3 Thangka


hand painted Tibetan Buddhist Thangka

What follows is the inside story of the post “Embroidering a Thangka”

I was commissioned by a friend, Brian Pearse, to embroider a copy of a traditional painted Thangka that his partner, Sarajane Aris, particularly liked and had kept a copy on a post card for many years. The couple practice the discipline of Tibetan Buddhism, and Thangkas, of which they have collected many examples on their world-wide journeys, can be used as an aid to meditation. Brian brought one example with him when we met to discuss the project, it was brilliantly coloured and exquisitely painted, more like folk art than its Christian counterpart – the Icon.

photocopy of post card I had to recreate in embroidery

The image that Brian showed me was not what I was expecting, it was a simple picture of the Primordial Buddha ( Buddha with his female partner Samantabadri, signifying the union of wisdom and compassion). The Tibetan paintings I remembered were  of the Buddhist view of world order with demons and gods, all in glorious technicolour. But this was very different, richly coloured but almost monochrome, a range of pure whites, palest to deepest blues through to greens, with some gold and a dull red.  One practical problem loomed – the image had been cropped to lose the information of the surrounding garland and the sky – just a few lotus buds and curly leaves.

I recognised at once why Sarajane would like this image just based on aesthetic grounds, regardless of its meaning; she revels in colour, bold, brilliant colour – for her clothes and their home…in fact Brian had discussed at length the best possible colour to paint a wall of their new home in order to show off their art collection. ( Print Room Red for the Thangka). On this first visit I took him to my studio and fished out as many of my most beautiful antique fabrics that would correspond to colours of the image; he was very amused, enjoying my obvious delight in showing him these lovely cloths. This use of precious fabrics is in the tradition of Japanese patch-worked , Buddhist priests’ robes called Kesa, where the very best worn fabrics are given to the monks to make simple patched robes.

first idea of fabrics for Thangka

My next task was to decide how exactly to make the piece and how much to charge…this is always a difficult process when I am asked to make anything I have never made before. To calculate a real price and make an estimate of my time to fulfill the deadline – some 6 weeks ahead – I first made a tracing of the art work and then made a full-scale working drawing, the sampling for this would decide how I would work the piece: the techniques, the fabrics and the overall time it could possibly take.

squared up tracing of the photocopy
large scale working drawing, all pieces of applique will be cut from this.
But the last and most troubling thought was that the traditional makers of these images were practicing Buddhist as well as artists well versed in the iconography of this practice. I had a scant knowledge of what and who I was depicting; my knowledge of Buddhism is largely gleaned from my ongoing Yoga practice. Meanwhile Brian gave me some basic information about the characters and so I had enough to start researching the artworks and Tibet.
We also discussed price and as usual when I am  not certain I gave a “worst scenario” price (I imagine that I will do everything by hand embroidery  and cost accordingly) then I say I will give the actual price when I have made some samples… Brian actually accepted the first price but I needed to make my usual preparations.

We agreed that I had to faithfully copy the central image, hence the scaled drawings, but could invent the outer hanging, so I thought I might make this area like a Kesa and so get to use lots of my old materials.

I set up an email conversation with Brian, he enjoyed hearing how I thought about the process and I needed quite a bit of guidance from him in return; now reading through it all again it recalls a good account of the trials and joys of working to commission.

” Hi Brian

I have spent some time today to make a few inroads into the tangka…I have resized the drawing to a similar scale so I can make some decisions re. making techniques, but before I go any further I need just a bit of guidance for the choice of colours. So…..do I go with the fact that Sarajane just loves brilliant colour and I have found in my stash 2 beautiful deep turquoise and royal blue silks and applied my real gold leaf to make a tiny  sample of the double halo area…

real gold leaf applied to brilliant blue silk

it is very strong, not bright – more rich and glowing ( you can read how I feel)  I know she will love this colour BUT the image itself is rather sombre – could be the either the print or its age; so do I go with the what I know she will like or try to get the exact softened colour? – I can get the colours by over dyeing – or dipping them in tea!  Is it the simple straightforward version of this image that she likes in TONING colours – which are what is making it calm and serene??????

