Coming into Tibet

A series of paintings by BiLan Liao

BiLan into Tibet
30 in x 24 in
Oil on Canvas

     I have had a long time appreciation for Tibet, and I have spent much time there. When I began traveling to Tibet, it was a very difficult place to visit; however, it is more fantastic than can be imagined. It is a land with a deeply religious people and immense contrast: snowy peaks and sand deserts, barren plateaus and forested mountains, empty expanses and crowded cities.
     I am very interested in the people of Tibet, their religion, their distinctive culture, and their beautiful colors. It is very amazing to me that Tibetan people all have a commonality in culture and religion, even though they live in very different environments in Tibet and other states in China. Their clothes and style are similar; Tibetans love bright, colorful clothes and jewelry to decorate themselves. Usually, one can see their social status from the quality of the clothes they wear.
     Coming into Tibet celebrates the Tibetan people by depicting their religion, spirit, their daily lives, the rich colors and patterns of their clothing, and their architecture. The paintings are based upon personal observations in Tibet with the support of my photography. They provide an introduction to Tibet and its people from my perspective.
     John Singer Sargent is known for his commissioned portraits; his works are great in the emotion in peoples?faces, and also he valued his freedom to choose the subjects and styles of his travel paintings. His travel paintings combine impressionist color and naturalistic form to create his unique style. Sargent's work has greatly influenced my techniques and methods.
     My paintings have also been influenced by Edward Hopper's process and approach to color. Hopper's use of cool colors for shadows and warm colors to depict light have heavily influenced my work.
     Monet is my hero; to me, he is the greatest international painter of all time. He developed an Impressionist style, new aesthetic, new view of principles of art, and new techniques. Monet's Impressionism creates a sense of real emotion in his paintings. My work has also been influenced by Monet's technique: color and effect of light, atmospheric movement, fascinating simultaneous contrast, and analogous hues constituting a harmony.
     The Coming into Tibet series of paintings combines impressionistic color with realistic forms distilled from observation. The realistic forms symbolize the hard lives of the Tibetan people, and the impressionistic colors represent their religious spirit and rich culture. In this way, I combine realism, impressionism and naturalism to show colorful and lifelike scenes.

Hope and Prayer
Oil on Canvas

     Hope and Prayer is a part of the Coming into Tibet series of paintings depicting Tibetan subjects. Every July, Tibet celebrates the Xuedeng festival in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, claimed by the People's Republic of China. This ancient sprawling city, settled approximately 1,300 years ago, is the region's political, economic, and cultural center, as well as the sacred place of Tibetan Buddhism. It is also one of the highest cities in altitude in the world.
     Tibetans and others come from near and far to Lhasa for religious purposes. The painting is about a family who has come to Lhasa and dream to see God's heaven in the sky, where they pray for their hopes. Huge silken portraits of Buddha cover the high mountainsides during the day. In this painting, I realistically rendered each of the pious prayers, their eyes all focused, looking upward into the sky. I was attempting to depict their deeper feelings and convictions about their own nature, philosophy, and need for religious centering. I used warm, subtle colors to render their faces to achieve this emotional effect. Because the Tibetan land is so high above sea level, the colors in the faces become more intense due to the high elevation. The people are wearing colorful clothing and a variety of cultural adornments. I used rich middle tones in a variety of colors to render the religious images in the background, which represent very important beliefs of the Tibetan people.

