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Articles by Ian Alsop

The Conservation of Tibetan Thangkas:
a group of symposium papers

March 5, 1998

Click on a title below to go directly to that article:

Janice Leoshka, The History of the Art History of Tibetan Art
Victoria Blyth-Hill, A History of Thangka Conservation In Western Collections
Julie Goldman, Akshobhya Buddha in his Abhirati Heaven: Treatment Report
Susan Sayre Batton, The LACMA Tibetan Thangka Research and Survey Project: Micro To Macro
Ian Alsop, Modern Traditional Painting in Nepal


On September 27, 1992, at the Western Association for Art Conservation (WAAC) Annual Meeting in Santa Fe, a group of six specialists spoke about Tibetan thangkas in a symposium organized by Victoria Blyth-Hill and Susan Sayre Batton.

In 1993, the proceeds of the symposium were published in the WAAC Newsletter, Volume 15, Number 2, May 1993. The presentation by John Gilmore Ford was not included, as his presentation was so closely tied to his slide presentation. Edited transcripts of five of the papers follow, similar to the WAAC publication.

In 1996, Ian Alsop and I met in Santa Fe to discuss Himalayan art, thangkas, and the new web site about Asian Art. Ian asked me to facilitate publishing the Thangka symposium on the web, which I was very enthusiastic about. I would like to thank the authors for their permission to publish this material on the web, Victoria Blyth-Hill and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for allowing me to reproduce color illustrations of thangkas from the collection, and the editors of the WAAC newsletter for their assistance.

In the period since the symposium, Janice Leoshko moved from the LA County Museum of Art to become Professor of Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. Victoria Blyth-Hill continues to head the paper conservation lab at the LA County Museum and focus on Asian, Indian & Himalayan art. She published "The Conservation of Thankas" in the 1996 publication On the Path to Void: Buddhist Art of the Tibetan Realm, edited by Pratapaditya Pal, with a foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Julie Goldman is the Assistant Conservator of Paintings and Art on Paper at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Susan Sayre Batton was a conservator in private practice in Los Angeles, specializing in art on paper and Asian Art from 1995 to 2005. During this time, she was the asian art conservator at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago, and also served as the acting head of conservation at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in 1997. In October 2005 she became the Deputy Director at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.. Ian Alsop is an independent scholar of the culture of the Himalayan region. He is also editor of Asian Arts, this on-line journal, and lives in Santa Fe New Mexico.

Susan Sayre Batton


The History of the Art History of Tibetan Art

(click on small images to view full screen image with caption)
by Janice Leoshko

Scholarship on the art history of Tibet, indeed on that of the Himalayas, began in earnest only in the 1960s. At this time some of the first really significant exhibitions of such material occurred. This attention to Himalayan art helped start new collectors; for instance, one of the major private collections, that of the Zimmerman family, began after their visit to the 1964 show "Art of Nepal" curated by Stella Kramrisch at the Asia Society in New York City. In his review of the 1969 exhibition "Art of Tibet," curated by Pratapaditya Pal (now senior curator at LACMA), John Rosenfield of Harvard University wrote that the show had been a somewhat unnerving success. He noted that shows at the Asia Society were always generally well attended due to the number of people living there interested in Asia, but the attendance for this exhibition was vastly swelled "by the rebellious young who are attached to the occult imagery, to the swirling color effects so akin to the psychedelia, to the sense of the horrendous and grotesque and to the overt sexuality of some of the divine images."(1) Clearly, the Western world did not quite know what to make of this art. Unfortunately, two decades later, the awareness among the general public of this material as works of major artistic achievement is still limited. This is so even as the Dalai Lama and the plight of the Tibetan people under Chinese rule has led to a greater awareness and at least vague sympathy for the religious beliefs from which such works spring. Today, Himalayan art is still not regularly included in survey texts of world art and has not yet achieved a stable presence in Western museum displays. Exceptions in the United States include long-established collections like those in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Newark Museum, and more newly formed collections at the Cleveland Museum and LACMA.

LACMA's unique position as holding a great collection of Himalayan art is largely the result of two factors: the purchase of the Heeramaneck collection in 1969, acclaimed by "Time" magazine as the single most important art purchase since World War II, and the involvement since then of Pratapaditya Pal, one of the leading scholars in the field, who has with the aid of various private donors amplified LACMA's collection so that it is one of the most comprehensive, with many examples of unsurpassed quality. One of the strengths of Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck's collection was Himalayan art, and among many splendid works are Tibetan paintings that had once belonged to Giuseppe Tucci, who was one of the few to enter Tibet in the middle of the twentieth century and who collected important works of art at various sites in Tibet. Tucci was probably the most important scholar in this century on Tibet. Tucci put a group of his paintings up for sale in a show in New York in the 1950s; none sold until Heeramaneck, with his customary foresight, bought the lot.

Clearly there is still much to be done to heighten the awareness of Himalayan artistic achievements, but it is an area that continues to grow in popularity and serious acceptance, as witnessed by the major recent acquisitions of such works by the Virginia Museum of Art (which also had received an earlier gift from Paul Mellon in 1968 of some paintings collected by Tucci which had been owned by Heeramaneck).

A major focus of studying this material continues to be in terms of ethnography or religions; there are many more books on Tibetan iconography than on Tibetan painting styles. Even the widely acclaimed recent show of Tibetan art, "Wisdom and Compassion," maintained this emphasis. The problem is that both orientations are needed. Buddhism is the predominant religion in Tibet and hence most religious paintings depict Buddhist subjects; they are devotional and often are the focus of worship in a home or temple. The primary function of an image, whether sculpture or painting, is for visualization; an aid to meditation and initiation practices. The image is simply the symbolic form given to a spiritual content that draws life and meaning from the teaching it imparts. Enlightened understanding recognizes that there is no duality; hence, images of sexual embrace speak eloquently, in the most human of terms, about the unity of seeming opposites, reality as non-duality.

