Sandpainting is the art of pouring colored sands, powdered pigments from minerals or crystals, and pigments from other natural or synthetic sources onto a surface to make a fixed, or unfixed sand painting. Unfixed sand paintings have a long established cultural history in numerous social groupings around the globe, and are often temporary, ritual paintings prepared for religious or healing ceremonies. It is also referred to as drypainting.
Drypainting is practiced by Native Americans in the Southwestern United States, by Tibetan and Buddhist monks, as well as Australian Aborigines, and also by Latin Americans on certain Christian holy days.
Native American sandpainting
In the sandpainting of southwestern Native Americans (the most famous of which are the Navajo), the Medicine Man (or Hatałii) paints loosely upon the ground of a hogan, where the ceremony takes place, or on a buckskin or cloth tarpaulin, by letting the colored sands flow through his fingers with control and skill. There are 600 to 1000 different traditional designs for sandpaintings which are known to the Navajo. They do not view the paintings as static objects, but as spiritual, living beings to be treated with great respect. More than 30 different sandpaintings may be associated with one ceremony.
The colors for the painting are usually accomplished with naturally colored sand, crushed gypsum (white), yellow ochre, red sandstone, charcoal, and a mixture of charcoal and gypsum (blue). Brown can be made by mixing red and black; red and white make pink. Other coloring agents include corn meal, flower pollen, or powdered roots and bark.
The paintings are for healing purposes only. Many of them contain images of Yeibicheii (the Holy People). While creating the painting, the medicine man will chant, asking the yeibicheii to come into the painting and help heal the patient.
When the medicine man finishes painting, he checks its accuracy. The order and symmetry of the painting symbolize the harmony which a patient wishes to reestablish in his or her life. The accuracy of a sandpainting is believed to determine its efficacy as a sacred tool. The patient will be asked to sit on the sandpainting as the medicine man proceeds with the healing chant. The sandpainting acts as a portal to attract the spirits and allow them to come and go. Sitting on the sandpainting helps the patient to absorb spiritual power, while in turn the Holy People will absorb the illness and take it away. Afterward, when the sandpainting has done its duty, it is considered to be toxic, since it has absorbed the illness. For this reason, the painting is destroyed. Because of the sacred nature of the ceremonies, the sandpaintings are begun, finished, used, and destroyed within a 12-hour period.
The ceremonies involving sandpaintings are usually done in sequences, termed ‘chants’, lasting a certain number of days depending on the ceremony. At least one fresh, new sandpainting is made for each day.
Some Navajo laws and taboos relate to the sandpaintings, and protect their holiness:
- Women are not supposed to sing the chants associated with the yeibicheii. This is both because the ceremony has a possibility of injuring an unborn child, and because of a taboo preventing menstruating women from attending. (Many cultures considered menstruation and presence of blood to be powerful spiritual events that had to be restrained, as they represented life forces.) Post-menopausal women are more likely to be chanters or diagnosticians.
- One is not supposed to pretend to be a medicine man creating a sandpainting, or mock the medicine man in any way by mimicking him. Both the medicine man and the yeibicheii may punish you.
- Authentic sandpaintings are rarely photographed, so as to not disrupt the flow of the ceremony. For many reasons, medicine men will seldom allow outsiders inside a sacred ceremony. Because so many outsiders are curious about sandpainting, some medicine men may create pieces for exhibition purposes only, using reversed colors and variations. To create an authentic sandpainting solely for viewing would be a profane act. The sandpaintings for sale in shops and on the Internet are commercially produced and contain purposeful errors, as the real sandpaintings are considered sacred.
- The earliest credited instance of traditional Navajo sandpaintings (being rendered in colored sands as opposed to tapestry or other media) being created in a permanent form for commercial sale, have been traced to the period between 1945 and 1955. The main credit is generally given to a Navajo Hatałii named Fred Stevens, Jr. (Grey Squirrel), who developed the primary method of “permatizing” for commercial sandpaintings that is still in use today.
