The Happy Buddha: painting joy

My interest in figure painting led me to browse a book which appeared to be dedicated to a Buddha figure. The book had pages featuring different hand and feet positions, different facial expressions (all variations of cheerful), and numerous simple compositions of a short obese man with exposed chest and belly, wearing a robe of sorts that swathed him in draping folds of cloth either red, white or black. I loved him.


My only reservations in taking him on as a painting subject was that in some compositions he was shown surrounded by what appeared to be a host of little boys. That was a bit odd. Nevertheless, the draped clothing and simple lines that conveyed such a range of expressions held great appeal.

My initial research confirmed I was considering a very upbeat ancient subject of CBP known as ‘the Happy Buddha’ and that his origins were confusing: he was either said to be Maitreya, a future Buddha to the faithful followers of the 6th century BCE religious founder Siddhartha Guatama, OR emblematic of an eccentric 10th century Chinese monk Budai who wandered around with minimal possessions, doing good deeds and always displaying a cheerful disposition.

To further complicate matters for us westerners, early Buddhists in Japan exploited the resemblance of the Happy Buddha to the familiar Shinto god of luck (Hotei) in order to gain ready acceptance of their beliefs. Interestingly, the name Hotei – in Japanese – actually means “cloth bag” or “glutton.” It is believed that if one rubs the belly of the Happy Buddha, it brings good luck and wealth, but this is a matter of folklore, not Buddhist philosophy. Images of a laughing obese Buddha are thus widely seen in Japan as well.

From my reading I concluded all of these ‘histories’ had merit. There was agreement that the figure was stout and obese, that he wore his robes drawn back to expose his abundant flesh, he carried or wore prayer beads, lugged around a sack and walking stick, and always wore a cheerful expression.


My big book on Chinese symbolism and art motives by C.A.S.Williams confirmed Happy Buddha is “always represented as very stout, with the breast and upper abdomen exposed to view; his face has a laughing expression.” It is believed a painting of the Happy Buddha on your walls brings good fortune; sending a greeting card with his image conveys best wishes of any kind—birthday, anniversary, and special event.

The Chinese Budai was a native of Fenghua, and his Buddhist name was Qieci meaning “Promise this”. He was considered a man of good and loving character and was traditionally depicted as an obese, bald man wearing a robe and prayer beads. He totes his few possessions in a cloth sack, being poor but content. Some tales maintain his sack is full of goodies for children (hence their adoration), others that it magically never empties and he uses its contents to provide for the needy, and still others that he uses the bag to carry away the woes of the world. (Santa’s sack seems rather ordinary after reading that.)

The Maitreya Buddha represents wealth, health, love, happiness or joy, success, peace, and harmony. In short, he represents what everyone aspires. It is easy to see how the protruding stomach would stand for plenitude or abundance, and that his smiling face would portray happiness. Some of the tales suggest he also owns a wish-granting fan.

Painting the Happy Buddha

Whether the Happy Buddha represents Maitreya, the world’s next Buddha, or the real life Chinese monk who once wandered about cheerfully caring for his fellow man, matters not. My book shows most of the common accessories mentioned in the research, and his figure and clothing offer ample opportunities to experiment with the different aspects to figure painting.  Here are some of my studies for hands and feet based on the book outlines; I dabbed on the left-over  flesh color from my paint dish to increase visibility.

BuddhaHands BuddhaFeet

As with any figure painting, I started with the eyes, face and head. I practiced the several faces in my book—looking head on, to the right and to the left, looking up and tilted at different angles. I quickly realized painting “happy” has its challenges; we smile with more than our mouths—the eyes, the cheeks, and the chin all get involved. And when you add abundant flesh to all the body parts, deciding how and where to place dimples or creases gets tricky.  On this first head study I applied the high cheek crease used by the book’s author, as well as the pronounced stretched earlobe and smaller upper cranium.  All were features unfamiliar to me so I found them a bit awkward.

Buddha heads

I selected two poses for my first Happy Buddha paintings: one of him seated with his magic gunny sack beside him, the other with arms outstretched in blessing with prayer beads in hand. I worked up sketches and then transferred light outlines to rice paper. I used a very fine detail brush to ink in the lines, a larger one for the first stroking of fabric folds.


When the inky lines had dried I turned to painting the flesh. My book showed an application of a light grey wash where shadows would be when dry, with the usual greyed ‘yellow/orange’ mix for skin tone. I tried that on one of my buddhas, and then used Nenagh’s method of clear water on the ‘forward’ parts of round flesh with skin tone over and around the wet areas. When both practice buddhas had dried I assessed the results. The clear water method yielded a fresher look.


I adjusted my sketches and worked through to post-flesh stage with another set of images. Thinking ahead to the matting and framing, I decided on simple settings and contemplated using fancy paper borders in a subtle blue/gold mix.


Painting the Happy Buddha pushed me to study faces, hands and feet more than I expected, but I was delighted with all the fabric folds to arrange around his ample body parts.

As for the host of little boys swarming over the Happy Buddha, further research indicates he has become a beacon of prayer for infertile couples.  Another blogger has documented this additional variation in the role of the generous little man and his prayer-granting.

My two “Happy Buddha” paintings require some touch-ups before moving them over to the gluing and framing table.  In keeping with the meaning of ‘buddha’ as “enlightened one” I certainly know more about buddha painting from this little book I cannot read.











































This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, Happy Buddha, painting figures. Bookmark the permalink.

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