On a warm afternoon in 2008, Fred van der Zee found himself in the grounds of the Maitreya Centre in the Netherlands. He listened to his peers talk about the architectural drawing of the stupa (a form of Buddhist architecture) that they wished to build, but lacked the technical design knowledge to do so.
Realising that van der Zee was a graphic designer, they turned to him and asked: “Can you make an image of the stupa that we want?” He agreed, despite lacking experience in thangka painting or any other Buddhist art forms.
Van der Zee was determined to help out with the drawings of the stupa. By chance, he was introduced to teacher Andy Weber, who was a master in thangka painting and agreed to teach the designer about the art form.
With paper, pencils and a ruler, van der Zee met his guru-to-be, and learnt the basics of drawing a stupa and thangka art.
This was van der Zee’s first and last experience with traditional thangka painting.
Thangka's digital renaissance
Thangka painting is a sacred and ancient Buddhist art form that holds deep cultural significance in the community. Dating back centuries, these paintings are crafted on vertical silk or cotton fabric scrolls that depict teachers, deities, symbols and precise geometry.
They are known for their intricate detail, illustrations and bright colours that are made using mineral and organic pigments mixed with animal glue.
The paintings are not only used as decorative pieces in homes and monasteries, but the depictions also guide a person in their meditation and spiritual journey. The symbolism in these artworks conveys spiritual and divine ideas that are used for religious ceremonies and an individual’s journey to enlightenment.
But in recent years a digital renaissance has emerged in this traditional art form, with paper and brush being replaced by the computer and mouse.
Digital thangkas are a contemporary take on traditional thangka painting. They depict the same symbols, details and colours, but have been created using advanced software and modern equipment. The artists have blended the richness of tradition with the possibilities and ease offered by technology, which preserves the cultural heritage while making it accessible to a global audience.
After a couple of months training with Weber, van der Zee approached his teacher and asked to try using the digital method to create a thangka painting. Weber agreed and asked him to draw Amitayus, the Buddha of infinite life. He asked van der Zee to draw the mandala (geometrical figure), because that had lines, squares and circles, which would be easier to create.
“I told him, 'No, I'm not going to do that. I want to do the figure',” van der Zee says. He tried and was successful in creating the entire painting.
“From that moment on, I have never picked up a brush,” adds van der Zee who claims to be one of the first digital thangka artists in the world.
The process of creation
The preparation of a traditional thangka painting starts with fastening the canvas with thread to a large wooden frame. The cloth is then washed and scrubbed using animal glue made from boiled bones and skin, then smoothed with stone or shell. The canvas is then sketched using a pencil, before painting with a fine brush and filling with natural and mineral colours. The last step is to frame it with textile edging.
These paintings have a strict set of rules and patterns, including a restricted colour palette, proportions of figures, heavily curated stances and iconographic grids
In digital thangka, all the traditional rules are followed during the creation process, without the need to prepare the canvas or hand sketch and paint. These artists use a range of software, such as Adobe Photoshop, Crisp Studio and Xara Designer.
Despite the rules, the digital method provides the opportunity to modify or correct mistakes, according to a digital thangka artist in Taiwan, who goes by the screen name Vajra Yamantaka999.
“Generally, the traditional thangka painting method cannot be modified when they are painting, but the digital method is the opposite. It can be modified infinitely to [reach] the state that the creator wants to express,” they tell The National.
Van der Zee, who loves the flexibility and impermanence the digital method provides, agrees.
“If you make a mistake in traditional thangka painting with inks and paints, it's very complicated to change it. But with digital thangka, you can undo and it's undone,” he says.
The art of thangka painting has largely been a generational practice with fathers passing it down to their sons, who, in turn, pass it down to their sons. But with the introduction of digital thangka, art has gained a global audience.
Tara Kei, a Japanese thangka artist who lives in Nepal, noted that digitisation has helped to spread Buddhist culture and traditions around the world.
“Before thangka was only for special area artists because it is a religious art. But digital helped thangka spread all over the world, like how I and other Buddhists have spanned across,” she says.
Yet globalisation comes at a cost for these artists.
Because of the strict rules associated with thangka painting, even digital artists need to go through the traditional learning process before switching the medium. Kei runs an online school to teach a new generation the skills for creating this art.
“Without hand-drawing technique and skills, we cannot draw digitally. Some young students want to start with digital. But I refuse and tell them to train with me for at least a year on paper. After that, they can go anywhere,” Kei says.
Despite these lessons, Carmen Mensink has seen many thangka artworks being copied, especially by people who are not Buddhist practitioners, who also create wrong thangkas in terms of iconography.
“I have seen so many thangkas, both traditional and digital, with faults in them, which can lead to even more degeneration of the ancient thangka tradition than it already does now.
“It’s so important that a thangka is painted, whether traditionally or digitally, in a proper way, with all the right colours and iconographic elements that need to be in there, as its purpose is always to support the Buddhist practitioner on their path,” says Mensink, a traditional thangka artist and teacher.
Hindering traditional business
The negative effects of the digitisation of thangka art can be felt at ground level with businesses being affected.
Sandesh Chhetri, a thangka art connoisseur, has noticed that businessmen are printing out digital works and selling them at a 20th of the price of traditional thangka art.
“It takes a lot of time and hard work to create a good thangka painting. But if you just print it out, I believe it loses its value as a painting and as a source of philosophy,” says Chhetri, who is a member of staff at Sara Enterprises, a traditional thangka school and shop in Nepal.
But he also believes that digitisation has been beneficial for people on low incomes, because they can own these works in a digital format at an affordable price.
On the other hand, Yamantaka999 believes that digital thangka artworks are inevitable in the modern environment, and thangka art will continue to flourish in the coming years.
“Digital creation and traditional have different creation methods, different media, and different tools. But what is to be conveyed and expressed in the end is indeed the same, and its value cannot be reduced just because it is a digital creation – that's the beauty of art,” she says.
“The artistry and beauty of a work does not depend on the tools of the artist, but in the soul and humanistic accomplishment of the creator.”