The painting, Inscribing Old Man with Jokhang Temple, shows a Tibetan inscribing God's words on a stone below the imposing structure of the Jokhang Temple. The Jokhang Temple, close to Lhasa, was built many hundreds of years ago. It is a gigantic architectural complex and a spiritual center in Tibet. Many mythical stories surround the Jokhang Temple. Pilgrims and other visitors come to the Jokhang Temple to look for their dreams and make wishes for their future. Sometimes, these wishes come true -- including mine. When I visited the Jokhang Temple, I was attracted to the spectacle of this man inscribing his God's words on the stone in front of the Jokhang Temple. Local people told me that he had come to this place and had been inscribing for some thirty years. I wanted to photograph him and the Jokhang Temple to use for my future painting. However, although it was during the day, it was a cloudy day. After I had been on this scene for a short time, I could see that a storm was brewing in the sky. The ambiance of the place was a powerful influence upon me. I so believed that if I fervently prayed to God, God would bring the sun to me. So, I waited and waited throughout the afternoon. Within a very short period of time, the sky went very dark, and then lightness showed through the clouds. Suddenly a storm burst upon the landscape, with torrential rain, and much lightning and thunder. As people ran away to look for shelter from the rain, the old man continued to inscribe, and whether from divine intervention or the most amazing coincidence, no rain fell on the small place in which he was set. Then, almost instantly, the sky changed to very blue and dark blue violet, then suddenly the sun appeared, shining on the temple and the old man, and a colorful rainbow appeared, as if it were a bridge from one of the buildings of the temple complex to the dark sky. In this way, I was inspired to paint the scene.      In this painting, I realistically rendered the man's wrinkles in his face, deep gray of his hair, and the concentration of the movement of his hand to represent his hard life. I designed the composition in the form of a long path: from the old man, using the Jokhang Temple as a bridge, to the sky, where the rainbow in the dark blue sky carries his dream to God's heaven. Further, I used the effects of light, and rich, warm colors on the temple to show the Tibetan religious spirit and their rich culture.

In the painting Dawa with His Mother, two people are shown: Dawa, which means son in the Tibetan language, and his mother. The mother has just taken a break from inscribing religious sculptures. They now take their break to eat some candy. This painting combines impressionistic color and naturalistic form. The two figures are very naturally set in the beautiful landscape; the colors are bright and colorful, the values are carefully arranged. The conception in this painting is a representation of their natural life. They are consuming that which many people might take for granted, finding great joy in the simplest of things. The two figures are rendered in much more detail than the background. This painting contains much bright color and also renders an atmosphere for the landscape.

     In Tibet, monks are often seen hurriedly walking through vast fields of grass. A representation of such an image is seen in the painting Pilgrims. This painting depicts the monks in an Impressionist style, the fleeting of the brush corresponding with the fleeting movement of the subjects. The sharp contrast in hue between the figures and the landscape, in conjunction with the sharpness of the figures superimposed against a background highly affected by atmospheric perspective, brings the figures strongly to the fore.
     While in Tibet, I learned that most Tibetan families have one person who becomes a monk. They believe that this brings the family closer to God. They seem very devoted to and proud of their religion. In most small villages, the people usually have their own temple, and each family will provide food to support the temple. Religion is a very important part of Tibetan life. The monks travel from village to village and city to city, teaching the people, but also themselves on a pilgrimage to enlightenment.

     Throughout Tibet, one can see young monks communing in small groups. Often, these young monks are seen in cities, particularly close to a temple, where they are usually seated, collecting without solicitation the generous donations of passersby. Such a scene is shown in the painting Contributions, representing five young monks taking contributions for their temple, while they contribute their lives to God. Much money is in a bag and on the ground, money given by people who pass by. The woman on the left is shown helping the young monks organize their collection of money. One young monk's face is portrayed as weary. They may have sat in this location all day to obtain the contributions. These young monks have not the innocence and heartiness of young children who often have some time within their day for play. These young monks instead are burdened with long hours of heavy religious responsibilities. I used a realistic style to capture the young monks?complex of mental distractions and emotional faces. The warm red tone is used to provide the effect of a religious environment in the painting.

The painting Conversation is representative of a Tibetan way of living. The two cows almost seem to be having a good conversation after their day of work, as the sunlight brings warmth to them. The wall of the house has a beautiful pattern in the background, in which I used variety in the brushwork, and a repetition of forms and colors, to create continuation and rhythm. Although many people outside Tibet may not know it, this pattern on the actual house wall comes from cow dung, hand mixed with hay and dried in the Tibetan sun. The hand prints can be seen in this material that has been placed on the wall. Once dried, it is taken from the wall throughout the year for use as a household fuel.

Many Tibetans lead a nomadic life, living very simply, using horses for transportation. They move from place to place due to their continual need to make use of land for their animals to feed. Such a way of living is depicted in the painting Long Way. The painting is representational of the Tibetan woman with her donkey, who walks along the remote land under the hot sun, both looking lost in thought. In this painting, I designed an optical contrast in size. A tall and large mountain is seen in the background. The season is summer, but snow is seen on the top of the mountain. As the woman with her donkey walks on a lower horizon line of the left edge, they seem to have a long way to go.

