Thai Paintings (จิตกรรมไทย) are a type of Fine arts, which reflects the civilized and artistic cultures of Thailand. Paintings have an artistic value and can be useful for studying the historical roots related to religion, social lifestyle, ancient culture, belief, and folk stories of each era.
At the same time, paintings evoke the feeling of pride and enhance the appreciation of aesthetics in arts. King Vajiravudh (Thai: พระบาทสมเด็จพระมงกุฎเกล้าเจ้าอยู่หัว) of Siam also said that Thai painting is the decoration, adornment, and beauty of Thailand.
Originally, Thai painting is a result of art development from powerful nations around the ancient Siam kingdom, such as China and India. The most primitive painting of Thailand from the prehistoric period was found on a cave wall.
Later on with civilization and development of culture, tradition, and language. Thai paintings have become more delicate and sophisticated quality. The oldest painting of the historical period was mostly found in Buddhist temples and the area around the Chao Phraya River basin, which is the main central river of Thailand.
At the time, the arrangement of objects in paintings represents only symbolic images such as deity, giant, garuda, and naga. During the Ayutthaya era, Thai paintings had become more developed and threw off the influence of neighboring countries. Resulting in a more original and authentic Thai root in paintings.
To narrate Buddhist storytelling in writing was very difficult in the past. Hence, Thai artists used paintings as a communication medium to convey the story of Buddha’s life theme. Painting is a translation of abstract thought into a visual image to the eyes of the audience. For this reason, it gave the birth of Thai temple mural paintings.
The format of Thai Ayutthaya painting is in two dimensions, which has no light, no shadow, and no depth. But the distance between objects created by the overlapping technique. The color was used at the same weight, with no dimension or intensity.
Ayutthaya painting is intricate and has orderly neat patterns. Moreover, there is no emotion conveyed on the human’s face. Every individual has the same face. It is a repetitive style that there is no distinction for a particular person. This can be because of the influence from Khon (โขน), the traditional Thai drama performance.
The Ayutthaya Thai painting themes include Buddha’s story, Ramakien epic, and ancient literature. Additionally, gold leaf was first applied to the Buddha paintings in this era as well.
Thai paintings has categories into two types; Traditional Thai Paintings, and Contemporary Thai Paintings.
Traditional Thai Paintings (จิตรกรรมไทยแบบประเพณี)
This type of painting has great refinement and exquisiteness in detail. The painting represents a feeling, soul, and the authentic identity of Thai cultures. It is where you will see the original Thainess.
The elegant characters and finest elements of the painting have continued and carried on from generation to generation. Inherited art is the ancient Thai design from the older generation that was accepted by people that it is worthy and valuable. At the same time, the art also lifts up the human spirit.
Traditional Thai style art has been prevailing only for mural paintings in Buddhist temples and houses or buildings of high respected noblemen and the residence of the Royal Thai monarchy. In the past, the ancient Thai painters only used traditional pigment powder to produce paintings.
The general scenes of traditional Thai paintings are the depiction of historic events of the Buddha’s life and Buddhist tales. However, the paintings still blend with the local Thai daily life, customs, culture, social tradition.
Moreover, Traditional Thai style paintings are more of an idealist art with a mix of mythology. For example, Thai muralists painted the fictional worlds of heaven and hell, which is the common belief in the afterlife and reincarnation of Thai society.
Whilst at Wat Chong Nonsi, there is a picture of a man and woman pounding rice on the temple mural painting. This portrayal of ordinary people’s lives tells what was happening in past social history.
Back then, the Thai artistic traditions are mostly about narrative art. The paintings are mainly painted with vibrant colors and bright tones, then drawn with bold lines to create the two dimensions of the artwork.
The emerging of various color pigments occurred in the Rattanakosin era. Thai artists started to use a darker color in paintings in order to create tranquility ambiance and a meditative feeling. The characteristic of painting in this era is realism and has more variety of narrative stories. Such as the depiction of important festivals, ceremonies, rites, and the Royal monarch tradition.
The painting more or less was used as a record of history. For instance, the popular folk festival activities include Songkran day and Loy Kratong holiday. These days are among the most important celebration of the nation.
Yet, Thai art not only depicts Buddhism iconography but also some famous Thai literature as well. For instance, the mural paintings at Wat Phra Kaew (also well known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok) represent the famous story from Ramakien literature.
Another great place that shows stunning Thai mural paintings is Plubplachai Temple. Here, you will see a distinctive art with the adaptation of modern Thai painting and Mixed media art but still consists of traditional Thainess.