A 19th-century TibetanThangka
Fig. 1 A 19th-century Tibetan Thangka

A Tibetan painting is called a thangka, meaning rolled-up image. Thangkas are painted in opaque watercolor on cotton fabric and often are mounted in elaborate brocades. They are more than simply two-dimensional images, literally and symbolically. Although practices have changed over time, they were always meant to be mounted and seen as 3-dimensional constructs, a concept which is unfortunately hampered by Western presentations that cut away the mounts to mat and frame the paintings. Thangkas were meant to breathe as a hanging does, and they also were meant to be seen as 3-dimensional projections of a world which was to become the devotees. Most thangkas are unsigned and undated and thus difficult to place in a precise context. These religious paintings were commissioned for both spiritual and mundane matters--perhaps dedicated to a sick person, or to remove spiritual or physical obstacles to a particular end, or to help a deceased person receive a happier rebirth. They were also commissioned for special religious occasions to help the donor to gain merit (the artist also benefited); unfortunately, it is seldom that this information is preserved in an inscription.

Tibetan thangkas exhibit a variety of styles and an almost bewildering array of deities reflecting developments of the Vajrayana form of Buddhism, which, although it originated in India, developed in Tibet in distinct ways. The understanding of the development of iconography and styles is far from complete. Tibet was virtually inaccessible to Westerners in the 20th century until the early 1980s, and doubtless the material now emerging will change some of the established ideas about the development of Tibetan art. The history of Tibetan painting is inextricably tied up with the history of religious developments because the works were made to be functional. Much is still to be determined about both, and ultimately the paintings must be examined in light of other types of works, sculptures, manuscripts, etc., both in terms of their styles and uses as well as with a consideration of their original context. Curators, scholars, and collectors must still grapple with issues about how to present these works in a contextual manner so that insights gained from considering the history of the lives of these works, which does remain with them, are preserved. Thus consideration of their condition, their mounts, and their renovations are proving invaluable in the search to understand such works more fully. Indeed, it will be the collaboration among those with different interests and abilities--including conservators--that will permit the most successful retelling of those worlds so beautifully--if incompletely--presented to us by these surviving images.


1. Rosenfield, John: "Tibetan Art at Asia House," Oriental Art, Volume 15, No. 3, 1969, page 223.
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author address:

Janice Leoshko, Associate Curator
Indian and Southeast Asian Art
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, California 90036

A History of Thangka Conservation In Western Collections

(click on small images to view full screen image with caption)
by Victoria Blyth-Hill

The conservation treatment of thangkas in Western collections as a recognized area of specialization began little more than twenty years ago. Up until that time, these opaque distemper paintings on cloth were subject to the interpretation of whatever culture in which they happened to find themselves, be it an oriental mounting studio or a Western paintings conservation lab. Viewed through the eyes of other cultures, in many cases the thangka has been transformed from a portable object (generally not on permanent display) hanging on the wall of a temple or monasteryinto a rigid structure like an easel painting in a frame, displayed in an environmentally controlled museum or private collection. And although scholars have focused much attention and interpretation on the painted pictorial image, they have largely ignored the cloth borders in which thangkas were originally supported and displayed. More often than not, Tibetan and Nepalese thangkas have been reproduced in publications without their borders, if in fact the borders are still intact. Because there are so few original borders extant, there is little research in this area and even less knowledge about the appropriateness of recreating borders.

Interestingly, the concept of modern conservation with its emphasis on reversibility, artist's original intent, and as little intervention as possible, is not one that Tibetan or Nepalese thangka painters recognize. To quote Robert Bruce- Gardner, "Historically, their approach would have been to repaint the damaged image or simply to make a new one." This is the most fundamental difference between the Eastern and Western approaches in the treatment of thangkas.

Before surveying thangka treatments which have evolved through various Western interpretations and my own personal experience, let us quickly review the general kinds of damage that commonly occur to thangkas.

The most susceptible element of these multi-media painted scrolls is their cloth borders, often of silk brocade. The silk is vulnerable and quickly weakened by the damp walls of the monastery, the weight of the painting, and the weight of the heavy bottom rod, which easily fractures the cloth borders, especially with the repeated rolling and unrolling of the paintings for display. The borders are the first of the complex structure to fail, which explains why we so rarely see original borders on thangkas.

When on display in their original Tibetan settings, the unvarnished, absorbent surfaces were exposed to soot and airborne debris from burning butter lamps and incense, creating overall or mottled darkening of the surface, often obscuring the image.

Water is the worst enemy of the water-based paints used for thangkas, and one often sees extensive water damage, either overall bleeding of colors or distinct streams of pigment movement through the painting, leaving tide lines of color and often revealing the underdrawings.

Mechanical damage caused by rolling, unrolling, and folding exerts tremendous stress on the painting--resulting in cockling, creasing and active flaking of paint. Scale is also a factor in mechanical deterioration. Most of the thangkas in Western collections are of manageable proportions, ranging from a few inches (12 to 15 inches) to a few feet (4 to 6 feet). However, when the painting is over 10 feet long, there are storage difficulties. How and where to treat and how and where to store huge thangka paintings poses very difficult questions which, at LACMA, we have not yet resolved.

As I have stated earlier, when these exotic artifacts began appearing in Western collections at the beginning of this century, they posed problems for conservators and framers alike, problems with which they did not have prior experience.

Solutions were developed through "fashionable" conservation techniques of the time (late 1970s and into the 1980s) and adapted from published literature on thangka and paintings conservation approaches. Two recommended treatments were mounting thangkas with PVA to mylar or thick sheets of plexiglass. The transparent backings were to give the scholars access to the verso of paintings, revealing inscriptions, and the mylar backing provided the additional quality of a flexible support. Unfortunately, not only did the paintings resemble "Permaplac" mounts or place-mats, but the colors became so saturated and dead that the painting no longer had anything to do with the original palette.

