The importance of a strong yet subtle background cannot be underestimated in manuscript painting. Illustrations in manuscripts often accompany a particular text, or are used to highlight an important section of text. At the same time they function as decorative elements and sometimes their purpose is to increase the value of a manuscript. Manuscript painters had to master the fine balance between the subject or central motif, determined by the text, and decorative ornaments and backgrounds in a painting. The background is an important part of the composition and has a significant impact on the finished artwork: if it is too strong or blatant it dominates the rest of the painting, but a weak or neglected background leaves a large area of the painting unappealing.
In Thai manuscript art, special attention was usually paid to the design of backgrounds in paintings depicting heavenly scenes and celestial figures, whereas the backgrounds of worldly scenes were often shown in a realistic way with plants, rocks, ponds, mountains, buildings, etc. The marvellous scenes shown above are from the legend of the Buddhist monk Phra Malai, here shown during his visit to Tavatimsa heaven. The lavishly gilded red background in a flame-like pattern known in Thai as lai kranok complements the main figures and the structure of the heavenly stupa Chulamani Chedi perfectly. Red was a preferred background colour even before the 19th century, but at that time decorative elements of different sizes and shapes were strewn in randomly to fill in empty space, as shown below in the example from the 18th century.
The 19th century was a period of experiment and innovation in Thai manuscript painting. Not only were new and brighter tones for background designs introduced, but also strong and well-structured patterns like the lai kranok. Minerals to produce blue tones were expensive and rarely used in manuscript illustrations before 1800, but during the 19th century blue paints were imported from Europe and sometimes were used very lavishly to questionable artistic effect.
In the image above the strong blue background used for the central part of Buddhist text passages in Pali language, written in gold ink, is almost overwhelming. It is unlikely that the excessive use of blue was the painter’s decision, but rather the request of the person(s) who commissioned the manuscript. Bright blue tones became very fashionable during the 19th century and together with the gold ink they made the manuscript appear more valuable. In the illustrations of the gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right) together with other celestial beings, however, the painter decided to use blue tones very sparingly in the lai kranok pattern which has a bright red as its basic tone, very much in the pre-1800 tradition.
The usual way to record text in illustrated Thai folding books was to write it in black ink on the naturally cream-coloured paper as shown above. Sometimes, the paper was blackened and the text recorded in yellow ink or white steatite pencil. The image above shows illustrations of the gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right), both before a background dominated by red. The lai kranok pattern makes use of white, blue, green and pink tones. The figures are kneeling on a blue ground that is decorated with gold floral patterns.
Besides the lai kranok pattern, floral background designs enjoyed great popularity throughout the 19th century. The use of floral patterns for backgrounds was a further development of the already well-established application of flowers and foliage as decorative elements in manuscript illustrations of worldly scenes before the 19th century, though not in strictly structured, pattern-like designs.
Flowers are not only aesthetically enhancing elements in Thai manuscript painting. They can also symbolise a peaceful and enjoyable environment as well as positive thoughts and beautiful minds. This can be assumed in the case of the illustrations above, showing four Buddhist monks seated in meditation or while chanting Pali texts at a funeral. Although the floral pattern of white-and-pink blossoms with foliage in green tones on a dark brown foundation is very strong and distinctive, it does not overpower the four figures in the foreground. The monks’ appearance is presented in very bright colours, dominated by an almost white cream tone and an intense orange so that they stand out before the darker background.
The following three manuscript illustrations feature similar floral background patterns which aim to enhance the appearance of the god Brahma, a red Hanuman figure and a hermit.
Simpler floral background patterns that were frequently used consisted of triple blossoms, single or multi-coloured, combined with a green leaf as shown in the image below. An even more simplified floral pattern consisted of a combination of dots arranged in such a way that they resembled multiple blossoms on trees. Such simpler floral patterns were also used to decorate curtains or carpets which sometimes appear in manuscript paintings.
Another frequent background pattern in Thai manuscript painting is the cloud pattern. Consisting of distinctively shaped white or light blue clouds on a bright blue foundation, this pattern usually accompanies celestial beings to show their heavenly environment. The cloud pattern often resembles clouds that were used in East Asian manuscript decoration (compare, for example, the Vietnamese Truyện Kiều) and may have been adopted from East Asian traditions.
The manuscript paintings shown above are fine examples where larger and smaller clouds were combined to form a light-blue and white background pattern that contrasts and enhances the presentation in yellow, orange and red tones of celestial beings (devata) and Metteyya, the Buddha-to-be, in their heavenly environment.
A clear example of neglect in the background design can be seen in the illustrations below. Although the artist put considerable effort into the execution of the celestial beings, paying much attention to details of their clothes and jewellery which are presented in gold, yellow and orange tones, the background design is really bland with broad white brushstrokes thrown wildly on a blue foundation.
It is difficult to explain such carelessness in the presentation of the background. The painter may have been under pressure to finish illustrating the manuscript; or maybe he wanted to experiment with foreign water-colour painting techniques which he had not mastered yet. It may also be the work of two painters, one of whom was not very skilled or an apprentice. Another possibility is that the manuscript was produced at one of the many commercial workshops that had sprung up in Bangkok during the second half of the 19th century where numerous low-quality manuscripts and affordable copies of older, more valuable manuscripts were produced by less skilled artists.
This article first appeared on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog.