar retreat with Dzongsar Jamyang Kyentse Norbu. There will be much to learn and master over this period but it is a fascinating challenge.

I'll be starting out with Vajrasattva since I've been doing that practice for a few months now, sculpting Vajrasattva and consort Vajratopa in my mind's eye every day as i chant the 100-syllable mantra. This will be the first thangka I create in which I've had a deeper practice connection so I'm curious what kind of inner teachings will arise from the act of painting.

With my daily meditation practice commitment, my mind is no longer the same either. It's evolving somehow... The slowing down that comes with 2-3 hrs of practice a day has really helped my thangka practice, especially in those moments of feeling stuck. When I'm doing Vajrasattva practice for an hour long period, I can't just stop when my mind doesn't want to focus and move on to something else. I have to go through it and come out the other end somehow. The same with painting... It used to be easy to just stop and pick up the next day but I've been trying to have a daily 2 hr commitment to this practice as well. And with that i have to forge ahead even if it means making mistakes. When I manifest Vajrasattva in my mind, some days he is clear and vibrant while other days I can barely see the lotus he is sitting on. But it is a recreation, an image not of Vajrasattva but a roadmap to his aspects. I've begun thinking of the thangkas in the same way. Even though I want this individual painting to be beautiful and accurate, it is just one manifestation. To perfect that image, a thangka painter has to have the devotion to recreate the same deity over and over again throughout their lifetime. The White Tara I created back in 2001 is miles away from what I made this past year but there is still a quality of devotion there.

A thought arose the other day after meditating and starring at my completed White Tara, even if i master Tsherin's style of New Mendri/Mendri thangka painting, I will still not have mastered the art form. How does one create modern road maps to the divine? My teacher Dzongsar Kyentse reminds us that when looking at a thangka to not get caught up in the static, frozen quality of the pose but to realize that there is a fluidity we are not seeing. When manifesting Vajrasattva in one's mind we look at the deity from all angles, spin around from various viewpoints in one's head. You can't get that from a painting, maybe a sculpture of a deity is more closer but it is still not accurate because in the mind you are vibrating seed syllables within the deity who is effervescent like the reflection of the moon in water. How can one help practitioners see this? I'm not sure of the answer but i know i have a long road ahead.