Himalayan Art Resources

Painting: Styles & Traditions

Painting Main Page (Flat Art)

Painting Traditions & Painting Styles:
- Styles & Traditions Chart
- Styles
- Traditions
- Styles Glossary
- Artist Index
- Others...

Tibetan Painting Style Periods:
- Early Period 11th to 14th century
- Middle Period 15th to 17th century
- Late Period 18th century to the present
- Contemporary Art

- Painting Styles Overview
- A Question on Painting Styles in Himalayan Art
- A Question on Painting Styles & Traditions in Himalayan Art (Part 2)

A painting style is not a tradition and a painting tradition is not a style. A painting style is singular. A painting tradition is plural and multiple. Painting traditions arise from one or more painting styles.

A style of Tibetan painting means a specific appearance with certain identifiable elements and characteristics in addition to typical drawing, colour and composition. If several paintings have the same style it means they have shared visually recognizable elements and characteristics. Painting styles are usually created by a single artist and later copied and promoted by an atelier of students, sometimes well funded by an institution or a temple and monastic complex. Over time, painting styles, the few important or influential ones, inevitably change and eventually become traditions.

The two terms of 'style' and 'tradition' are commonly used interchangeably when discussing painting, less so with sculpture. This is a common occurrence in Tibetan language as well as other Asian languages, Chinese and Western languages. This can be a problem. The problem is compounded when the name of a Tibetan style of painting is used in place of the name of a tradition of painting.

A good example is the Karma Gardri tradition of painting that is commonly referred to as one of the principal later styles of Tibetan painting. Karma Gardri has several different individual styles of painting that are included under the broad term of a tradition. The earliest of these styles is that of Namkha Tashi (16th century) followed by the style of Choying Dorje (17th century) and finally the Palpung Monastery style developed by Situ Panchen (18th century). All three styles are very distinct and different from each other and cannot be said to belong to the same style of painting. They can however be said to belong to the Karma Gardri tradition of painting.

The term 'tradition' in this usage identifies certain artists and artistic styles of painting as belonging to a regional group, temple complex or a religious lineage. Originally the Karma Gardri tradition of painting aligned the artists directly with the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. Regardless of the painting style, a Karma Gardri artist is identifying with a religious sect or affiliation. From the 18th century to the present, in the Kham region of Eastern Tibet, artists of other religious traditions, some Kagyu, others Nyingma and Sakya, have aligned themselves with, and claim affiliation to, the Karma Gardri painting (style) tradition.

So, the real problem with not understanding the two terms of style and tradition, from the above example, is thinking that stylistically unrelated paintings (artists: Namkha Tashi, Choying Dorje and Situ Panchen) belong to the same style of painting but without any visual or stylistic elements to support the belief or claim. This only leads to confusion.

Khyentse Chenmo (15th century) created a style which became known as the Khyenri painting style. In less than one hundred years the Khyenri style had adapted and been modified by time, region, and younger artists. Khyenri as a distinctive style had changed into a tradition which maintained elements of the original characteristics but also incorporated other styles and elements. Sure, the original Khyenri style can be found in the murals of Gongkar Chode monastery and with period paintings that have survived. The same cannot be said for the murals of Jonang Tagten Puntsog Ling which clearly continued with elements and characteristics of Khyenri but also made changes and added new elements and compositional changes. Jonang monastery is following in the Khyenri Tradition but not in the original Khyenri painting style. The same can be said for Menri style painting created by Mantangpa (15th century) and the ‘new’ Menri style of Choying Gyatso (17th century). Generally painting styles become thinner over time and traditions become broader and deeper.

Jeff Watt [page added 10-2019, 6-2020]

(The images below are only a selection of examples from the links above).