What is a Thangka?
This is in essence the first question that you may want to ask. The answer is relatively simple, a Thangka is a painting, usually painted on cotton canvas, rarely on silk. The paint was in the past constituted of minerals such lapis-lazuly, mercury-oxide,gold, ect..
The arrival of modern, cheap and readily available synthetic pigments have replaced the older techniques yet Gold is still used by many artist. Yes, this explains the obvious, but to truly understand what a Thangka is we must look deeper into this Art, evolving over thousands of years it is safe to say that Thangkas originated in the Himalayas, used by Buddhist monks to visually represent Deities and legends, in order to render Buddhist philosophies more accessible to those who could not have access to the text or perhaps could not read.
Composition of a Thangka
As with the majority of Buddhist art, the methods used are highly geometric. Arms, legs, eyes, nostrils, ears, and various ritual implements are all laid out on a systematic grid of angles and intersecting lines. A skilled Thangka artist will generally select a variety of pre-designed items to include in the composition. The process seems very methodical and "easy", but requires deep understanding of the symbolism involved to capture the true spirit of the motif that is to be painted.Thangkas overflow with symbolism and allusion. Because the art is explicitly religious, all symbols and allusions must be in accordance with strict guidelines laid out in buddhist scripture. The artist must be properly trained and have sufficient religious understanding, knowledge, and background to create an accurate and appropriate Thangka.Lipton and Ragnubs clarify this in Treasures of Tibetan Art:"Tibetan Art exemplifies the nirmanakaya, the physical body of Buddha, and also the qualities of the Buddha, perhaps in the form of a deity. Art objects, therefore, must follow rules specified in the Buddhist scriptures regarding proportions, shape, color, stance, hand positions, and attributes in order to personify correctly the Buddha or Deities."