This particular image is one which was used by Khandro Déchen as part of her thangka painting training, as the most advanced exercise to be undertaken before students begin work with the forms of Lamas, yidams, and protectors. The student begins with tracing elemental forms and reproducing them, and progresses to creating those elemental forms of which fire is one example. The student then proceeds to landscapes and the symbolic animals. With regard to painting, there are many exercises which are designed to foster accuracy. The image of fire surrounding a seed syllable is the most difficult as it involves colour gradation of the most extreme nature – from indigo, through grey, maroon, red and orange, to yellow. The shift in colours is particularly difficult at three-colour transitions, and once this is mastered the student can attempt a thangka.
Khandro Déchen comments:
It can be the case with aspiring Western thangka painters, that a lack of basic art training – particularly in the field of life drawing – causes obstacles. It is fundamentally important for a thangka painter to be able to draw, and to develop hand-eye-coordination. The traditional thangka training was quite long and was thus able to approach the
development of drawing skills in a completely different way from the one which we use. Even with great enthusiasm, people in the West have little free time – and so I have found experience with life drawing an invaluable asset. I still return to life drawing classes once a year to refresh the skills I have developed, and recognise that there is still a long way to go in terms of the fluency I would like.
The syllable ‘Trom’ in the centre of the flames is a stylised calligraphic form of the syllable drawn by Ngak’chang Rinpoche, who trained as a thangka painter under teachers of several different schools in India and Nepal. Although Ngak’chang Rinpoche learnt to paint in the traditional Tibetan style, using grids with precise dimensions, he developed a different method for teaching
Western people, which makes more use of our technology. We use a light-box for transferring images from paper to canvas, and use compasses, circle & ellipse templates, French curves, and any other means of ensuring that the line work is as perfect as possible before painting commences. The airbrush is a valuable tool for background colour gradations in the
sky – but I feel that more than this minimal use tends to create a flat image.