At Plubplachai Temple, the new generation of artists implements the modern use of color, which has more dimensions and adds glittery within the work. In the art process, they use pearl color, which when the light touches on the artwork, creates matte and shiny qualities simultaneously.
Both unique qualities complement each other well, which makes the work looks even more special. Yet, the traditional Thai designs still persist within the paintings while implementing the modern technique.
Contemporary Thai Paintings (จิตรกรรมไทยร่วมสมัย)
This kind of paintings are the result of the advanced world and globalization. The innovation in education, transportation, and international commerce that has improved our lives. These factors inevitably reflect our thoughts, principles, values, and wisdom. Which in turn result in the Contemporary Thai artworks. The paintings will always change and adjust according to the current social environment, new trends, and new perspectives of emerging generations.
This kind of paintings are the result of the advanced world and globalization. The innovation in education, transportation, and economic change has greatly improved our lives. These factors inevitably reflect in the younger generation’s thoughts, principles, values, and wisdom. Which in turn resulting in the Contemporary Thai artworks.
Paintings will always change and adjust according to the current social environment, new trends, and perspectives of emerging generations. Contemporary Thai painting takes the roots of traditional Thai design to adjust according to the individual artist’s creation and thought.
The young artists use the traditional style as an inspiration of producing contemporary work. It has subject stories and themes that are different from the past traditional art. Yet, Thai identity still can be found in the painting.
The content of the painting is more about the personal perspective of the artist. The painting’s theme can be about happiness, sadness, depression, and disappointment. Hence, Contemporary Thai painting has broken the rule of copying and repeating from predecessor’s works.
Moreover, the new generation of artists have further developed art skills by travelling and studying abroad in Europe and America. The western art techniques that were brought back home including Realism, Impressionism, Post-impressionism and Cubism. Hence, the paintings created by younger art practitioners are more likely to deviate from the conventional norms.
Since the 1970s, Neo-traditionalism Thai Art style had emerged, another word is the new traditional. It is a form of art representation that incorporates traditional culture and Thai Theravada Buddhist themes within modern style images.
Neo-traditionalism has revitalized the cultural identity and promote Thai nationalism. Indeed, it reflects the unique characteristics of Thainess in more suitable forms in these modern days.
New progression of Thai art allows the young art practitioners to generate more creative and imaginative works. In this way, Contemporary Thai paintings are more approachable and social related. While integrating the universal perspective, the artists still maintain Thai roots within their works.
Contemporary Thai painting in the twenty-first century still addresses the focus on spirituality, faith and religion; while emphasizing the current social problems and political issues. As, the emerging Thai artists have used paintings as a tool to debate the important topics and express their personal observation and experience.
The interesting topics commonly discussed among contemporary artists include the dysfunction of modern Thai culture, gender discrimination, consumerism, capitalism, and other issues that reflect the current daily life in society.
The most important art influencer, who had introduced the western art philosophy into the Thai Kingdom, is Corrado Feroci. He was an exceptional sculpture from Florence in Italy. In 1923, Feroci was invited to Thailand by the King Rama VI.
During this time, his majesty requested western art experts to work in the Fine Arts Department and to teach Thai artists extra skills and international knowledge in order to raise the Thai Art standard.
In 1943, Feroci was the founder and leading professor at Silpakorn University, the most reputable Fine Arts School in Thailand. Later on, he changed his name to Silpa Bhirasri. And because of this great contribution to the country, he was granted a Thai citizenship and considered as the Father of Thai Contemporary Art.
His most famous artistic works in Bangkok are Victory Monument, Democracy Monument, and King Rama I Monument. There are among the important historic centers of the city. Some of his outstanding students are Thawan Duchanee and Chalermchai Kositpipat. Both were named as the national painting artists of Thailand.
Thawan is renowned for combining hyper-realistic pen drawing techniques and fast brushstrokes with Buddhist teaching themes. While, Chalermchai, the most famous neo-traditional artist, had introduced the new technique of spray paint and three dimensional work in Thai painting.
Contemporary Thai Painting does not oppose traditionalism, but to boost and restore the status of Thai art in the international world with modern methods.
The Basic composition of Thai Painting
It is the most fundamental element to create a painting. When noticing the formation of Thai paintings from each era, lines are used to define scope and extent of a painting and featured subjects. Because of the painting format implements mainly lines, it results in a flat 2 dimensional painting without depth magnitude.