Another very popular method for mounting thangkas evolved through the Japanese screen mounting technique. LACMA has numerous examples of important paintings mounted in this way by Mr. Yasuhiro Iguchi of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the late 1960s. The presentation and craftsmanship are beautiful; however, once again, we see another culture imposing its aesthetic on a thangka.

Caitya, from Nepal, dated 1413 Caitya, from Nepal, dated 1413 Caitya, from Nepal, dated 1413
Fig. 2 Caitya, from Nepal, dated 1413 Fig. 3 Caitya, from Nepal, dated 1413 Fig. 4 Caitya, from Nepal, dated 1413

My own training experience in the treatment of thangkas began when I returned to LACMA in 1975 as the paper conservator. One of my first projects was to treat a Nepalese thangka, Caitya (see images above), from a private collection, under the direction of Benjamin Johnson, a paintings conservator and head of the Conservation Center. The state-of-the-art at the time was to use BEVA (two-part BEVA crystals and wax, pre-BEVA 371) and mount to a honeycomb panel. The reversibility of BEVA made a lot of sense to me, as opposed to starch paste which would have required moisture and mechanical action on the delicate water-soluble paintings. The losses were then filled with a canvas of similar texture and weave, and a thin gesso layer to replicate the original ground was applied. Recreation of the symmetrical pattern of stupas in the painting was fairly straightforward; however, I was stumped by the windows and knew not what deities to place there. In consultation with the senior curator of Indian Art, we decided to leave these areas blank. This met with the approval of the owner, and I was very pleased with my solution--until I presented my treatment at a symposium at UCLA in 1983 for the exhibition "The Silk Route and the Diamond Path: Esoteric Buddhist Art on the Trans-Himalayan Trade Route." To my surprise and embarrassment, there was a scholar in the audience who had based his thesis on this unusual thangka in which the artist had chosen to leave the window empty! He had based his study on a reproduction of this restored painting, had never viewed it in person, nor discussed its condition or possible restoration treatment with anyone.

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Fig. 5 Caitya, from Nepal, dated 1413

This and many other events made me realize that there existed a tremendous lack of understanding among conservators and curators about thangkas as a whole--and that there was a desperate need to develop communication among conservators, scholars, and curators.

By 1982, though still greatly influenced by Western painting conservation techniques and outside pressures, my treatments were changing. A Chandra Mandala (ca. 1424), of either Tibetan or Nepalese origin, was very damaged across the top edge and extremely brittle. The reinforcing cloth on the verso was removed, and an attempt to reduce the overall mottled discoloration was carried out on the vacuum suction table using a combination of solvents. The painting was then mounted on a solid honeycomb-panel support with BEVA, and red and blue raw-silk borders, which by this time had become LACMA's standard, were added. This time, however, I attempted no graphic compensation for areas of loss, but simply filled the areas with darkened cotton of a similar weight and weave. Please remember, during this period of time when I was mounting thangkas to honeycomb panels with BEVA, other practitioners are advocating mounting to mylar, plexiglass, nylon net and Terylene and using PVA, Liquitex, starch paste, and hide glue as backing adhesives.

This was also a period in conservation history when keeping the surface flat was the most important aspect of a treatment, a trend which I think can be directly paralleled to painting conservation practices of the same period (1960 through the early 1980s).

A Symbolic Banquet
Fig. 6 A Symbolic Banquet

In the early 1980s, after two trips to Japan, a course in Japanese screen mounting and a survey of the Tucci Collection of thangkas at the Museo Nazionale d'Arte Orientale di Roma in Rome, along with my own insights and experience, my solutions to thangka conservation problems changed further. The same condition problems with thangkas still existed--losses, creasing, flaking, missing borders, and problems for transport and display. However, the "less is more" approach was now predominant. Rather than looking at the thangkas as easel paintings, I began to collaborate on treatments with our textile conservator, Catherine McLean, and to solve problems of support and presentation in a softer, more sympathetic manner. One of our first joint projects in 1988 involved an eastern Tibetan banner, A Symbolic Banquet (see image left). The curator of textiles determined that the extremely deteriorated patchwork border was not original or of the same period as the 18th-century painting. Although it was the least desirable approach from a conservation standpoint, we decided to remove the borders. They were stabilized and retained in the Costume and Textile Department with a cross-reference in the file identifying them to this thangka. I treated the painting by reducing the tide lines and staining on the vacuum suction table and relaxed the overall creasing with humidification between Gortex and damp blotters with light pressing. Catherine McLean repaired the losses and sewed the very thin cloth painting around the four borders to a cotton-fabric-covered strainer. The cotton auxiliary support had sufficient tooth and cushioning to act as a passive nap bond and support the painting overall. The curator selected the raw silk borders, which were dyed in our standard blue (by Jo Hill, an intern in textile conservation at the time) and were sewn to the edge of the painting margin and gently stretched around the strainer. The treatment resulted in a softer appearance which provided overall support without the rigid flattened look.

A Symbolic Banquet
Fig. 7 A Symbolic Banquet

It is extremely important when entering into the treatment of a thangka that the conservator make conscientious decisions based on confirmed knowledge. Removal of brocades or any other attachment should be done only with agreement of a scholar or curator and only if the attachment is detrimental to the painting or totally inappropriate. Of course, very thorough documentation should accompany the removal and retention of the brocades. We have had opportunities in the last few years to retain thangkas in their existing surrounds (see The Goddess Tara, fig. 1 above) and to display them in settings that are more sensitive to their original states. These displays have included creating reliquary niches and placing plexiglass boxes over wall-hung paintings, brocades and hanging rods included.

Questions regarding gallery presentation persist. The Newark Museum has completely recreated the interior of a Tibetan monastery in its galleries. The galleries of LACMA vary from a reliquary case, creating a more traditional presentation, to Western framing techniques in a variety of styles. The Nelson- Atkins Museum has recreated original mounts with veils shown in lacquer frames or under sheets of plexiglass. There is obviously no consensus on presentation, and conservators and curators alike have interpreted thangkka presentation to their own taste and standards.

