The Patience Test and the making of a miniature artist

If you ever wondered about the process of learning Indian miniature painting in the traditional way, or what steps are involved to build confidence over time as a miniature artist, then read on!

The first time I saw Indian miniature painting was at a Bikaner studio run by artist Narvin Swami and his family, there I was fortunate enough to learn under his guidance.  I was given some paintings in siyah qalam, or monochrome – to use as reference to practice lining and the technique of pardaz (shading). Within a few days I made a some lotuses, a horse head, camel head, an elephant, and a Mughal figure.

My earliest miniatures – December 2015

Coming from an asian background, brush work was not too unfamiliar to me, but as you can see above, my hands have not yet acquired the delicacy or steadiness for painting in such minute scale. Narvin sir must have seen it clearly in the clumsy lines and messy strokes, so the next practice was what I call a patience test.

Work from January, 2016

Each single the hair of the squirrel has to be painted with a minute stoke, lightly with the tip of the brush – the point where the single hair of the brush touches the paper. Care must be given that these strokes are applied evenly, neatly, and every single hair shown separately. The master artwork which I used as reference (not pictured here), was breathtaking in that the hair was rendered so soft and blends beautifully to reflect curves and depth, and there was not a trace of harshness to be found.

The darker parts were built with layers – each single hair one by one, and by the third layer, when it was not called complete, I was really frustrated. I was questioning in my mind why it needs to be so perfect and detailed, and I was so keen to start on the next painting. But at the same time, something in me knew better to just keep going.

Any traditional artist would have gone through one’s own test. My guruji in Jaipur, Ramu Ramdev, once told me that in the beginning, he was made to grind khadiya stone (white chalk) for three months, without even touching the brush. The process is done by immersing khadiya in water in a large container, and the artist grinds it repeatedly against a marble slab in a circular motion – that was what he had to do all day.

Decades after that, as he told me, he was grateful for the experience as the motion of grinding was so ingrained in him, that it had prepared his hands with the smoothness and force when he picked up a brush.

Patience is a delicate thing, pushing it beyond the limit, one bites off more than what he can chew, and he would never want to touch it again; but, when applied to just the right pressure, and the artist managed to pass the test, the reward would be multiplied in ways unthinkable until much later.

Work from March 2017, the original painting referenced was by Mughal artist Muhammad Ali c. mid 17th century.

When I moved on to the Jaipur studio, even after a long break, I was able to use the technique of khat pardaz – shading with minute parallel lines. In retrospective I’m super grateful that the patience test was given to me, the painstaking work of lining each single hair of the squirrel had formed a muscle memory, and set a standard of craftsmanship for the rest of my creative path.

Work from July-Aug 2017 (artist of reference painting unknown).

In just a few months, I was to paint much more delicate and complex works. The inner frame of this piece was about A4 size, and I was definitely nervous when it comes to the most important part – the face, but my guruji had confidence in me that I could nail all the tiny details, down to the eyelash. This took about a month to complete, and was probably another patience test to enter the next level of work.

This kind of training is perhaps an unique feature of the traditional arts, in which value placed on craftsmanship is as much, if not more than on originality. I hope it doesn’t come across as overwhelming to you, but rather give you a speck of inspiration on your artistic pursuit, that this temperament of patience and devotion you develop now, will give you the most freeing and satisfying creative experience in time.

Do you have any question about learning Indian miniature painting? or have experiences of your own patience tests that you’d like to share? I would love to hear from you💛

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