Indigenous Australian sandpainting
Indigenous Australian art has a history which covers more than 30,000 years, and a wide range of native traditions and styles. These have been studied in recent decades and their complexity has gained increased international recognition. Aboriginal Art covers a wide variety of media, including sandpainting, painting on leaves, wood carving, rock carving, sculpture, and ceremonial clothing, as well as artistic embellishments found on weaponry and also tools. Art is one of the key rituals of Aboriginal culture. It was and still is, used to mark territory, record history, and tell stories about “The Dreaming“.
The sand is carefully placed on a large, flat table. The construction process takes several days, and the mandala is destroyed shortly after its completion. This is done as a teaching tool and metaphor for the “impermanence” (Pali: anicca) of all contingent and compounded phenomena (Sanskrit: Pratītya-samutpāda).
The mandala sand-painting process begins with an opening ceremony, during which the lamas, or Tibetan priests, consecrate the site and call forth the forces of goodness. They chant, declare intention, mudra, asana, pranayama, do visualisations, play music, recite mantras, etc.
On the first day, the lamas begin by drawing an outline of the mandala to be painted on a wooden platform. The following days see the laying of the colored sands, which is effected by pouring the sand from traditional metal funnels called chak-pur. Each monk holds a chak-pur in one hand, while running a metal rod on its serrated surface; the vibration causes the sands to flow like liquid.
Formed of traditional prescribed iconography that includes geometric shapes and a multitude of ancient spiritual symbols (e.g.: Ashtamangala and divine attributes of yidam), seed syllables, mantra, the sand-painted mandala is used as a tool or instrument for innumerable purposes. A primary purpose is to reconsecrate the earth and its inhabitants.
The development of permanent sandpaintings from the 15th to the 20th century
Japanese tray pictures
From the 15th c. in Japan, Buddhist artists in the times of the shoguns practiced the craft of bonseki by sprinkling dry colored sand and pebbles onto the surface of plain black lacquered trays. They used bird feathers as brushes to form the sandy surface into seascapes and landscapes. These tray pictures were used in religious ceremonies. Japanese esoteric Buddhism was transmitted from East Central Asia after the eighth century, and thus these Japanese Buddhist sandpaintings may share earlier historical roots with the more intricate brightly coloured Buddhist sand mandalas created by Tibetan Buddhist monks.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the royal courts of Europe employed “table deckers”, who decorated the side tables at royal banquets having adapted the craft of ‘bonseki’ from the Japanese. The table deckers sprinkled coloured sands, marble dust, sugars, etc. upon the surface of plain white tablecloths to create unfixed pictures of fruit, flowers, birds and rustic scenery. In between each design spaces were left for fruit bowls and sweetmeat dishes so that the diners could refresh themselves in between the main courses of the feast. These ornate pictures were discarded along with the debris of the meal.
As a fine example of the table deckers’ craft, Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, England possesses an ornate folding screen with three panels, decorated with sand pictures protected by glass. The centre one has five spaces for sweetmeat pyramid dishes while the two side leaves of the screen have three spaces for fruit trays. There are four sand pictures in each corner of the side panels of the screen, featuring 18th-century pastoral scenes, while the remaining areas of the screen are decorated with butterflies, doves, fruit, flowers, etc. The screen would be laid upon the surface of a side table. It doubled as a serving base for elaborate porcelain dishes and glass trays containing fruits, bonbons and sweetmeats, from which the hosts and their guests could help themselves while socializing or stretching their legs between the multiple courses being served on the main table in the dining hall. This screen may have been the work of the German artisan F. Schweikhardt, who specialised in still-life studies in the style of the Dutch painter Jan van Huysum.
Georgian sand painting (Marmotinto)
In the 18th and 19th c. when the House of Hanover ruled in England, “table decking” was introduced to the court at Windsor Castle by sand artists from Germany. The most accomplished were George Haas, Benjamin Zobel and F. Schweikhardt. They created fixed sand paintings (marmotinto in Italian) which were highly prized for acquisition by many of the English aristocracy, including the King’s brother, the Duke of York, who commissioned a number of works by Zobel.
Zobel depicted “pigs in the manner of Morland”; “Nelson”, the favourite dog of the Duke of York; “Tiger after George Stubbs”, and an impressive “Vulture and snake.” Although many of Zobel’s works have survived, none of those by Haas has. Observers considered his work superior to that of Zobel. This may reflect the differing techniques used by each artist. A diarist observed Zobel’s coating the surface of the baseboard with a mixture of gum arabic and white lead and sprinkling sand upon the sticky surface using a folded paper funnel as a brush. He had to work quickly since the adhesive would dry in a few hours. Several of his surviving pictures have unfinished work on the reverse.
Haas followed more closely the techniques developed in Japan, but mixing dry powdered gum arabic with the sand, sprinkling the mixture through a sieve and using feathers as brushes to create the pictures upon the baseboard, then fixing them by some method which he kept a secret. Unfortunately, due to the damp conditions in many of the stately homes of the day, his pictures failed to last more than a few years. On one occasion Haas was called away while working on an unfixed sand picture. When he returned he found one of Windsor Castles’ cats curled up on the picture, damaging it.
Eventually Zobel returned to Memmingen in Bavaria where he continued to successfully pursue his craft. Some of his work is displayed in Memmingen Town Hall. The unfortunate Haas had to give up sand painting – probably due to the ongoing disasters with his pictures. He opened a bakers shop in Windsor instead, though the icing on his cakes may well have been decorated with pictures in coloured sugar instead of sand.
With the passing of these Georgian craftsmen and the disposal of the Duke of York’s collection the interest and skills evolved in sand picture work declined. The only Royal personage to take further interest in the craft was the late Queen Mary, consort to George V who bequeathed her Georgian sand paintings to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and her collection of Isle of Wight sand pictures to Carisbrooke Castle Museum on the Isle of Wight.
In the first half of the 20th century Lt.-Colonel Rybot was a keen collector of sand paintings, which were the source material of the articles written on the subject in the arts and crafts magazines of the day. Eventually 37 of his collection of sand paintings were the main feature at an auction held at Sotheby’s New Bond Street gallery on June 15, 1956.
Holiday souvenirs – Victorian sand pictures
Thousands of sites exist where it is possible to collect natural coloured sands for craftwork, with an infinite variety of colours being available around the globe varying with the contents of the mineral charged waters leeching through the sands. But for the tourist the vertical sand cliffs at Alum Bay on the Isle of Wight form the central portion of a visual geological phenomenon (best viewed after a shower of rain) which encapsulates the impressive chalk spires of The Needles and Tennyson Downs. Aspiring sand crafters are now banned from risking their lives climbing the cliffs to collect the 21 coloured sands available in the bay, and to prevent excessive damage to the environment, but the sand kiosks have in the past been there to supply their needs. Unfortunately due to mailing costs the current management are no longer able to supply quantities of Alum Bay sands by mail order.
After her marriage to Prince Albert and having chosen Osborne House near Cowes to be her new family retreat, Queen Victoria was the prime mover in the gentrification of this former backwater, local artisans benefitted from the influx of wealthy visitors, and a number of craftsmen sold their fixed sand pictures and unfixed sand jars featuring views of the Island as unique keepsakes of the Isle of Wight.
Some of these sand pictures were small and crude and left unsigned, but Edwin and John Dore of Arreton produced some fine work in the 1840s. The pictures were of postcard size and the subject matter local views such as Carisbrooke Castle, and other touristy subjects. Edwin always signed his quaint pictures in a fine hand with a mapping pen and Indian ink, one of his most successful mass produced subjects being ‘Collecting birds eggs on Needles Cliffs’. John Dore used a card embellished with a printed border of lace design on which to execute his sand pictures although the quality of his work was inferior to that of his brother.
