Painting Indian Style

“A court Beauty”, Udaipur c. 1805 – 1810, Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art, Ashmolean LI118.32 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Learning from Bannu in the 1990s provided me with a great deal of insight when looking at historical paintings in museum collections, both in terms of how they were painted, and the pigments that were used in their creation. In 2007 I was asked to demonstrate the technique at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, in connection with an exhibition about the art and culture of the fabulous Mewar court of Rajputana: “Princes, Palaces and Passion: The Art of India’s Mewar Kingdom”.

I prepared a series of drawings demonstrating a progression of techniques, and for my subject I selected the painting on the left, which was one of the exhibits. This painting is in fact quite large, measuring 139.8 X 82 cm. It was painted on cotton cloth, quite common for large paintings intended to be hung on a wall. You can find out more about it at the website of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (click the link).

However the method of painting translates very well into smaller works on paper, and I used this as an opportunity to systematically show different stages in the making of a full-colour image, as well as a ‘Neem Qalam’ (partially coloured) drawing demonstrating Bannu’s particular approach.  I first prepared my drawing surface by laminating together two sheets of paper using home-made wheat starch as an adhesive. This makes the traditional pasteboard surface often used for Indian painting, known as ‘Wasli’. The surface was then tinted and sized with a mixture of Ochre Pigment and Gum Arabic Solution, and polished well with a Burnisher or smooth stone.

My demonstration page showing methods of painting and drawing the figure in the Mewar painting.

The demonstration page includes four identical copies of the lady with her child. The figure on the left is a simple outline, done with a brush and black watercolour pigment – home-made Siyahi or Lamp Black is traditional, but I prefer to use Ivory Black watercolour by Winsor & Newton.

The figure on the far right shows the first blocking in of the colour. Rajput schools of the period favoured strong solid colours that created a bold graphic effect. The lady’s Lehnga or skirt is blocked in with pure Cinnabar pigment called Hingaloo in India, or Vermilion in Europe – that’s the intense deep red. Where her transparent Odhni is draped over the skirt the colour is orange-toned Red Lead, known in India as Sindhur, and in Europe, Minium. Her Choli or (very) short blouse is a dark Yellow Ochre with a touch of Indigo mixed in, and the base for her skin tone is Khadhiya or white chalk mixed with tiny amounts of yellow ochre and crimson Lac. The areas that are to receive 24 carat gold are blocked in with an Indian Yellow base. Nobody today has access to using real Indian yellow or Gaugoli, so I used a good substitute artists’ watercolour by Winsor & Newton. Once the opaque colours are blocked in and dry, the whole thing is well burnished, placing a sheet of Glassine paper between the work and the burnisher to protect the surface of the painting.

Closer detail showing bush drawing techniques and modelling

The two figures in the centre demonstrate the handling of shading and modelling using stippling or Pardaz techniques.

In the image above, the left figure is delicately rendered over a thin Khadhiya (chalk) wash using Master Bannu’s Neem Qalam drawing technique described in my previous post. Much emphasis is placed on the outlines, working over them with successive layers of diluted black watercolour and crimson Lac. A good modern substitute for traditional Lac is Crimson Alizarin watercolour. The delicate stippled shading is primarily intended to emphasise and diffuse the outlines, and to give the figure a soft, rounded quality. The drawing looks light and delicate, with living, breathing lines.

The image on the right shows how the same drawing techniques are used to model and animate the flat blocks of colour in the fully painted version. Diluted black and crimson lac are worked over the burnished colour in layers. Compare the finished rendering of the face with the untreated skin-tone base of the raised arms. The hair has also been worked with layers of black, and in areas like the edgings of the Choli and the jewelry, 24 carat Shell Gold has been applied over the yellow-blocked areas and polished up to a high sheen. For the pearl necklace I used opaque white pigment with extra gum Arabic to drop in tiny Impasto (raised) dots. In the old days white lead or Safeda was the pigment of choice, but today I use modern Titanium White which is far less poisonous.

I hope this post will give my readers some technical insights into how paintings of the Indian regional courts were made, and an idea of the colour palette that was utilized. The sensibility of the paintings is also a matter of interest: the figures are fairly graphic and schematic, depicting archetypal concepts redolent with symbolism rather than observational psychological insights. Expressing the opulence, power and virility of the ruler, this lady displays the ideal desirable qualities: she is very sexy, fertile (she has a small child at her skirts) and she is richly dressed and bejewelled.

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