Storage of unframed thangkas has also developed through individual judgment, with several variations for various needs. My preference is flat storage. At LACMA we have used custom-made boxes designed through collaboration of myself, Catherine McLean and Joanne Page. Joanne constructed the box with a cotton felt lining to prevent slippage, velcro straps for security, and glassine interleaving between the painting and the veil. LACMA has recently constructed a compact storage unit for its collection of over 75 thangkas, 50 of which are framed.

The entire field of thangka conservation is just beginning to awaken, and the few active practitioners are starting to communicate and share their experience and knowledge. With the recent publication of works by Robert Bruce-Gardner, Ann Shaftel, O. P. Agrawal and Thessy Schoenholzer-Nicols, as well as the working being done by Jean-Michael Terrier, parameters for the treatment of these precious cultural treasures can be defined. As within most specialities of conservation, there is no "one way" to preserve a work of art, and it is unlikely that we will all agree on a single approach. However, issues of recreating original presentation and borders, reconsecration of restored paintings, Western framing techniques, and inpainting as opposed to repainting are among the many matters that need further discussion and collaboration between conservators, collectors, curators, and scholars. I think that conservators will agree that this is just the beginning of a continuing open dialogue on the subject of thangka conservation.


Agrawal, O.P.; Shashi Dhawan; and Usha Agrawal: "Study and Conservation of Some Tibetan Than-kas," IIC publication of the symposium on The Conservation of Far Eastern Art, Preprints of the Contributions to the Kyoto Congress, 19-23 September 1988, page 75, published by the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 6 Buckingham Street, London WC2N 6BA.

Bruce-Gardner, Robert: "Himalayan Scroll Paintings: Conservation Parameters," The Conservator, No. 12, 1988.

Schoenholzer-Nichols, Thessy: "Conservation of the Textile Frames of the Than-kas from the Tucci Collection, Rome," IIC publication of the symposium on The Conservation of Far Eastern Art, Preprints of the Contributions to the Kyoto Congress, 19-23 September 1988, published by the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 6 Buckingham Street, London WC2N 6BA.

Shaftel, Ann: "Conservation Treatment of Tibetan Thangkas," Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Volume 30, No. 1, Spring 1991.

Pal, Pratapaditya: Art of Tibet, A Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection, expanded edition, published by LACMA in association with Mapin Pub. Pvr. Ltd., 1990.

author address:

Victoria Blyth-Hill
Senior Paper Conservator
The Conservation Center
Los Angeles County Museum of ARt
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, California 90036

Akshobhya Buddha in his Abhirati Heaven: Treatment Report

(click on small images to view full screen image with caption)
by Julie Goldman
Akshobhya in His Abhirati Heaven
Fig. 8 Akshobhya in His Abhirati Heaven

The conservation of Akshobhya Buddha in his Eastern Pure Land of Abhirati (see image left), was a collaborative process involving paper, textile, object, and painting conservators and curators of Indian and Himalayan Art. The painting itself was composed of a conglomerate of materials covering textiles: mineral pigments in hide glue medium overlaid with the soot and grease of yak-butter lamps, exposed to numerous problematic environmental conditions and handling. Add to this the mystery of a modern synthetic wax applied to specific areas of the painting!

The uniqueness and beauty of this painting warranted the cooperation of many minds and opinions. It was explained to me that while there are numerous depictions of the Buddha in his Western Paradise, it is extremely rare to see a painting illustrating his Eastern Paradise. It was also explained to me, during treatment, how fortunate the museum was to own this painting, and that it was in, relative to its age, very good (though not presentable) condition. The delivery of this information by Dr. Pratapaditya Pal, Senior Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, never failed to accelerate my heartbeat from extreme anxiety. More subtle was Janice Leoshko's explanation of the iconography of this painting. The Buddha Akshobhya--who helps in overcoming anger, one of the obstructions to enlightenment--is shown enthroned in his Eastern Pure Land of Abhirati, where Enlightened Beings exist who, due to their pure and elevated minds, are able to see the pure manifestation of the Buddha. These Enlightened Beings include Bodhisattvas, mystics, arhats (Buddhist saints) and monks. Also present are figures and scenes related to the Buddha's own vows to attain Buddhahood, including the Buddha's vow that in his paradise women would have painless childbirth. There are, at the left and right of the Buddha's pedestal, women holding babies. The Buddha, in this painting, is making the earth-witness gesture with his right hand and holding a blue varja in his left hand.

I would like to describe briefly the traditional materials used in creating a thangka painting. The paint used consists of powdered pigments, mostly mineral, mixed with a binder of gelatin (a dilute solution of hide glue). This media is water-sensitive and matte in appearance. The support is usually cotton, sized with warm hide glue on its obverse and reverse sides. A ground layer, often created from chalk or kaolin, is added to the size solution, applied to the support, and burnished. Upon completion of the painting, silk borders are sewn onto the stretched edges of the painting. Various hanging devices, rods, shawls, and ties may be added. Amantra or identification of the figure illustrated is often written on the reverse.

Akshobhya in His Abhirati Heaven
Fig. 9 Akshobhya in His Abhirati Heaven

I was offered the challenge of treating this exquisite, 4-ft. by 5-ft. thangka so that it would be suitable for LACMA's impressive collection of thangka paintings and could then be exhibited and travel in the exhibition, "Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet," organized by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. The preliminary testing, before-treatment report, and treatment proposal were all conceived and undertaken by Victoria Blyth-Hill, Senior Conservator of Works of Art on Paper at LACMA. Victoria noted that the painting had lost its fabric borders, was extremely soiled and water stained (especially on its left half), had tears and losses, and had what appeared to be blanching of the orange-red color used in the Buddha's robe. Prior to leaving Tibet, the thangka probably hung over a shrine in a monastery. Water damage and soil from exposure to leaky roofs, incense, and yak-butter lamps were the likely culprits for the majority of the painting's ills. Victoria requested pigment and surface-deposit analysis to be undertaken by both John Twilley of LACMA and Michele Derrick of the Getty Conservation Institute. The samples taken by Mr. Twilley were analyzed using both x-ray diffraction and polarized light microscopy. The pigments were determined to be traditional mineral pigments and lacs. It was necessary, however, to send samples of the blanched areas to Ms. Derrick, who used infrared spectrophotometry to identify the whitish deposit as a modern synthetic wax, perhaps used in an previous restoration.

