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Pigment producers push to protect ancient art

Palden Nyima
Updated: Jul 16,2015 9:09 AM     China Daily

Samdrub uses traditional Tibetan mineral pigments on a thangka in his workshop.[Photo by Palden Nyima/China Daily]

The Tibet autonomous region is famous for its elegant, colorful architecture, especially its Buddhist temples. However, some traditional handicrafts and skills are being lost as the region engages ever more closely with the modern world. Palden Nyima reports from Lhasa.

For most people, the phrase “Tibetan art” calls to mind images of a range of handicrafts, including traditional scroll paintings, known as thangkas. However, few people are familiar with the pigments that artists in the Tibet autonomous region use to paint the thangkas.

The production of mineral pigments is an ancient art in Tibet, but it’s heading for extinction at a rapid pace. “The production of mineral pigments is an interesting part of Tibetan traditional culture that was inherited by our ancestors. We want to ensure that it lasts forever,” said Penpa, a thangka master and instructor in pigment production in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

“Our team considers the production of genuine mineral products as a way of repaying the love shown by our former masters,” the 43-year-old said. “I consider the work to be a contribution to the continuation of our ancestors’ valuable heritage.”

While many people speak of innovation or “expanding” a heritage, Penpa simply wants to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps without altering the ancient traditions.

“I don’t want any breakthroughs to endanger the preservation of what our ancestors left for us. That would be enough,” said Penpa, who works for Lhasa Ancient Architectural Arts Co, a 30-year-old outfit that operates one of just three pigment workshops in the region.

A thangka artist creates a variety of hues using mineral pigments.[Photo by Li Shaopeng/Xinhua]

Most of the company’s work involves the restoration and refurbishment of ancient architecture, and the production of mineral pigments is one of its core businesses.

Although some producers sell pigments that contain a mixture of mineral pigments and modern, synthetic dyes, Penpa’s company only produces and sells genuine Tibetan pigments. “Real Tibetan pigments are made from mineral stones and plants. The other pigments in the Tibetan market are produced in other Chinese provinces and in India,” he said.

Tibetan mineral pigments are of such high quality that they will retain their color for more than 200 years. In extreme cases, some pigments will remain pristine for as long as a millennium.

The production process for mineral pigments is far more difficult than that used to make other pigments, and as a consequence, they are much more expensive.

A variety of pigment-bearing minerals can be ground into fine powders to produce five basic colors-green, blue, red, yellow and white-which are then divided further into hues.

The pigments are all extracted from ore stones. White stones come from Rinbung county, while the other colors are found in different parts of the region, such as Nyemo county, Qamdo city, and even in the Diqing Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Yunnan province.

Penpa’s colleague Samdrub said his team only uses mineral pigments, because colors in non-mineral pigments produced outside Tibet fade quickly.

Tsamcho grids particles of pigment in a crucible.[Photo by Palden Nyima/China Daily]

Ageless beauty

“Tibetan mineral pigments will remain bright and unfaded for more than 200 years, sometimes as long as 1,000 years,” Samdrub said.

“The pigments produced at lower altitudes cannot endure the harsh conditions in Tibet, such as the intense ultraviolet light and strong winds,” the 50-year-old added.

He said the company has eradicated the sale of counterfeit or low-quality products. “Instead of cheating people, it’s important to show them different products at different prices. If people cannot afford to buy artifacts made with mineral pigments, there are always alternatives, such as thangkas produced using pigments produced in other places in China and in India,” Samdrub said.

Only four companies in China produce genuine Tibetan mineral pigments-unsurprisingly three of them are situated in Tibet, while the other is in Beijing.

Traditionally, thangka painters made their own pigments, but they were for personal use and not for sale. The arrival of the market economy resulted in changes, though, and Lhasa Ancient Architectural Arts trademarked its pigments 15 years ago.

The company employs eight thangka masters, more than 30 apprentices and five pigment producers, who make 18 different pigments, all the colors a painter needs.

Moldmakers, coppersmiths, welders, carpenters and stonemasons are also employed, so whenever renovation work is scheduled for ancient buildings and monasteries, the company can provide a full range of services. That edge means business is usually good.

The company’s pigments are sold across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, in other parts of China, and even overseas in places such as the United Kingdom and France.

“An old Tibetan proverb says: ‘Some work requires a light, sick person’s touch, while other jobs require great strength, like that of a strong, young man’, “ Penpa said.

“The process of producing pigments requires a great deal of patience, time and different strengths during different procedures, so the work is carried out exclusively by women,” he added.

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