My name is Ben Christian, in Tibetan my name is Jampay Dorje. I am a digital artist working to preserve the teachings of the Buddha through art. I divide my time between solitary retreat, teaching, and art. I have studied Dharma extensively over the past 12 years, primarily with Geshe Michael Roach, Lama Christie McNally, Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, Geshe Sonam Rinchen and Lama Chodak Rinpoche.
Below you will find a Q&A section explaining all about my art and this website. If you would like to contact me feel free to email at the address below. I spend a good part of my time in retreat, so don’t be offended if I can’t reply right away.
How the images are made
Q. How do you create your images?
The images are made primarily in Photoshop, I also use ArtRage for linework, and occasionally Poser for modelling.
Q. Why did you start painting thangkas digitally?
I had a friend who did a wonderful image of Lama Tsongkapa using only a mouse and a very old version of Photoshop. This got me to thinking, and eventually I did some practice images and began developing the techniques that I use today. The advantage is editability and speed, I can produce a finished image in around a quarter of the time it takes to paint traditionally. The challenge is to get the digital look out of the image, and get it looking closer to a painting.
Q. What equipment do you use?
Right now I am using a Wacom 24HD, iPad Pro with Pencil and 13HD Cintiq. My main computer is a 15inch Macbook Pro. For many years I used a 13 inch laptop with Wacom’s smallest tablet. You don’t need very expensive equipment, but a Wacom tablet is indispensable. I cant recommend the Cintiq highly enough – if you can afford it.
Q. How can I learn digital painting?
Its actually very easy to do. The techniques are virtually identical to the way modern cartoons are produced, so there is a wealth of information out there. I recommend a magazine called ImagineFX, each edition is packed with excellent information and resources. Basically you want to follow a work flow that produces an outline, colour flats and then shading, all on different layers in Photoshop.
Q. Where did you learn to paint thangkas?
I am totally self taught, but maybe have some karmic seeds from a past life. I once did a very powerful retreat, at the end of the retreat the images and techniques started pouring into me, prior to that I couldn’t paint at all. From then on I did a lot of illustration work for my Lamas over a period of about 5 years. In retrospect I feel very blessed that my Lamas never placed any boundaries on my art. They would tell me what needed illustrating, and left the rest to me, it was a very special time, and it allowed me to develop my own style.
Q. Is your work influenced by any other artists?
My biggest influences have been the work of Robert Beer and Andy Weber. I feel like Robert really met the deities and Mahasiddhas in his work. I think his linework and sense of design is immaculate, I copy his style a lot. I think Andy also changed the face of modern thangka painting. He introduced many of us to the deities in a very beautiful way.
Q. What reference material do you use for your work?
I have a personal database of around 1500 images collected from various museums around the world, most notably from the Rubin Museum in New York. These are my main source of reference, I don’t have any traditional training, so I rely heavily on these for iconography and inspiration.
Q. Is there any particular work that has influenced you?
The single piece of art that changed my life was the image on the cover of a book called The Garden, by Geshe Michael Roach. The first time I saw this image I was overwhelmed by the complex narrative that such a simple image could contain. I could almost smell the profundity. From that moment on I was totally inspired to create my own art, and I wanted to include as much narrative in my images as possible.
The problem was that I couldn’t draw or paint, so I went into retreat to ask for blessings, to be able to express the Dharma through art. For this reason I include an image description with each of my works so that the viewer can get as much from the image as possible. In old Tibet, when a thangka was commissioned, the Lama would go to the artist and explain their personal vision, how they wanted the image to feel and look. Then the artist would attempt to put that vision on the canvas, perhaps adding a little of their own vision.
Its immensely sad to me that the story and the image get separated over time, and we lose the vision of the great Lamas. Out of the thousands of thangkas that survived from old Tibet, there are almost none that have any documented account of their meaning. We understand the central figure, but the real story, the teaching, is going on in the minor figures and landscape. Take a look at an old thangka and you will see what I am talking about. I think we can really only account for about 50% of the story contained in these images, sometimes much less. To me they are like books, with half their pages missing, it’s such a loss.
Q. What images can we expect to see in the future?
I just finished the series of images you see on this website, these will eventually go into a large handbound artbook, which I will sell to raise money for ACIP. Right now I am working on a very large project to completely illustrate the 11 Yogas of Naropa. I expect this project will be finished around 2020. As the images become available I will put many of them on this website. Most of them will be secret, so availability will be limited. For those who understand and follow this practice it should be an exciting time.
Q. How long does it take to make an image?
Usually about a month, between 100 and 200 hours.
Q. Can I download and redistribute the images on this website?
Sure, I want as many people as possible to benefit from my art, and in addition to that, I don’t really feel like I own the images anyway. The image of a deity is very precious, restricting people’s access to it doesn’t seem right to me. Many artists rely on their work as a source of income, I am fortunate that this isn’t the case for me, so I can be a little more generous. As thangka artists we don’t create anything new, Buddha is Buddha, we just interpret a little.
That said, I refuse the usage of any of my images to promote personal financial gain, violence, sectarianism, or any other usage that is against the vowed morality of Buddhism.
I don’t intend to put any high resolution images on this website of the deities who belong to the practice of Secret Mantra. To do so would be in conflict with the vows that relate to secret practice. If you practice a certain Tantra, and you find that I have a restricted image that supports that practice, feel free to contact me at the address above, and I can email you a copy.
Q. If I buy a print or donate where does the money go?
I give 100% of the money that I receive from prints and donations to ACIP. This means that the reproduction and postage costs are actually covered by me, I lose money on each sale. It’s a backwards business principle, where generosity is more important than financial gain… I am hoping this will catch on.
Q. Who is ACIP and why do you donate to them?
ACIP is the Asian Classic Input Project. It is an organisation started by my Lama, Geshe Michael Roach. ACIP locates, digitally preserves, and catalogues Buddhist scripture in a way that is searchable and openly available to scholars at no cost. I personally feel very connected to this work, it will become immensely important to future scholars and students. More information can be found on their website here.