The treatment, as proposed by Victoria, was to first attempt to balance the composition by cleaning lightly overall and then concentrating on those areas more heavily damaged. As the object was not planar, due to environment and being rolled for an indeterminate amount of time, it would be gently flattened. Areas of tears and losses were to be mended and filled, and minor cosmetic work undertaken. As the cotton support, itself, was weak and heavily damaged, Victoria proposed supporting the object to an adapted Japanese-style drying board (a karibari), and adding new borders to approximate the original presentation.

Akshobhya in His Abhirati Heaven
Fig. 10 Akshobhya in His Abhirati Heaven

I came onboard as indentured conservator in spring 1990 for the two-month project. I began by retesting the pigments for solvent sensitivity to determine the most effective, least intrusive method for reducing the surface soiling and water damage. As the painting was sensitive to moisture, work was done on the paper suction table. Due to its excessive size, the object was kept rolled, and narrow areas of exposed painting were treated one at a time. Initially it appeared that every pigment responded differently to solvents. Striving to simplify, I found that water and ethanol 1:1 raised to pH 8.5 using NH3OH was the most appropriate solvent. The combination of water and alcohol also appeared to reduce the waxy areas of blanching to an acceptable degree. Solvent-dampened swabs were rolled over the painting as sections of it were exposed to the suction table. Later, Triton-X, a non-ionic surface active detergent, 0.5% in water, was used to specifically reduce water staining and tide lines mainly on the left side of the painting. The Triton-X was rinsed using water-dampened cotton swabs working on the suction table. Special care was taken to reduce the oil and grease at the edges of the losses of media and cotton support in order to insert these areas. The losses at the corners and edges of the painting were inserted using unpainted scraps of cloth from patches or parts of linings on other thangkas; Victoria conveniently had saved these from prior projects. These were shaped to fit the areas of loss and adhered into position using Japanese paper and wheat starch paste adhesive. Japanese paper and wheat-starch paste was also used to mend small edges tears.

The next consideration to be resolved was that of creating an isolating layer on which to inpaint areas of extensive media loss. The loss of media occurred mainly in the bottom section of the Buddha's robe and the left-most Bodhisattva, making these areas illegible. The cotton support was bare in these areas, so an isolating layer had to be added. Via different mock-ups, using several types of pulped Japanese and Western papers, it was decided to use pulped kitakata, a long-fibered Japanese kozo paper, cast on the suction table and shaped to fit the areas of loss. Kitakata was chosen because its color and surface properties were sympathetic to that of the original. The areas of media loss in the interior of the image and the recycled thangka cloth inserts were overlaid with cast pulp using a thin, dry wheat starch paste and burnishing lightly with a bone folder. Linel gouache (see endnotes) was later used to inpaint the losses.

The object was gently humidified between large sheets of gortex, sandwiched between damp blotters. It was then flattened between polyester and blotters, using up a great deal of the painting lab's available table space.

I then began work on the large wood and paper-covered Japanese- style mount. Karibari are lightweight and have the added advantage of being able to "breathe" due to pockets of air between the numerous layers of paper applied to both sides of the wooden lattice core (see endnotes). Upon Victoria's suggestion, Testfabrics cotton/poly fleece #4705 (see endnotes) was stretched over the karibari. This nappy layer would disallow possible slippage of the painting as opposed to the somewhat slick surface of paper, in addition to providing extra cushion. The fleece was lightly stretched over the support and the edges stapled to the reverse edges of the karibari. Our goal was that the thangka--again, remember that the cotton support was not able to support itself--appear as much as possible to be a hanging composite painting/textile object rather than a flat work of art.

I proceeded then to experiment with various adhesives in order to adhere a muslin strip lining to the painting in order to stretch it over the fleece-covered karibari. This adhesive would also be used to adhere new red silk borders to the painting. Running the gamut from heat-set tissue to various Rhoplexes, it was determined that Beva film gave the most consistent and secure adhesion. After strip-lining, the painting was gently stretched over the fleece-covered karibari and the edges of the muslin stapled to the reverse edges of the mount.

Intern Jo Hill had dyed lengths of bleached silk noil from Testfabrics #652 using Lanaset dyes (see endnotes). A thin border of red silk would surround the painting itself to which wide bands of blue silk border would be added. As the painting was extremely large, it was not possible to allow for the often wide borders surrounding the painting as would have been used traditionally. A compromise was reached; the top and side borders were made less wide than the bottom border. Thin, folded lengthwise strips of the dyed red silk were adhered to the obverse edges of the painting also using BEVA film. Catherine McLean, Head Conservator of the textile conservation lab at LACMA, basted the free edges of this silk border to the muslin and napped fabrics. She then hem-stitched the wider blue silk border on top of the red strip. The outer edges of the blue border were folded back over the reverse edges of the karibari and stapled into position.

Trying us often to our limits but blessing us with good karma for eternity, the Akshobhya in His Abhirati Heaven's conservation treatment was completed.


