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Creating the Buddhist Caves at Dunhuang
Author:by Lou Jie, Liang Xushu, and Huang Yuanwei Published:2014.3.20 Views:

Steps in creating the paintings at the Mogao Grottoes

The wall paintings at the Mogao Grottoes were made in the following steps:

1.Making the plaster ground

The Mogao Grottoes were carved into loosely-structured sandstone aggregate that is vulnerable to collapse. Extremely rough, the surface of the exposed cliff wall was not suitable for painting on directly and had to be thickly covered with a plaster ground before painting. The surface was prepared with the following:

a. Coarse mud layer: made from local sandy earth mixed with straw and water. This layer was often several inches thick.

b. Fine mud layer: made from local washed clay mixed with fibers and water.

c. Powder layer: The fine mud layer was covered with a thin, smooth layer of powdered kaolin (a fine white clay used in manufacture of porcelain), lime, or gypsum mixed with water.

Fig.1. Steps in the creation of a mural at Dunhuang

2.Making an overall design of the cave murals

The first step was to make a general plan and draft of the contents and themes to be painted on the different walls and of the special religious wishes of the donors and patrons. This is seen, for example, in the original planning drawings discovered for the paintings in Mogao Cave 148.

3.Making the paintings

a. Preparatory Drawings

1) Freehand sketch. The artisans divided the walls into large areas and then drew the line skillfully on the wall without a preliminary sketch. It was usually drawn with a brush using earthen red pigment.

2) Drawing from a draft. The artisans created a grid on the wall surfaces and then redrew the draft picture onto the wall to scale.

b. Pounces

In ancient Dunhuang, besides preparatory and planning drawings, pounces (special stencils with perforations along the inked lines) were used to transfer the drawing in chalk to the cave walls. The technique was useful for repeating identical figures such as in the Thousand Buddha design. While preparatory and planning drawings had to be made before painting any cave, pounces were used much less frequently because the painters were so good at freehand sketching. This explains why only a few pounces were discovered among the Dunhuang manuscripts and historical artifacts.

c. Color application

The finished draft was marked with color labels by masters and then filled in with color by students. Generally the master indicated the color choice by writing a color label directly on the cave wall in running or cursive hand, sometimes using part of the character and sometimes the whole word. These labels are now visible in some cave murals where the original colors have degraded. However, there were also many wall paintings that were painted without color labels because the painters had perfect mastery of the required skills.

d. Line drawing

The final step was to touch up the lines that formed the shapes.

Pigments most used in the murals of the Mogao Grottoes in different times

Mineral pigments were made from naturally-occurring minerals. A series of steps such as selecting of materials, filtering, smashing, removing the iron, grinding, and classifying are involved to produce different colors of different grades. These colors are pure, deep, bright, and elegant, possessing excellent qualities such as weather resistance, acid and alkali corrosion resistance, and lightfastness. The brightness remains unchanged even after being buried underground for years, presenting a better effect than artificially synthesized pigments.

Animal glues are the binding medium of mineral pigments. They cause the particles of mineral pigments to adhere and allow the overlapping of different colored pigments, producing a color effect unique to mineral pigments and adding a gorgeous multicolored allure to the pictures.

Steps in sculpture-making at the Mogao Grottoes

The brittle stone of the local region was unsuitable for carving figures. Sculpture could not be carved into the living rock, nor could more suitable rock be transported to Dunhuang. Therefore, the sculpture had to be fashioned from clay and its surface prepared for painting. Most of the clay figures were made by the following process:

1.The armature is built with round logs and poles.

2.The figure’s shape is developed using bundles of reeds. This helps to decrease the amount of mud required and reduces the weight put on the armature. A wooden wedge attached to the armature through a hole in the wall behind the sculpture fixes it in place.

3.The padded figure is covered with plaster mud. A mixture of local washed clay with fine sand and added fiber was suited to the shaping of the sculpture. The mud can be fine or coarse depending on the percentage and kind of fiber used. A coarse mud made by mixing the clay with straw is used for the general shape of the statue. A fine mud is made with thirty-percent fine sand and seventy-percent clay mixed with cotton or the like. It is used to shape the face, clothing folds, and accessories.

4.Tools are used to model and refine the surface.

5.Clay molds were extensively used in ancient times to make reliefs on the central pillars or side walls and for the accessories of free-standing sculpture. In addition, prefabrication of parts of the statues (e.g. the heads of small statues, the fingers and toes of large statues) was also used, which not only saved time and labor, but also took into account the vulnerability of the accessories, fingers and toes, so that they could be replaced if damaged.

Depiction of flying apsaras from Cave 420, Mogao Grottoes. Sui dynasty (581-618). Replica by Li Qiqiong and Huo Xiliang.