     The painting Where Are You From? is expressing an image of everyday Tibetan town life. This small town is located in Dege County in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Garze. My artist friend Nyima grew up in Dege County. He invited me and some other of my artist friends to visit the place, as we wanted to experience authentic Tibetan culture and observe how some Tibetan people really live.
     Many Tibetans live in tents in the mountains. They choose a place to live where the grass is good for their sheep and their horses. Sometimes, they come to town to trade their food for other things they need. The store is one of their most favorite places, to not only shop, but also a place to watch town life, which seems to fascinate them.
     In the painting Where Are you From?, two small boys with a girl sit on a counter in front of the store, while two Tibetan women stand against the wall of the store. I tried to capture their emotive stares, which I noticed as we walked into the town. All of their eyes gazed upon us, seeming to ask the question, "Where are you from"? The postures of these figures are more naturally attractive, and I tried to render Tibetan characteristics that I noticed not only in them, but in many other Tibetans as well: simplicity, relaxation, peace, and unworldliness.
     The store is surrounded by warm sunlight, and inside the store is shown a rich dark interior scene behind the forms. I was careful to present the effect of each person in beautiful color of their faces and hands and portray their inner emotions. Also their fascinating standing and sitting positions bring an interesting composition. The rough wall has contrasts with the figures?texture. I represented their colorful clothes, strong sunlight and shadow, and the reflection of light through the painting, as the reflecting light on the right lady's hand and her ring to show the interesting texture of the ring. This painting also follows the same techniques, methods, effects of light, and use of color as many of the other paintings in the Coming into Tibet series in order to create a harmony within the series.
     In Tibetan religious culture, the people do not like to have pictures taken of them, because they believe the camera can take their soul out of their body. When I was in Tibet, I had to be a snapshot photographer, to catch images of the people as a record for my future paintings.

     In the painting Sisters, I tried to capture their naturalist scene in natural light. I was very interested in representing their beautiful, colorful skin and their bashfulness. The two happy sisters are surrounded by a warm sunlight and the vibrant tonalities in the painting.

     Of all the paintings in the Coming into Tibet series, I have more memories of the little girl in my painting Shepherdess. Many snow covered mountains surround this huge area of land. The snow stays on the mountains throughout the entire year. On this particular trip, some of my artist friends and I wanted to experience the beautiful, huge natural landscape of the Tibetan interior. In order to do so, we rented a car with a Tibetan driver. Most roads were made of natural materials, and occasionally all of us had to get out to actually repair a portion of a road with stones so that we could continue on our way. We were hoping that we could meet some Tibetans, but sometimes we only could see a few shepherdesses or see someone hurrying away on a horse.
     On one occasion, we noticed far away, a beautiful snow covered mountain that attracted us. The car was not able to make it over the terrain, so we walked. On the way, I saw a young girl about eight or nine years old, carrying a large basket on her small back. She looked at me with a complex of emotions, through her eyes and on her face. She reminded me of myself when I was that age. She looked tired seemingly, from a hard life that takes away innocence and heart. She needed to take care of her family's sheep to make a living. In this area of Tibet, girls do most of the work.
     I designed the composition so the shepherdess is walking with a large basket on her back. She is surrounded by many running sheep with snow covered high mountains in the background. The shepherdess has her back to the sun, some of the mountains are in the shadow, and the sky is very blue and clear. I used warm tones to render the form; very detailed and cool tones represented the background more loosely. Atmosphere through the background and sheep brings a movement to the painting. I wanted to represent the little shepherdess?beautiful cute face and also her inner hope for a better life, a life that often eludes her. I changed the background many times to get an interesting ensemble for the painting. Another important characteristic in the painting is reflected color by sunlight. The girl's face with her earring, by the reflected sunlight, looks more colorful and improves the quality of the images.

Still Together
Oil on Canvas

     The painting, Still Together, depicts a couple who came to Lhasa to celebrate the Xuedeng festival. During the Xuedeng festival, many Tibetans find a place to stay in a park in Lhasa, and the painting shows the couple and the tent where they stayed.

Back to BiLan Liao's Home Page