For the duration of my stay in Vrindavan I was fortunate enough to attend the first ever BBT art seminar, taught by the legendary artists, Ramdas Abhirama das and Dhrti dasi. The course was run over three weeks in an apartment block, just down the road from the Krsna Balarama temple. On the first day, along with introductions our teachers gave a short talk about our their experiences, painting for Srila Prabhupada’s books since the very early days.
They showed us some of their most famous paintings, and explained the methods they used to inspire and develop them. During the course, we would all be developing one painting of Lord Krsna, which we had been asked to think about before we arrived. As usual, I hadn’t really decided on anything and I soon realised I would have to get to work if I was going to make the most of the course. That night I came up with some ideas, which we then developed the next day. The days soon developed a regular routine. In the morning, we would practise drawing from life, with a young Brijbasi man that had been enlisted for the job.
He was initially quite stiff, posing for us as we did one minute, then five and ten minute sketches; but soon he seemed to be quite enjoying it! In the afternoons, we would work on our own painting, first developing the figure sketch; then working on a tonal sketch to map out areas of light and shade; and finally the colour sketch to plan and test our chosen colour palette for the painting. Most of these steps were executed on a very small scale – just tiny thumbnails to give a general picture.
Occasionally, we would meet in the early morning to paint, normally in nearby gardens, or at the goshalla, where we could practise landscape painting as the sun rose. I struggled with it – I had never painted with oils before and never even attempted landscape painting from life, so it was a challenge, but watching others who were more capable, was inspiring and a real education. Ramdas in particular was fascinating to watch. His speciality is outdoor painting and it was amazing to see the landscape appear like magic on his canvas, as he expertly blended the colours.
By the end of the second week, most of us were itching to start our paintings after so much preparation, and we soon got stuck in – first sketching, then slowly building up the areas of colour, all the time referring to our preparatory sketches. This experience was totally new to me. I’m not much of a painter, and I almost never have the patience to prepare so thoroughly for a piece of artwork. I had never even done this kind of painting before, where we were striving for such realism.
One of the things that Ramdas talked about on the first day was this challenge of presenting the spiritual world. He told us Srila Prabhupada stressed that people shouldn’t look at our paintings and think that these are made up characters and stories. He wanted people to really see and understand that Krsna is real – this was very important in developing the style of painting so unique to ISKCON. The artists drew greatly from paintings from the Renaissance to the 18th century, when traditional techniques and highly realistic portrayal of figures and landscapes were still prevalent.
We all tried to remember this as we painted and questions arose constantly. How can I make Krsna’s body look divine, whilst still humanlike and real? How blue is he actually? How much should his facial features be stylised (e.g. lotus eyes) ? Luckily we had such experienced guides on hand to answer all of them for us and this, along with watching them paint every day, gave us invaluable help.
I struggled with my painting, right up until the last day or two. I hadn’t done quite enough preparation, especially with the figure and working out the background, and I continually found myself staring at it, not really sure what I wanted to do next.
Working into the dusk…
I almost gave up, feeling quite discouraged and lured by the prospect of all the other activities going on during Kartik. However, after some help from Dhrti prabhu, I felt encouraged that I could finish what I had started.
On the last afternoon, I painted for hours. The hall where we painted was quiet – most people hadn’t come in that day. Suddenly, the painting began to come to life, to me, almost by accident! I wasn’t quite sure how things were starting to appear but slowly slowly, a background emerged, sunlight came in through the trees, Krsna’s parrots flew in and a pomegranate fell onto the ground!
Then I realised that Krsna was helping me. Doing this painting perfectly illustrated to me that Krsna really is the ability in man. I know I didn’t have the skill to do it myself, but being in the potent surroundings of Sri Vrindavan Dham with such wonderful devotee artists was a special experience.
My beautiful friend Radhe from France, working on her painting
That evening, senior managing members of the BBT came to see our paintings.
Dhrti’s painting – she’s a true expert…
One of Ramdas’s paintings – he did two!
When they were finished, I picked up all my things and carried out my canvas. I prayed that I wouldn’t have any accidents – crashes or splashes – on the way home. The sun was setting as I walked down the back streets, past rows of ashrams and sleeping cows. I passed a Russian couple who stopped me to look at the painting and exclaimed approvingly(in Russian). I prayed that they could see Krsna really there in the painting – I realised that that should be the aim. It was a quiet ending to an intensive experience and as I finally reached my room and put down my painting, safe and sound, I felt so grateful to have had the opportunity.
My painting still isn’t finished. I have now completely repainted Krsna’s face and changed many details, but I feel enthusiastic to finally finish it and start planning some new ones…