Earlier this week Carlos, on his blog, Mysterium, posted a link to some wonderful Buddhist cave paintings. I made a brief comment to his poste about how those images are made, and some reference to what role they play for practitioners.
I lived in Nepal for three years or so and when I was there I took up Buddhist icongraphic or thangka painting. It was a great experience. My teacher was an old Tibetan lama who had escaped to Nepal from Tibet during the Chinese invasion. He ran a small thangka "factory," which was a school or sorts, in a small Newari mud brick home he owned in the Thamel neighborhood in Kathmandu. He employed a half-dozen or so top-notch thangka painters. They were not monks, they were bluejean clad, headphone wearing, Arnold Schwarzenegger fans. But they took their painting seriously and they produced some of the finest Karma Gadri style work I have seen.
Since I was the only female student, I was shut in a room by myself for six hours a day, memorizing the complicated mathematical grids that the images are drawn upon. For most of the year I studied, I'd draw the grid, draw the face of the Buddha over the grid, erase it, and draw it again.
Magically, more or less each time I was done, the lama would knock, come in the room, sit down, say the very few words of English he knew, "Oh good," and then proceed to draw over my mistakes and erase the entire page (grid and all), smile and say, "Again." Arrggh.
Each day in the afternoon, a small, smiling, mute boy would knock on the door and deliver hot milk tea to my room. At this time, I was allowed to go into the other room and see the work of the other artists. We talked and laughed for a half hour or so and then I began the next drawing, alone in my room. In a year, though I had drawn for years, I never progressed beyond the body of the Enligtened One. And in the end, I had used less than one pad of paper. That was good practice.
These drawings are tools for memorzing visualizations in Buddhism, and they are drawn according to ancient tradition, evey small detail has meaning. The position of hands, or mudras, for example, can say much about what the painting is meant to convey.
There is a an excellent book on thangka painting how-to, called Tibetan Thangka Painting: Methods and Materials , by David P. Jackson, Janice A. Jackson, and Robert Beer, a famous American-born thangka artist. The Dharmapala site also has a good listing of other books.
If you have interest in learning more about thangka painting in a fun environment, there's a great teacher, Sanje Elliot, in Portland, Oregon, who teaches from his home studio. Class schedules and prices are on the site, and they're very reasonable. What the site doesn't tell you is that Sanje is a total hoot--waaaay too much fun. Though some of Sanje's students are professional artists, there are a few who describe their skills as "I couldn't draw my way out of a paper bag," and they don't seem to have any less fun in his classes.
thangka being presented to Venerable Bokar Rinpoche in Mirik, India, 2003