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 painting. These are often ritual paintings for religious or healing ceremonies. It is also referred to as drypainting.

Sandpainting is practised by Native Americans in the Southwestern United States, by Tibetan monks, by Indians, by Australian Aborigines, and 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 at least 600 to 1000 different sandpaintings that are recognized among the Navajos. They are not viewed as static objects, but as living things that should be treated with great respect. There may be more than thirty different sandpaintings associated with one ceremony alone.

The colors for the painting are usually made 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, or 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 that the patient wishes to reestablish in his or her life. However accurate the sandpainting is will determine how effective it will be as a sacred tool. The patient will then be asked to sit on the sandpainting, and the medicine man will then proceed with the healing chant. The sandpainting acts like a portal for spirits to come and go, and also attracts them. Sitting on the sandpainting helps the patient absorb some of their power, while in turn the Holy People will absorb the illness and take it away. Afterwards, the sandpainting has done its duty, and is then considered to be toxic, since the illness is absorbed into it. That is the reason they must be disposed of afterwards. Because of the sacred nature of the ceremonies, the sandpaintings are begun, finished, used, and destroyed within a twelve hour period.

The ceremony involving sandpaintings are usually done in sequences, termed 'chants', lasting a certain number of days depending on the ceremony, and for which a fresh, new sandpainting is made for each day.

There are some Navajo laws and taboos surrounding the sandpaintings, and that protect its holiness:

  • Women are not supposed to sing the chants associated with the yeibicheii. This is because the ceremony has a possibility of injuring an unborn child, and because of a taboo preventing menstruating women from attending. Post-menopausal women are therefore far 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 themselves may punish you.
  • Authentic sandpaintings are rarely ever photographed, as to not disrupt the flow of the ceremony. Medicine men will seldom allow outsiders inside a sacred ceremony for many reasons. However, because so many outsiders wish to see the art of sandpainting, medicine men will create them for exhibition purposes only, using reversed colors and variations. To create an authentic sandpainting solely for viewing purposes would be a profane act. The sandpaintings one sees in shops and on the Internet are commercially produced and contain purposeful errors, as the real sandpaintings are considered sacred.

Indigenous Australian sandpainting

Indigenous Australian art has a history which covers over 30,000 years, and represents a large range of native traditions and styles. These have been studied in recent decades and gained increased international recognition.[1] Aboriginal Art covers a wide medium 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 and was and still is, used to mark territory, record history, and tell stories about The Dreaming.

Tibetan sandpainting

Tibetan Buddhist sand paintings are usually made of mandalas. In Tibetan, it is called dul-tson-kyil-khor ("mandala of colored powders").

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. This is done by means of chanting, intention, mudra, asana, pranayama, visualisation, music and mantra recitation, 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 a 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, amongst which re-consecrating the earth and its inhabitants is elementary.

Other countries

The development of permanent sandpaintings from the 15th to the 20th century

Japanese tray pictures

From the 15th century in Japan Buddhist artists in the times of the Shoguns mastered the craft of "bon-kei" by sprinkling dry coloured sand and pebbles onto the surface of plain black lacquered trays and used bird feathers as brushes to form the sandy surface into seascapes and landscapes. These tray pictures would then be used in religious ceremonies, and were probably the inspiration for the development of the more intricate mandalas created by Tibetan Buddhists.

Table decking

During the 17th and 18th centuries the royal courts of Europe employed "table deckers" whose function it was to decorate the tables at royal banquets using coloured sands, marble dust, sugars etc. and featured pictures of fruit, flowers, birds and rustic scenery. These ornate pictures were then discarded along with the debris of the feast.
As a fine example of the table deckers craft, Woburn Abbey in Bedford possesses an ornate folding room screen with three leaves, decorated with sand pictures protected by unflattened 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 leaves 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 and doubled as a servery 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 upon the main table in the dining hall. Possibly this was the work of F. Schweikhardt who specialised in still life studies after the style of the Dutch painter Jan van Huysum.

Georgian sand painting (Marmortinto)

In the 18th and 19th centuries 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 of these being George Haas, Benjamin Zobel and F. Schweikhardt. They fixed sand paintings that became highly prized acquisitions by many of the English aristocracy including the Kings brother, the Duke of York who commissioned a number of works by Zobel.

The subjects tackled by Zobel included 'pigs in the manner of Morland, 'Nelson. the favourite dog of the Duke of York', 'Tiger after Stubbs', and even an impressive 'Vulture and snake'. Although many of Zobels' works are still in existence, none of the sand paintings by Haas have survived from the 19th century, although observers considered they were superior to Zobels, which must reflect upon the differing techniques used by each artist. A diarist observed Zobel coating the surface of the baseboard with a mixture of gum arabic and white lead and then sprinkling sand upon the sticky surface using a folded paper funnel as a brush, he had to work fairly quickly since the adhesive would dry in a few hours borne out by the fact that several of his surviving pictures have unfinished work on the reverse.

Haas followed more closely the techniques developed in Japan, 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 baker 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 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 Sotherby's New Bond Street gallery on June 15th 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, but the sand kiosks have always been there to supply all their needs.

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 benifitted from the influx of wealthy visitors, and a number of craftsmen sold their sand pictures and 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 1840's. 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 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 completely lacking in taste or skill being offered for sale for a few pence.

Sand carpets

In the province of Drenthe in The Netherlands in the late 19th, early 20th century it was custom to use white sand for painting some simple decoration on the tiled floor, mostly for special occasions or celebrations. The next day it was swept up again.

Hekelgem Belgium 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 1960s. A booklet to celebrate the centenary was published on 1st February 1973.

Modern culture

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.

Present day sand painting techniques

With the revival of interest in craft subjects helped by a spate of craft magazines encouraging readers to do it themselves, permanent sand painting and sand bottling skills have improved dramatically particularly in France, North Africa and even on the Isle of Wight, thus the buyer is asked, and prepared to pay a reasonable price for a work of art worthy of the craft person's time and artistic effort, and with modern methods and materials some outstanding standards are being achieved.

Sand painting is widely used in Grammar Schools and Preschools with colored sand and glue or sticky boards for children to create art. Many arts and craft companies sell artificially coloured sand painting kits but the craft enthusiast can purchase by mail natural coloured sands from The Alum Bay Sand Shop, Needles Pleasure Park,Isle of Wight, U.K., but there is no substitute for the pleasure of consulting geological maps and going out on field trips to collect a few of the many thousands of different mineral charged sands it is possible to obtain from sand pits, cliffs and even road works, provided one takes sensible precautions.

As for the ancient, ephemeral craft of unfixed sand painting, it seems to re-invent itself on a regular basis and never fails to fascinate both the young and old alike. Even now (2009) a group of sand artists hold youtube viewers in thrall with their innate skill, instantly fashioning unfixed sand sketches using a light source, an opaque screen as a canvas, and their fingers as brushes, with a young girl in the Ukraine winning a national television talent contest with her sand animations and even being featured in an advertisement for a well known brand of tea! See - external link below


  1. Caruna, W.(2003)'Aboriginal Art' Thames and Hudson, London, p.7


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External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Sandpainting. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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