WANLA – Chuchig-zhal Temple
Paintings and sculpture - work techniques
The three large sculptures in the three niches are made of clay. A vertical wooden post was placed in the centre of each figure, acting as the main support. Two horizontal supports of each figure are located at the back of the image towards the back wall of the niche. These posts project towards the outside as can be observed at the main figure. In addition, large arm supports are fixed to the back wall. No investigations have been carried out to determine the inner structure and the employed materials of these images. The sculptures representing the generic Kagyüpa (bKa’-brgyud-pa) lineage, are located on the gallery and are made of papier-mâché.
The technical execution of the wall paintings differs from one storey to another. The depictions on ground floor are modelled with more precision and elaborated with more details than those on the upper floors.
Support and ground
The walls are made of natural stones that are covered with several layers of earthen plaster.
The plaster is much thicker on ground floor compared to the plaster on the upper floors. On the ground floor it reaches a thickness of up to 5 cm, whereas the coarse plaster on the inside of the lantern is merely one centimetre thick. The coarse plaster was finished to an even and smooth surface. The fine plaster is up to about one centimetre thick. The fine plaster layer consists of very fine-grained clay to silt, known under the name markalak (“butter-mud”). This material can be quarried in various deposits all over Ladakh. The plaster of the lantern walls was attached to a wooden lattice-work.
To modify the properties of the plaster, different filler materials were added. A preliminary investigation has shown that some plaster fragments from the lower storeys contain stone splinters and plant fibres, both in the coarse render and the top plaster. It appears that the smooth and homogenous plaster surface was burnished.
It seems very likely that the materials utilised for the earthen plaster in Wanla had been collected in the vicinity of the site. The whitish layer on top of the plaster is a burnished primer. In Tibetan this sort of material is called „dkar rtsi“, meaning something like “white wash”. In Ladakh Karsi („dkar rtsi“) can be found on all historic buildings for the external whitewash and as a primer for paintings.
However, the investigated materials differ from one another.
The primer in the Avalokisteshvara temple has so far be found to be composed of fibrous gypsum or in other places nearly gypsum-free calcium carbonates, containing calcite as well as aragonite.
The white primed surface was usually geometrically divided into different sections prior to the execution of the actual painting. So far, we have not detected any kind of construction lines for the sectioning of the wall paintings, except at the main inscription, where red lines were employed to frame and divide the surface.
A further technique to organize the paintings is to incise the plaster with a sharp tool. Examinations with direct and raking light have demonstrated that in Wanla only the mandala circles were incised.
Most striking in this context is that the division of the walls in Wanla seem to underlie not so much geometric rules but rather reflect the importance of specific representations. Presumably, to start with, the large, more significant images were sketched and then the rest of the painting was arranged accordingly. Vertical and horizontal lines appear to be drawn in a freehand manner and are thus often not perpendicular.
The act of painting
After all the preparations for the painting support had been carried out, the actual paintings process could begin.
The act of painting usually consisted of carrying out the preparatory sketches, the colouring and the contour lines. So far only on gallery level preparatory sketches have been found. Here they have been carried out with a red colour applied onto the primer.
After sketching the images, presumably first the red background was painted. Further steps included the painting of figures and details. Depending on the desired colour the respective areas were first covered with their underpainting. This system is used for glazes, or pigments, such as specific ochres, which are too transparent for being used without an underpainting. Additionally, a painted detail, which is made of more than one paint layer, will appear to have more depth.
Light colours were employed for the underpaintings and accordingly, light green lies below a dark green, and orpiment underneath the layer of ochre.
Another important reason for using differently coloured underpaintings is the shading of painting details.
According to Jackson and Jackson there is a variety of shading methods in Tibetan painting. Basically, the shading technique can be divided into a dry and wet shading system. In the Avalokiteshvara temple the wet-shading method was employed, using washes of various transparencies. These painting details are carried out in many layers and are characterized by modelled and shaded representations, where concentric, transparent washes describe the various shapes. The analysis of a pinkish sample from the temple has demonstrated a multi-layered transparent colour wash with an increase of colour intensity towards the paint surface.
The coloured underpainting serves here as the basic colour for all subsequent layers of the shading process.
Which representation was embellished with contour lines followed traditional guidelines. Black was employed for the contour lines of figures, whereas minuscule details like eyes, lips and jewellery are painted in red, white, black and yellow.
Investigations on ground floor show that the contour lines were not only used for final editing, but applied also during earlier steps of the painting process; below some areas covered with colour glazes, ornaments are indicated with fine lines. Presumably they were executed before the glazing process, to lessen the stark contrast of light and dark.
Application of gold
Gold can be found on several walls on ground floor. It is visible on the garments and jewellery of several divinities. It is remarkable that the gold-covered areas appear to be either matte or burnished. Linear gilded areas are matte, the representation of jewellery like earrings are worked to a high shine.
Pigments and binders
Analyses of the paint layer of the Avalokiteshvara temple have provided results, which indicate the use of proteins in the binding medium, sometimes found in addition to an oil. The combination of protein and oil could be an evidence of the use of egg as binding medium, but further detailed analyses will have to be carried out. Through samples analyses, azurite, ochre, orpiment, indigo, red lacquer, carbon black could be identified and presumably also cinnabar. This colour palette is typical for this period in this geographical area.
Carbon black was utilized for black areas and it appears also in mixtures with a pink coloured dye. In addition, carbon black was also employed as an underpaint for azurite. Azurite with carbon black and brown-orange ochre was used for blue areas. A brown-orange ochre serves as an undercoat for dark blue. Green can only be found as a mixture of orpiment and indigo. The examination of a sample with a blue dye- presumably indigo- has identified also the presence of a fibrous mineral, which suggests that indigo was mixed with some Karsi material.
Some of the sample analysis executed so far, seem to suggest that cinnabar was employed, which however now seems to present itself in an altered blackened form. Further analysis will be necessary to confirm either presence or absence of cinnabar. Interestingly the samples supposedly containing cinnabar are taken from a wall at gallery level, which is the area most exposed to light within the whole temple interior. For a long time the poor light-fastness of cinnabar has been known and therefore its use for wall paintings was not advised.
Istudor, I. et al. (2007): An Alteration Phenomenon of Cinnabar Red Pigment, in: e_conservation 2, online magazine, December 2007, p. 24-33.
Jackson, D.P., Jackson J. A. (2006): Tibetan Thangka Painting. Methods and Materials. Hong Kong: Serindia Publications.
Küng, A. (2005a): Wandmalereien in Ladakh, Indien. In: Jahresbericht 2005. Stiftung zur Förderung der naturwissenschaftlichen und technologisch-konservatorischen Lehre und Forschung auf dem Gebiet der Denkmalpflege. Expert Center für Denkmalpflege, pp. 14-17.