Meanwhile you can halve my stab at a ‘worse scenario price’  because I now can see where I can hand stitch and where I can applique by machine…and it looks like I have most of the fabrics – I am going to make the image first and then have some fun on the background with my Kesa idea, which I have been waiting for ages to work with as a patchwork system.

my antique red woven silver sari fabric

So over and out and thank you for a fascinating commission, love jx

PS Do you want to be kept in the loop with the progress or do you want a surprise as well?
Moving on – you know when you get to do something or go somewhere and it just all sort of falls into place without you really having to go out searching  for every last damn detail? well this is what this piece of work is like..I had got stuck on finding the outer hanging fabrics. I found almost all the pieces of fabric I wanted in my stash but I had no red brocade for the first band of the border, but today while searching for something else l found my Indian fabric and costume box in the basement of Heart Space– lots of mirror embroidered children’s clothes and some old silver brocaded saris I had bought in Soho years ago for a  commission for a holiday cruise ship. And of course there it was, a silver thread and red silk brocade – heavy as hell and perfect for the first important band – a bit greyed and softened with tarnish but the real thing to put to real use.

So – as my  chant for the middle of my sleepless nights says – I won’t grace it with the word mantra – “everything comes to me with ease and joy and fulfillment”

” Dear Janet,
What a wonderful letter. Full of considered enthusiasm. I would like you to follow your heart/mind in all decisions about colour, you’re the expert and I trust your judgement.
I so enjoyed your letter so I think I would like to carry on a conversation with you as a blog but not see the work in progress , though I would appreciate if you could photograph the work in progress.
I am delighted with the price but would like to add something extra for all your own rare and unique materials
So pleased you were prepared to take on this noble work.
All the best. Love Brian”

Samantabadra cut from white silk satin, hand stitched hair

I started with the woman, she was voluptuous and sensual, a pure white silk satin was used – here white is a symbol of pure perception – and the darkest indigo blue raw silk for the Buddha for black, which contains every colour and here is a symbol of all wisdom.  The hair and faces were stitches in silk thread by hand – but  trying to emulate the hooded gaze of the Buddha’s face proved really difficult on such a small scale.

slowly building up the central figures, stitching one piece at a time then embroidering the details by hand
the figures are appliqued to the background

“Hi Brian,
Quick up date for the work – it feels like a guilty pleasure working on your commission this week – I keep stealing time from getting the garden and house together for the open studios at the weekend; even the lovely weather today failed to keep me in the garden – I  really just had to go into the studio and get to stitching  the black figure…I have almost completed the 2 figures now and they are joined together. Combining the two shapes proved quite a difficult piece of applique and subsequent hand embroidery – sort of a jigsaw puzzle knowing which piece to do first to get an easy stitching system between the limbs and the ground, the inner body information and the outer stitched shape. But it is done now and I am feeling a lot more relaxed about the rest of it – let’s face it if this strong central figure doesn’t work – nothing else I do will count for anything – so I decided to do this first when the energy is high at the start of the project.

the silk running stitches for the hair

I have just left a little bit of hand embroidery on hair this evening so that I have an easy task for the start of the next stitching session (this is part of my usual practice) but not at all sure when this return will be with all the other work to do in the next few days.  The next section  to be sorted is the background foliage of the white lotus onto the sky  and then the dias needs to be made deeper – not sure what  to do with this yet. I am trying to be very true to the original but am at the point when I just have to use my imagination for the missing bits“.

“Dear Janet,
What a delight another letter bringing enthusiasm and detail of your craft with a lightness of touch that is engaging and informative.

I am shocked at how far you have journeyed with this project in the time you have had,well done.
The bonus to me is your obvious enjoyment and enthusiasm for the work.

Would you like me to see the work before SJ’s birthday?
All the best . Brian”

“Hi Brian,

As to you seeing the work before Sarajane’s  birthday I am OK either way – but when I asked Steve(my husband) what he thought, he said “No Way – let it be a surprise for both of them”  but up to you – I think that if you can stand it I would like this as well. Whenever I have had to show previous commissions ( family portraits – in another life) I have always refused anyone seeing the work before the unveiling – but you are friends, so it’s up to you entirely.”

hand dyed raw silk for lotus petals

On the original post card the outer edge of the flower garland surrounding the figures had been cut off – I had to invent a large area of the embroidery based on just a few flower buds at the top of the picture I recognised as Lotus flowers – white lotus.

