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Painting Materials

The brilliantly colored decorations on the altar were created using gilding, distemper paint (pigments suspended in animal glue), and raised decoration called khyung bur in Tibetan.

Gilding, the process of applying thin layers of real gold to an object’s surface, is a favored method of enriching the appearance of furniture. On this altar, less costly metals such as tin (a white metal) and brass (a yellow alloy of copper and zinc) have been manipulated to imitate gold. Tin was used for the majority of the gilding on this altar. To make it appear golden, the tin leaf (such as that found on the raised khyung bur) was tinted with an oily mixture of turmeric, saffron, and other yellow colorants. Brass flake and brass leaf can be seen in subtle contrast with the tin leaf on the breastplate of the protector deity on a door of the right-most upper cabinet.

Detail of the breastplate of a protector deity with three gilding materials: brass flake, brass leaf, and tin leaf. These metals impart contrasting colors and textures to the decorative surfaces.

A variety of synthetic and natural pigments were used to create the decorations on the altar. For example, on the upper left-most door panel depicting the pair of cranes, the dominant background color utilizes red lead. Other contrasting pigments include emerald green (in the pine tree needles and the bird feathers), and lead white outlined with indigo (in the water). The entire scene is framed with stylized lotus flowers and scrolling vine patterns colored with emerald green, orpiment (yellow), and ultramarine (blue). Tibetan color theory revels in the use of alternating layers of colors, such as the varying shades of yellow and orange in the lotus petals.

(Tibetan Name)
English Name
(Tibetan Name)
Chemical Name;
Chemical Formula
White (Kar-po)

Lead white a,b Basic lead carbonate; 2PbCO3•Pb(OH)2
Red (Mar-po) Vermilion (Tshal) a,b Mercuric sulfide; HgS
Orange (Li-khri or Tso-ma) Red lead (Li-khri) a,b Lead tetraoxide; Pb3O4
Yellow (Ser-po) Orpiment (Ba-la) a,b Arsenic sulfide; A2S3
(Jang-ku) Emerald green a,c Copper acetoarsenite;
Blue (Ngon-po) Ultramarine a,c Sodium aluminum silicate with sulfur;
Indigo (Rams) a,c Indigotin; C16H10N2O2

Methods used to identify pigment:
aScanning electron microscopy–energy dispersive spectrometry; bRaman spectroscopy; c Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy.