My Xara brother-in-arms Gary Priester asked me to explain how the grids are used in thangka painting, so I decided to make a small 101 to indulge him. However, before I start with the explanation there are a few things to understand.
Firstly, Buddhist figures are not meant to be human-like but rather are icons of perfection, typifying a wide variety of Buddhist views and ideas. Their basic shape is highly stylized and has to abide to a strict set of traditional rules, regarding the shape and colouring of the figure up to the most auspicious moment the eyes should be finalized.
To aid in drawing the figure correctly, proportional grids were developed over time to assure that a certain figure is always drawn the same way. A similar measurement system has been developed for statues and buildings.
Secondly, due to human nature, there are now of course several systems or 'lineages' throughout the East, that use different proportional grids. For example, figures in Thailand tend to be slimmer and taller than their Tibetan or Nepali counterparts.
Additionally, a lineage does not only define the proportions, but also the use of colours and the 'richness' of the image. For the thangka painter it is of paramount importance to know and understand his or her lineage. Mixing lineages is not regarded as good practice.
Lastly, the figure is just one aspect of an image. The Buddhist iconography adds a whole lot of extra 'must-haves' (such as jewellery, garments, vajra's, animals and skulls), all depending on the figure that is portrayed. All this has to be correct to make an image fit for its primary purpose: teaching Buddhism.
So now have a look at the grid examples for the 101 😉
Step 1 - Drawing the basic grid
A grid is based on a unit, that can be a finger width, a hand span, a meter or a light year. The grid itself only specifies the number of horizontal and vertical units to use, the size of the unit defines the size of the final image.
An image starts with drawing the horizontal and vertical lines first and then add the diagonal ones. As you can see the face itself has it's own grid, but still uses the same unit system.
After drawing the grid lines, you have a set of guide lines to draw the image along. The example of the face shows how it will end up looking.
Step 2 - Drawing the lines
The grid of Vajrapani's head 'in action'. As you can see, the grid aids in the correct positioning and flow of the lines.
A main goal of thangka painting is making a perfect symmetrical face. Quite challenging to do by hand, almost mundane with a computer.
The lines of the body are drawn using the same method.
After I have finished the line drawing, I can remove the grid to start the colouring and shading process.