Few of the Island sand artists filled in the sky, giving that detail a light colourwash as a finishing touch, sometimes leaving doors and windows free of sand which would be blocked in with Indian ink. In the 1860s and 1870s J. Symons of Cowes kept up the good work, producing local views much larger than postcard size, mounted in glazed oak or maple frames and signed with the artist’s signature on the reverse. The father and son team the Neates of Newport sold their works from a stall outside Carisbrooke Castle gates where visitors were offered sand pictures and sand jars priced from 1/- to 2/6 each and the son grew his fingernails abnormally long in order to distribute the sand on his pictures. During the 1930s and 1940s R.J.Snow of Lake came nearest to producing sand pictures in the manner of the Georgian craftsmen, but postcard size, although he did produce some fine commissioned work, particularly a view of Oddicombe in Devon, in which the sea and sky were also ‘painted’ in sand, but after the war years the quality of the postcard sand pictures deteriorated with the mass produced article with little taste or skill being offered for sale for a few shillings.
In the 1860s to 1890s Andrew Clemens a deaf mute born in Dubuque, Iowa, U.S.A. became the undisputed master of the craft of creating unfixed pictures using multicoloured sands collected from the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi and compressed inside glass bottles or ornate chemist jars. The subjects of his sand bottles included ornately decorated sentimental verses, sailing ships, portraits — including George Washington, as well as exotic birds, plants and animals. His sand bottles have become museum pieces and highly prized antiques which nowadays sell at auction for thousands of dollars. He exhibited his work at the St. Louis trade fair and having spent hours creating a picture in a bottle would demonstrate to an incredulous audience that the picture inside was unfixed by destroying the bottle with a hammer, but being a true showman he was never short of commissions. One customer was a soldier who came to collect a pair of jars that he had ordered for his true love, but as he held the jars aloft to admire the superb handiwork they briefly touched and in an instant smashed to pieces on the floor! But so as not to disappoint his cherie he willingly paid up for replacements to be collected during his next leave.
In the province of Drenthe in The Netherlands in the late 19th, early 20th century it was custom to use a stiff broom to sweep patterns in white sand to form simple decorations on the tiled floors of the houses, mostly for special occasions or celebrations. The next day it was swept up again. This custom was also practiced in Northern Belgium by the Dutch speaking communities while in Hekelgem, 1973 was the centenary year of the craft of “Old Zandtapijt”. The hotels and cafes would employ artisans to strew ornate sand pictures in unfixed coloured sands on the tiled floors of their premises to encourage passing tourists to halt and enjoy local hospitality on their way towards Brussels. Roger de Boeck, born in 1930, was a well-respected exponent of this craft, who used glue to fix his sand pictures to a suitable base selling them to visitors to his atelier. In addition to biblical scenes, his finest works included a portrait of H M Queen Elizabeth 1953, and President Kennedy, in the early 60s. This craft continues to this day and a booklet to celebrate the centenary was published on 1 February 1973.
In modern days, sandpainting is most often practiced during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico and the United States. Streets are decorated with sand paintings that are later swept away, symbolizing the fleeting nature of life. Of note are the sandpaintings done during the Seattle Dia De Muertos Festival, but the most exciting development has been the Performance Art of Sand Animation which has created a new wave of younger artists and also revived interest in all types of sand painting.
Present-day sand painting techniques
With a huge surge of interest in craft subjects having a serious environmental slant and a spate of craft magazines encouraging readers to try it for themselves, permanent sand painting skills have improved dramatically the quality and variety of work available in this medium and has resulted in its being included on the recently created ‘Wikicollecting’ site. The environmental aspects of a craft with which one can compose such quirky creations have much to commend them to a wider, more appreciative audience, and with the exception of the nontoxic adhesives used, all the work shown below consists of re-cycled and found materials and no preparatory drawing is made. Dry naturally occurring oxidised and mineral-charged coloured sands, perhaps with the addition of powdered charcoal to widen the palette, are sprinkled through a sieve or ‘drawn’ with a paper funnel onto the area of the picture being worked on, and then blended in – either with a discarded feather ‘brush’ or gently blown into position with a drinking straw before being permanently fixed to a plywood offcut which is used as a ‘canvas’. Having been allowed to dry, the sand painter moves on to the next section of the picture. Any minor adjustments or snags are sorted before the work is given a final coat of varnish which intensifies the depth of colour but without the disadvantage of surface reflection which occurs in the case of many oil paintings.