Testfabrics, P. O. Box 420, Middlesex, New Jersey 08846

Linel Designer's Gouache, available in most art supply stores

Lanaset Dyes, now called Telana Dyes, (protein, pre-metallized dye), manufactured by Ciba-Geigy Corporation, Dyestuffs and Chemical Division, Greensboro, North Carolina 27419; beg for a free sample

Wooden shoji core for karibari built by L.A. Shoji, 4848 W. Jefferson Blvd., Los Angeles, phone 213/732-9161

author's address

Julie Goldman
Associate Paper and Textile Conservator
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco, California 94108

The LACMA Tibetan Thangka Research and Survey Project: Micro To Macro

(click on small images to view full screen image with caption)
by Susan Sayre Batton

1991 was the International Year of Tibet, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art established a one-year Institute of Museum Services (IMS) fellowship to research and survey the Tibetan thangka collection in the Department of Indian and Southeast Asian art. This fellowship was organized by Victoria Blyth-Hill to fulfill a longstanding need for more intensive research and a complete conservation survey of the collection. I embraced the opportunity to study this vibrant and sublime art, and came to the museum in September 1990.

The fellowship had two main goals at its inception: to design a survey form and procedure for the examination of the museum's 75 Tibetan and Nepalese thangkas, and then to prioritize the need for conservation treatments. Work began with research on Tibetan art in general, a literature survey, and correspondence with Himalayan art specialists around the country. Even in this initial stage, a list of unanswered questions developed, and the surprisingly small amount of research we found in the conservation literature meant that we were really digging into new territory.

We were very fortunate to work on a collection which had already been organized and described in two publications by Pratapaditya Pal, Art of Nepal and Art of Tibet.

As I began to familiarize myself with the collection, it became important to learn the answers to more fundamental questions, not just to understand the individual items in the museum context and the ways in which they had been described, organized, framed, treated, and displayed. How were they made, what was their purpose, how were they used, who painted them? While much had been said about the interpretations of symbolism and iconography in Tibetan Buddhist painting, there was very little documentation of painting techniques, and even less was written on ritual practice and use of thangkas. More was learned about how these ritual objects were displayed and worshiped in their original setting through discussions with Buddhist practitioners and scholars, and deductions from the physical examination of the thangkas.

Thangkas have many uses, and there are many reasons for their creation. The highest ideals of Buddhism come alive in a sacred painting, which represents an embodiment of enlightenment. Both the painting and commissioning of a thangka could "earn merit" for the faithful. Thangkas have a great deal in common with one another, and after examining many hundreds, one begins to see the link not just to the culture that produced them, but the complex relationship each one has to the others. Thangkas tell of their travels through time, bearing marks and scars and character lines like an aged person's face. Centuries of rolling and unrolling, of sitting against damp walls with hot lamps burning in front of them, spitting oils depositing burns and stains, and being touched and anointed in ritual practice made each object of worship unique. Later they endured civil unrest that has escalated in this century, and they survived the destruction of the culture that created them. It is truly a miracle that any Tibetan paintings have made their way to the calm and foreign confines of the museum.

When we began the survey in the fall of 1990, I entered a project that was many years in the making. We developed a survey form in tandem with a project methodology. What were our aims? Who was our intended audience? To make this project truly useful, the documentation had to be organized and easily accessible to different sides of the museum community.

Three main categories of information existed--conservation treatment files, registrar files, and curator files. Each type of record keeping was undecipherable to anyone outside of the originating office, yet all the information was crucial! So, in the Conservation Center's master file for each individual thangka, I simply united all relevant information before beginning the physical examination of the object.

Step one was to develop a survey form, a task familiar to every conservator. Because thangkas are composite objects, we developed a combination textile and painting condition report form. In addition, I added spaces at the top for research information, including whether or not the painting was included in Dr. Pal's catalogues, and literature survey, so that I could note any books, articles, or exhibitions in which the painting appeared, for future reference. Then came categories for describing the brocades, presence or absence of mounts, dowels, veils, etc., followed by the categories for the painted surface. The bottom of the first page had space for storage information.

Page two of the survey form was designed to note analytical data and photographic documentation, and to make recommendations for future storage, display, and treatments. We looked closely at brocades and the woven textile supports, as scant attention was paid to them in the literature. In rare cases, when fibers could be isolated, they were identified and examined. In every case, we recorded the weave count.

Photographic documentation was detailed: usually a color slide, raking light, regular black and white, ultraviolet, infrared, and a shot of the verso were included. Verso photographs have proved extremely important, as in the past many pieces were mounted to a secondary support without consideration for the inscription on the back.

Finally, the bottom of the survey form held a place for recommendations for storage, display and exhibitions, and treatments. We reserved a priorities section at the bottom to quickly give a numerical order to storage and conservation priorities. At the end of the project, all of the files were reviewed by Janice Leoshko and given curatorial priority.

n Arhat with Attendants, Central Tibet, 14th c.
Fig. 11 An Arhat with Attendants, Central Tibet, 14th c.

Once this preliminary data was organized, we brought thangkas to the lab. The thangka An Arhat with Attendants (see image right), provides a typical example of a day in the life of the thangka survey. From the Central Regions of Tibet in the mid-14th century, this piece reveals some of the complexity and wonder of Tibetan painting, with rich coloring, carefully tinted zones of shading, and elegant red and black lines. The central figure is depicted in a sumptuous gown with a raised gold border. The painting had been mounted overall in traditional Japanese style and given gold and pale bluish/purple silk borders in the 1960s. The thickly painted surface consists of complicated layers of underdrawing, ground pigments, gold leaf, and gilded relief, a technique especially prevalent in the 14th and 15th centuries. Extremely fine and detailed, the painting has suffered substantial loss of pigment over the centuries due to rolling and folding.

To begin the examination and documentation process, we unframed the painting and had a full series of photographs shot. After making the initial visual observations, it was time to take a closer look under the microscope. This should be a simple task--turn on the light and move to the eyepieces. However, at high magnification, I felt like I was falling through the looking glass...into the rich color fields of the painting. A sedate and rather stately portrait of an arhat and his attendants was transformed into a dizzying three-dimensional exploration. Everywhere there are glimmers of gold and delicate brushwork not seen with the naked eye. Glistening azurite in the attendant's robe, glittering malachite washes of green, dense thickets of complicated color wash, intricate patterns pulling the viewer right into the labyrinth of line and angle. Transfixed for a moment, I move on to make observations of physical condition and note damages, returning from the sheer joy of examining these paintings so closely.