It is an important composition that expresses a visualization of weight, amount, atmosphere of a painting. Moreover, Thai artists also make space within the painting in order to create an illusion of distance between subjects. Because Thai paintings mostly depict continuous narrative events, the artists also arrange the elements of paintings correlated to the story timeline rather than the proportion of size or shape. In addition, artists also use secondary subjects like trees, mountains, rivers, and stones to separate narrative events. However, sometime Jagged line and Curve line can be used to separate space of scenes in paintings.
Thai paintings use coloration in flat dimension without light and shadow. The use of colors can define the important of subjects on the artworks. For instance, colors can indicate status or social ranks of persons. Moreover, darker or more intense colors is used to highlight or accent the details of paintings. While, lighter colors are used for background.
Primarily, Thai paintings appear in temple architectures, chapels, and nobility’s buildings. The main purpose of creating paintings in the past was to promote and conserve Buddhism within the society. Hence, Thai paintings have a unique character of being neatly exquisite, lively, and artistic. In conclusion, paintings are a great source of ancient knowledge and history from ancient ancestors. The creation of paintings not only gives artistic values, but also tells about society, economy, culture, religion, history, and archaeology of Thailand.
Traditional Thai Color Making
Thai masters created colors used in Thai paintings from natural ingredients, which were collected locally. The natural sources of traditional pigment can be from plants, spices, minerals, stones, etc. However, due to the quality of being handmade, the color shade could not exactly be the same 100 percent.
The fundamental three colors used in paintings consist of Red, Yellow and Blue. In Thai, each are called Chard, Rong and Kraam accordingly.
Chard (ชาด) or universally known as Vermillion is a brilliant red color. It is made from mineral cinnabar. Chard is not only popular in Thailand, but also throughout Southeast Asia.
Rong (รงทอง) is a yellow pigment from Gamboge Tree or Gracinia Hanbury Hook. It is a local tree that commonly found in the eastern Gulf of Thailand.
Kraam (คราม) is a deep blue color from leaves of Indigofera Tinctoria.
Color usage in Thai Paintings
In the Ayutthaya era, the artisan masters only used Red and Yellow pigments without mixing. Therefore, the artworks in this era present a warm and natural impression.
Later in Chakri dynasty’s era, during the term of King Rama 1 to 3 period, the color combination began to be incorporated in paintings. At the same time, the usage of Black backgrounds started to be implemented.
While during the reign of King Rama 4, the color pigments were imported from the Western countries, as Thailand became more open to the world. With the importation and trade from Europe, there were more color patches for Thai painters to use than ever before.
Since the middle period of Chakri dynasty, the European influence had appeared on Thai art. Some of the European art techniques that Thai painters adopted to wall paintings include shadow method, spatial placement, perspective drawing and split plot design.
The First School of Thai Art
In the past, artistic skills and knowledge were only passed from generation to generation through apprenticeships. Because there was no art school in the past, the art students could only study art lessons from the famous masters in their local villages.
Later in the mid of Rattanakosin period, due to the rapid national development and more interaction with the Western countries. In 1913, King Rama VI of the Chakri dynasty made his effort to preserve Thai art painting and traditional culture by opening the first school of art in Bangkok, Pohchang Academy Of Arts (วิทยาลัยเพาะช่าง). Nowadays, the school’s name has changed to Rajamangala University of Technology Rattanakosin.
In 1943, another important Art school that was found is Silpakorn University. Its original name was called the Fine Arts Academy. The founder is Silpa Bhirasri, aiming to institutionalize Thai Art under modernization. He also brought international art philosophy and western school of thought to Thai artists in order to enhance and improve the development of Thai art. Today, Silpakorn is one of the most famous Fine Arts universities in Thailand, where many national artists of the country were graduated.
In conclusion, Traditional Thai painting is what stores the authentic and originality of ancient Thai tradition, culture, religion, values, lifestyle , and even literature. While, Contemporary Thai painting does not come to challenge traditionalism, but to help preserve Thai identity, represent Thainess and reinforce national unity in the modern world. At the end of the day, Buddhism, Royal imagery and portrait of rural life remain as the fundamental themes of Thai paintings. While, The different mediums and artistic techniques are just a tool to attract new audiences.
Indeed, the Three pillars of Thai nationalism ideology, which are Monarch, Buddhism and Nation, are the classic inspiration in many artists’ work of art. Painting is the most prestigious form of fine arts. Thai paintings do not only produce artistic experience, but also give a deeper understanding of social relations and Buddhist doctrines.
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