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The Mughal Court Paintings

Indian Artists and Techniques

Folio from a Bhagavata Purana showing a battle between Krishna and the fire-headed demon Mura. Asia Society Collection.

Folio from a Bhagavata Purana showing a battle between Krishna and the fire-headed demon Mura. Asia Society Collection.

Indian Artists and Techniques

The painting technique used was simple, consisting of opaque
watercolor on paper. The artist began by laying out the composition
with charcoal or thin black ink applied with either a brush or pen. The
paper may have been burnished beforehand. A thin ground—a layer of
opaque watercolor—was brushed over the under-drawing. This layer—which
might be white or tinted yellow or blue—covered the paper, but was
translucent enough to reveal the under-drawing beneath. Different
colored grounds could be used to define major areas of the composition.
Another under-drawing, generally red or black and done with brush in
thin watercolor, was drawn on the ground.

At this stage, the painting was usually burnished by being placed face
down on a smooth slab of stone. The back of the paper was rubbed with a
smooth stone, inset into a wooden holder. Burnishing was repeated
frequently during the painting process. The practice of burnishing gave
a smooth surface to the painting. Near the end of the process, the
painted side might be rubbed using a smaller burnisher to produce local
glossy areas.

Further layers of paint were added to the ground with artists working
from larger to smaller areas of color and from more diffuse to more
detail. The final areas were often the more important compositional
elements, like human figures, or the lions and tigers of the hunting
scenes. Towards the end of the process, final outlining, usually in
black, of the design elements was done.


The paper used was of two types. One, a thin, smooth, whitish paper was
prepared from fine off-white paper pulp. The other, a rougher buff
paper, was made from fibrous, brownish, nonuniform paper pulp. The
practice of burnishing resulted in a smoorth surface to the finished
work. Cloth was used for larger sized works.

Recent research into the types of pigments has uncovered the following
information. Several types of whites were found, all metallic and
including lead white (found in the majority of paintings), tin white,
and zinc white. Lampblack was the only black identified. Brilliant
yellow, called Indian yellow (a calcium or magnesium salt of euzanthic
acid), as an organic extract from cow urine. Vegetable dyestuff indigo
was the more common blue. Natural ultramarine (the mineral lazarite)
was also used. Vermilion (mercuric sulphide) and red lead were the most
common reds. Many greens were used. The most common was verdigris,
copper chloride produced by the reaction of copper metal with salt
water. Metallic pigments were also used, including gold in painted
powder form, and a tin metal that was silver in color. Binders, the
solution into which pigments are mixed so that they might be spread,
were gums—gum Arabic and gum tragacanth.


Artists sat on the floor working on boards or low tables.

Preservation and Storage of works

Paintings were kept in the palace in a dry picture storeroom, piled on
stone shelves. They were usually wrapped in cotton bandanas to protect
them from insects, dampness, and light. Bundles were arranged by topic
and size.

The Artist

Although we know the names of artists who worked at the Mughal Courts,
many of the artists who produced Rajput paintings remain anonymous to
us. Inscriptions and more recently advanced research have identified
some of these artists. Stylistic evidence tells us that painting
techniques, materials, and artists all traveled throughout the region.
The political alliances and military campaigns of the region assured
cross-fertilization between Mughal and Rajput styles and techniques.

Apprenticeship to a master artist usually began at a young age. Court
workshops houses artists. Artists' wages were roughly equivalent to
that of soldiers, and they might receive bonuses for outstanding work.
Artists traveled with rulers to war, hunts, and festivals.