An Arhat with Attendants, Central Tibet, 14th c.
Fig. 12 An Arhat with Attendants, Central Tibet, 14th c.

This thangka was also submitted to the conservation research department for pigment analysis. We selected a range of paintings chosen by the curators to represent a sample of periods and regions in Tibet. This is yet another area with very little critically reviewed information. In authentication debates, one often hears that "so-and-so says that the pigments are 'right'," with no explanation of technique or methodology. So, to identify pigments, our conservation scientist and associates used non- sampling x-ray fluorescence analysis, polarized light microscopy, and, where warranted, x-ray diffraction analysis. While the results of this study remain unpublished, they revise and elaborate the poorly-documented literature on pigment identification. For example, a previous publication says that the blue in this painting is lapis lazuli, whereas the area in question has been clearly identified as azurite, and other blues are indigo. Detailed pigment analysis of clearly dated works of known provenance can establish a framework for comparison in future questions of authenticity.

As the survey continued in the lab, so did the correspondence and research with other collections, including a number of research trips. These visits facilitated dialogue on connoisseurship, conservation, exhibition, and philosophical issues regarding the treatment of sacred objects.

In order to fully utilize all of the research data, I felt strongly that we should make all the information accessible. Through talks with the museum's computer division, I learned of a system in development at LACMA called LADRRS, which stands for Los Angeles Art Research and Registration System. This unique database has six detailed screens offering full menu fields for registration information, curatorial research, conservation reports, and donor and financial information. While developed to serve as a registration system for the entire permanent collection, the LADRRS system is not yet in wide use in the museum. However, we used LADRRS programming to develop a pilot program to record data from the Tibetan Thangka Project, uniting curatorial and conservation research united in one easy-to-access computer database. Overwhelmed with the task of inputting and describing over 100,000 objects, the MIS department was only too happy to have us begin a project with only 75 objects.

I will very briefly describe the menu screens of this program and some of the highlights for conservation research. Screens come up one by one, known as Object Master Information Pages. They start out with obvious information, including title, accession number, period, edition, medium, dimensions, etc. The dimensions section has a built-in conversion system; if you input the dimensions in inches, for instance, it automatically translates to centimeters, and vice versa. On page 2, there is room for curatorial comments, and headings for provenance, exhibition records, and the registrar's condition report. All of these categories are free text fields, meaning that you have unlimited space to make comments. Page 3 is devoted to donor and financial information, as is page 4. Page 5 is for exhibitions, and includes a free text area at the bottom for a damage report, conservation condition report, and treatment proposal. Because it is free text, you have unlimited space to write, but only the first line will appear on the main menu screen. But, by using one of the commands across the top, you can access the full text either to browse or print out the information. In the future, when a curator, conservator, or registrar needs information about a particular thangka, they can access that information easily from their office computer terminal. In addition, the systemtem will augment its capacity for accuracy by adding a graphics component in the future.

As the Year of Tibet ended, we felt satisfied with a project that synthesized existing research with new observations and documentation on all the Himalayan paintings in the collection and that developed a unique system to make this information easy to find and understand. After this is effort, we feel confident that we have taken good care to preserve what Marilyn Rhie calls the "genius for clear, pristine vision" of Tibetan art that "possesses a quality of energy and vitality wedded to gentleness and beauty."


Rhie, Marilyn; and Robert Thurman: Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and Tibet House, New York, in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1991.


Susan Sayre Batton
Asian Art Conservator
Honolulu Academy of Arts

Modern Traditional Painting in Nepal

by Ian Alsop

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In this presentation, I will discuss modern techniques and materials used in the art of thangka or paubha painting. Paubha, by the way, is the Newari term for the type of painting which is called thangka in Tibetan; that is, a scroll painting with religious themes used for religious purposes. Whereas in Tibet, a Buddhist country, all thangkas were Buddhist, in Nepal, they were also used by the Hindu population.

First, I think it might be interesting to consider who it is who creates thangkas and paubhas and whether there has been any change among the modern painters from past practices. In the case of thangka painting among the Tibetans, both laymen and monks can be found engaged in thangka painting now, and I believe this reflects past practice. In Nepal, the arts were particularly the preserve of the Newars, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, and in this group there has, in fact, been a break from past tradition. It would appear that at least since the 14th century, the painting of paubhas was the work of the Newar caste of chitrakars (citrakara), which literally means "picture makers."

In modern times, however, painting has been taken up by many other people outside this caste, including Newars of other castes and non-Newars. It is certainly worth noting that the patronage has changed, both for Tibetan and Nepalese painters. Previously, paintings were commissioned solely for religious reasons; nowadays, paintings are made mostly for commercial purposes to satisfy demands from a largely foreign tourist clientele. Religious patronage does, of course, still exist, and in many cases there is a kind of mixture. For instance, you may find foreign Buddhists seeking out thangkas from Tibetan or Nepalese painters, and while such patrons are fully cognizant of the paintings' religious connotations and meanings, they are also deeply appreciative of their artistic value.

The patronage of the foreign or tourist market has had a mixed effect on the Tibetan and Nepalese painting traditions. On the one hand, many completely bogus thangkas painted in bizarre colors and often depicting deities whose iconographical identity has been entirely mangled have flooded the market, particularly in Kathmandu. On the other hand, some Western patrons have appeared who have shown a readiness to pay high prices for really good work and who demand accuracy and faithfulness to the traditions.

