A special Thangka painter's journey to art

One winter morning, the 29-year-old Dondrup Chophel got up. He first had a bowl of Tibetan noodles, then made a pot of yak butter tea and put it within his reach. Then, he added water to mineral colors for Thangka painting in a small electric pot, warmed the mixture until the colors melted, then blended the colors.

This is the preparation Chophel does every day before he creates Thangka painting. Then, he moves himself from his wheelchair to a Tibetan-style day bed near the window and begins his work for the day, coloring the Thangka painting.

Wheelchair-user Chophel is an unique Thangka painting artist. When he was two years old, polio caused him to become paralyzed in his lower body.

He had great grades in his elementary and middle-school years. His dream was to go to college, majoring in literature or something similar, and become a writer when he graduated.

But the journey to college was very challenging. During elementary school, his school was next to his house, so his parents or relatives were able to help carry him back and forth. In 2006, he started middle school. His classroom was on the third floor, and with the school's help, his classroom and dormroom was moved to the first floor and he was able to continue school.

"I was even the class supervisor in middle school," said Chophel proudly. During middle school, his grades were always top among his peers, he was even accepted to a Lhasa high school with a high score. Later on, due to various reasons, he stopped his studies and came back home.

"I was really sad, I thought my dream was slipping further and further away," said Chophel. After feeling listless for one month, he decided to take his uncle's advice and study Thangka painting.

Chophel spent two years studying basic illustration at a professional school in Maizhokunggar County. In 2011, he came to Lhasa to continue his training at the Tibet Training and Professional Institute for the Disabled.

In 2014, after graduating from the institute, Chophel studied with Pasang, a Miantang style Thangka artisan. From that point on, he began helping his teacher draw Thangka painting.

Chophel said traditional Miantang style Thangka painting had fixed and fundamental standards, and it'd be impossible to become a qualified Thangka artist without years of intense learning.

In 2016, Chophel began creating Thangka painting independently. "I remember spending more than two months to create my first piece of Thangka painting, it was a picture of the Palden Lhamo Goddess, which sold for 5,000 yuan (720 US dollars)." That was his first income and was very meaningful to him.

Wrapping the canvas, polishing the canvas, mixing the colors, composing, shaping, measuring, coloring, blending, lining... Chophel explained the entire process of creating Thangka painting patiently. "The last step is adding the eyes, and it is a critical step in Thangka painting; you have to use the fewest lines to add soul to the art."

Chophel creates about five pieces of Thangka paiting per year. He thinks he still has a long way to go in studying. For the next step, he wants to find a famous mentor in his school of Thangka painting to improve his techniques and theoretical knowledge.

Nowadays, Chophel and his friends use his living room as an art studio. Every day, they drink tea and create art under the warm sun. Sometimes on the weekends, he'd go to the basketball court to play with fellow wheelchair basketball players.