Thangka Painting

Rebgong, Qinghai
Producer: Dawa Drolma
Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
[Catalog No. CFV11276; © 2017 Smithsonian Institution]

For many traditional Tibetan artists, painting a deity becomes an act of worship, especially in the creation of traditional Tibetan scroll paintings known as thangkas. As a form of visual scripture, thangkas depict buddhas, bodhisattvas (enlightened beings), and teachers, and illustrate their sacred stories and the principles they embody. As both objects of worship and expressions of religious ideals, thangkas are a central feature in monastic shrines as well as in domestic altars. This video begins with scenes from the Seng Ge Shung monastery in Rebgong (Qinghai Province), a region famous for its thangkas, but focuses on the work of freelance artists Shawo Dukgyal and Shawo Thar. As they explain the processes of painting a thangka, we watch them prepare the canvas and begin outlining either in black or red ink, then painting the background, and finally the central figure—first the body and then the facial features. Once finished, the painting is usually gilded or embellished with gold leaf.

Questions for Discussion

  • What are the steps involved in making a thangka painting? What tools and materials do the artisans use in the video?
  • View thangka paintings from the National Museum of Asian Art’s Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room online to discover more about this painting tradition. In particular, this painting of Shadakshari Avalokiteshvara is a great one to explore.
  • Create your own thangka painting with the help of ideas in this lesson plan.