I set about dyeing raw silk for appliqueing the petals which were cut then bonded into position, petal by petal, with the leaves into a garland to surround the central image – I had to invent a large area of the embroidery based on just a few flower buds at the top of the picture that I recognised as Lotus flowers – white lotus. I designed the missing flower garland by researching many other garlands used for  traditional Thangkas that I found on Google images. The whole halo area was hand stitched in running stitch in a dull gold thread to illustrate the rays emanating from the Buddha and his partner.this wasn’t so easy at it appears, the rhythm, spacing and direction of the rays too a great deal of precision stitching – but  just the sort of stitching I like to work, very steadying to do something so simple that requires all my concentration.

the entire garland with half the golden rays in running stitch
the curious pearl shaped buds prepared the dias

pearl” Hi Brian,

Had a few days last week and the weekend working on the commission – so there is quite a step forward in the main image. Just a quick query; what are the small round eye –like things on the throne base either side of the red central panel at what look like corners – are they flamingpearls? I have seen the flaming pearl symbol in Chinese costume/fabric a lot, not quite captured in the claws of  dragons, and they could be this or are they some bud or fruit? I need to make them and stitch them onto the strips of fabric making up the dais and not sure if they are integral to throne symbolism?”

HI Brian,
Well what can I say about this work I am doing for you ? If I tell you that I went out last week and bought a turquoise green dress at great expense because I just had to have the colour…and when I got home and went in to look at the Tankha I immediately saw why!!!!!!

stretched central panel waiting for surround

I have spent 2 perfect days working on your commission in my studio, Steve in his and I in mine; interspersed by dogs walks, relaxed lunches and suppers after my days of total immersion in stitching and thinking….the perfect bank holiday.

I have almost finished the central image area; everything except that the Buddha is looking outwards and he has to look inwards – so need to attend to the eyes and make them hooded as in yoga practice.

I thought that I could extend the time I spend with the work by really getting involved in the surround using patchwork like the Japanese Buddhist Kesa – the cloak made of old kimonos and I have collected masses of silk bits and pieces But when I started just by using all the old silver sari fabrics they sort of seemed to fall into place very easily; too easily for my purpose, which was to take the rest of the time to the deadline and extend the enjoyment of the whole making experience even more. The fabrics however have decided things differently and you have to work with the fabrics this much I know…..

So I am almost finished but not quite. I now need to do a bit of measuring and restitching as one side of the piece is a whole inch longer than the other – easily done with so many strips of fabric that make up the narrow bands surrounding the central image, a smidgen too big here and there soon mounts up, and as I am not a precise maker, just a precise hand stitcher, I am used to such events.

So almost there and happily for me a few more days to spend on this lovely commission.

Yours, janet”

machine stitching the border strips in my studio

There was one area that really gave me some problems though – the area below the image has often an apron or square of fabric but whatever I chose just dominated the whole piece or took the attention away form the central image. I tried several colours and systems,

first idea a brilliant blue brocade
red brocade central square – still too strong
hand dyeing a small piece of silk and silver brocade for central square

Eventually in my stash I found an old piece woven silver brocade dress fabric and dyed it a soft turquoise blue – trusting that it this wouldn’t compete with the central image. Now to finish the whole hanging and get it delivered as a surprise…… Brian decided he would bring Sarajane to a nearby restaurant, and we would join them – for breakfast on her birthday.

“Hi Brian,
You have to take this piece of work off me – all I do is tweak – I usually finish things about 3 days before the deadline – I finished this last week but I keep looking at it and finding fault and the taking it off the wall and re- stitching a bit – it is time for it to go.

last minute decision to hand stitch the inner halo to stop the uneven puckering on the appliqued silk fabric

So tomorrow – 2 ruses to get SJ here without her smelling a rat –
1 I can say I am suddenly getting new commissions (which is true)  and they are really interesting – would you both like to see them after breakfast?


2 As  I will wear the new dress, bought under the influence of the commission, she will definitely say – “what a fabulous colour” and I will say “it’s influenced by a new commission – come and see it when we leave “

Or you may have another ruse – so let me know – but if you go with our ideas you must stay vigilant and I may kick you under the table when I spring the invitation….

Ooh I am so looking forward to seeing you both in my studio tomorrow morning.

See you very soon , Janetxx”

2 satisfied and colour co-ordinated customers in my studio

P.S. B, The new dress colour was the way the invitation to the studios was sprung!

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