Most writers have used the terms "gouache" or "opaque watercolors" in their technical description of Tibetan and Nepalese paintings. I feel this terminology is misleading since both gouache and watercolor refer to a painting with a gum arabic binder, and gum arabic is not now used--and probably was never used--as a binder by Tibetan and Nepalese painters. At one point several years ago, Roshan Shakya, one of the best modern painters, experimented briefly with a gum called "gumd," which may in fact be a gum arabic. But he quickly discovered that it was not a strong enough binder to provide permanence, and the painting soon started to flake. The binder used in the past is still a bit of a mystery, but it is clear that almost all Tibetan and Nepalese now use animal skin glue, the Nepali term for which is "sares." Most painters believe that this is the traditional binder that was used in the past. Clearly, however, such paintings should be classified as "glue tempera" or "distemper," rather than gouache.

The support is always cotton cloth; nowadays, usually a commercially-produced closely-woven cloth of Nepalese, Indian, or Chinese manufacture. The cloth may or may not be stretched on the traditional frame. Whether stretched or not, it is prepared by coating with one of several applications of gesso, which is usually made of glue and zinc oxide white, called in Nepali "bala." The canvas is usually burnished with a stone after gessoing to produce a smooth and lustrous surface.

The drawing is transferred to the canvas by several techniques. The Tibetan painters usually rely on a rigorous system of proportion, the "thigse" (thig tshad), where a geometrical grid is laid out and the figures traced inside the geometric pattern. Nepalese painters, though aware of proportional and iconometrical rules, seem to rely less on such systems and often draw freehand, although a rudimentary grid is often laid out to insure the accuracy of the overall proportions. Often a master drawing is used, and various techniques are employed to transfer the master drawing to the canvas. Sometimes it will be copied directly onto the canvas, occasionally using a simplified geometric grid to accurately place the figures and other elements of the drawing. Sometimes a tracing technique is used, particularly with thinner canvases, where the original drawing is taped to the canvas and both are held up to a strong light source, usually a window with the sun shining through it, and the drawing placed onto the opposite side of the canvas. A pouncing technique is also used where black color, usually lamp black or perhaps powdered charcoal, is sifted through a pierced drawing onto the canvas to form the general outlines of the drawing. In a kind of dot-to-dot technique, the lines are connected with ink.

The colors most frequently used these days are commercially produced poster paints. However, over the past few years, particularly in Nepal, there has been an attempt by painters to return to the pigments used in the past. I think that it is worthwhile to mention here what these colors are. The palette of Nepalese and Tibetan paintings is made up of relatively few building blocks, and these building blocks can be divided into pigments of mineral origin and those of vegetable origin.

Mineral pigments include white, which may have in the past been a clay white of some kind: whiting, kaolin, or china clay, or possibly a white derived from shells: lime white. Of all the pigments of the ancient palette, white has been the most difficult to identify, and painters in Nepal still debate what the ancient white was. Most painters who use other mineral and vegetable colors still rely on commercially produced zinc white, "bala," for their white. Red is vermilion, red mercuric sulfide, which is called "hingula;" orange-red is sometimes used, particularly in Tibetan painting, which is red lead or minium, called "sindura;" yellow is orpiment, sulfide of arsenic, known in Nepal as "haritala" (very poisonous and treated with great respect by the painters, who learn not to lick their brushes); orange-yellow is realgar, arsenic disulfide, called in Sanskrit "manashila," related to orpiment and having many of its properties, also very poisonous (although it may have been used in the past, it is not used very often now); blue is azurite, used traditionally by the Tibetans and now also used by the Nepalese painters, although there is some evidence that it wasn't used in the past by the Nepalese when a combination of indigo blue with white was used for almost all blue tones. Whether lapis blue, ultramarine, called in Sanskrit "rajavarta," was used extensively in the past is unsure. Producing ultramarine from lapis is not a straightforward task. It is not just a question of grinding the lapis, you have to put it through many separate procedures to get the ultramarine color out of it, and I do not know of any painters who use it now. I believe that even in European medieval painting, there is a lot of confusion between azurite and lapis, and I think that many people believe that ultramarine was used in Renaissance painting when the pigment is actually azurite. Green, malachite, also was used extensively by the Tibetans and not so frequently by the Nepalese, and again there is a question as to whether it was used in the past. The Nepalis normally would produce green through a combination of indigo blue and orpiment.

The vegetable pigments are essentially two: red lac, the vegetable resin red, basically a highly colored shellac, known in Nepal as "mina" or "la" and in Sanskrit as "laksarasa." Used for shading and contrasting with the lighter vermilion, it is the combination of mina or lac and vermilion that creates the hot red tonality of most Nepalese paintings. The lighter red is put on first and then the darker lac is shaded in. Indigo, "nira," is from the indigo plant, producing a deep, almost black blue when it is in its pure state. Indigo was used in Nepali paintings shaded with various amounts of white which produce different shades of blue.

Black is supplied by lamp black, "dhvamso" in Nepali. It is created by burning an oil lamp with a little ceramic or clay cup above it that collects the black, which is used as a color. There are some other colors that may have been used in the past although we really cannot be sure: red ochre, "geru" or "gairika," still widely used for coloring the walls of houses, mica or "abhra" may have been added to create the scintillating effect found in some old Nepalese and Tibetan paintings, although there is a possibility that there was a certain type of orpiment which may have created that effect in yellows and greens. Other colors included madder yellow, "<corrupted-word status=tibetan>" and perhaps carmine red, "krmiraga," although the latter is doubtful. We should also mention gold, which is added at the end of the painting process. The gold used in painting is produced exclusively by the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley in a dangerous process where it is made into an amalgam with mercury. It is then sold in pellets, which can be mixed with the binder and painted. The binder for gold is in fact "gumd," the gum mentioned earlier which may be gum arabic. Gold, when applied, is matte in appearance. It is the same as the cold gold you will find on the faces of Tibetan statues. It is brought to a shiny finish by using a small pointed burnishing stone, and often patterns are created with matte and shiny portions.

author address:

Ian Alsop

535 Cordova Road, Suite 408
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
about the author: Ian Alsop is an independent scholar of the culture and art of the Himalayan region.


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