Shades of Isan
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Shades of Isan

A professor revives the traditional colour palette of the Northeast through art

Shades of Isan
Asst Prof Kulajit Sengna, head of the arts department at Udon Thani Rajabhat University, at 'Isan Palettes'. (Photo courtesy of Asst Prof Kulajit Sengna)

As head of the local arts department at Udon Thani Rajabhat University, Asst Prof Kulajit Sengna has researched Isan art and design for 15 years. While creating artefacts inspired by Isan mural art, she felt uncomfortable painting with colours available in the market because they did not match the original paintings. Therefore, Asst Prof Kulajit decided to mix paints to create new shades herself.

"I conducted research by visiting many historical sites in the Isan region and also Laos. I decided to create the colours myself because at that time there were no ready-made colours similar to those in Isan art. I created numerous colours and tested them before selecting the final 24. I decided to choose shades I found most frequently in murals in temples, or those found only in one location," Kulajit explained.

"For example, Baan-Taku Pink can only be found at Wat Na Phra That in Nakhon Ratchasima and Phanthaseema Orange only at Wat Phanthaseema in Nakhon Phanom," she said.

"According to my research, the brown shades most common as paints in Isan were created from soil or hematite mineral. Even now, people in Sakon Nakhon extract fabric dye from the soil."

After Kulajit shared her 24 shades of Isan on her Facebook page Artistic, a company that makes Thai colours contacted her and asked if they could produce the colours under their brand. Kulajit granted an artistic licence to the company to produce and sell her colours. These 24 colours were launched at the exhibition "Isan Palettes" at Bangkok Art & Culture Centre last year.

"I decided to launch 'Isan Palettes' in Bangkok because I wanted to promote Isan colours in a city with diverse people. Launching the colours in Bangkok was also beneficial to the brand," explained Kulajit.

"Besides the 24 colours, the exhibition displayed small sculptures inspired by paintings on the ceilings of Wat Nok Ok in Nakhon Ratchasima. Two-dimensional ceiling paintings inspired me to create three-dimensional sculptures, as I wanted a bat and chicken from the painting to appear as if they were flying," she added.

A bat sculpture inspired by a painting on a ceiling at Wat Nok Ok in Nakhon Ratchasima.

After launching the 24 colours, Kulajit spoke with Apichat PhonBuakhai, a PhD student at the local arts department and village chief of Non Kok in Chaiyaphum, to create something useful for the community. Apichat revealed that Non Kok wanted to present a fabric with illustrations of the life of Phra Vessantara, the Lord Buddha's most recent incarnation, in the Boon Phaves ceremony. Organised annually in March, Boon Phaves summons Phra Upagupta, who according to belief is an arahant from the ocean.

Assoc Prof Chavalit Athipatyakul, a lecturer at the local arts department, volunteered to paint a biographical illustration of Phra Vessantara on a 30m-long piece of fabric. The idea inspired Kulajit to create another exhibition to promote Isan art and culture. The exhibition displays the use of the Isan colours in various forms by six Isan artists -- Kulajit, Chavalit, Tippayanet Chantakorn, Apichat PhonBuakhai, Worawikran Khongphutthikun and Teelapol Saisombat,

At the exhibition entrance on the 3rd floor at Seacon Square Srinagarindra, visitors are welcomed with sculptures of a pair of smiling tigers revealing braces and missing teeth. Kulajit explained that the exhibition aims to attract people of all ages, including children.

"Tiger sculptures are attention grabbers for visitors of all ages. These tiger sculptures were inspired by those on the steps to an ordination hall in Laos. People believe that animals at an ordination hall can ward off demons. Although the exhibition involves Isan art, I wanted to also present Lao art to reflect that this area was once connected as one."

Assoc Prof Chavalit Athipatyakul's illustration of Phra Vessantara.

The exhibition highlight is a large sign which showcases paintings and their locations where Kulajit discovered the 24 Isan palettes. For example, Hua Wiang Grey was found in Wat Hua Wiang Rangsi in Nakhon Phanom, and Trai Phum Red was found in Wat Trai Phum Khannachan in Roi Et.

"I named the colours after their locations. Viewers may not be interested in art or Isan colours, but the exhibition may encourage them to travel to those locations or temples. They may realise that Isan has many paintings and this kind of awareness may lead to painting conservation."

Chavalit also created paintings of Buddha statues in different colours. One of his paintings depicts an intriguing ordination hall inspired by colonial style with a stacked roof influenced by Myanmar.

Tippayanet created eight direction flags to ward off demons. Each flag is a different colour depicting an image of Phra Uppakhu. People believe that the eight direction flags of Phra Uppakhu ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune to people.

Apichat has on display decorations of Isan traditions like the Boon Phaves ceremony. Decorative items include khao tok made from paddy, and tungs or Isan flags made from yarn and flowers. These items are meant as offerings to worship Lord Buddha.

A pair of smiling tigers welcome visitors at the entrance.

Worawikran, a jewellery designer, created an accessory collection called Deverana Garden Of Paradise. The patterns were inspired by the kalaklap flower (a unique pattern in Isan paintings) as well as the logo for the 24 Isan colours. Worawikran said she dyed linen fabric with Isan colours to create accessories. The young jewellery designer said creating the accessory collection was challenging because it was the first time that she applied Isan colours to her design.

Teelapol, an artist from Nakhon Ratchasima, created fascinating stucco sculptures inspired by Himmapan creatures. These mythical creatures appear in intriguing forms and captivating vibrant colours.

The chicken sculpture, which was painted with Baan-Taku Pink, received a lot of attention. That inspired Kulajit to make the chicken sculpture into an art toy as well.

"If I create this sculpture as an art toy, I will produce it in a collection, but I need to do more research. I don't aim to earn money from the art toy and I have only a few staff, so it will take time. My upcoming project is to invite Isan artists to test the 24 colours in a workshop. I hope the workshop will be promoted in the media, which will encourage people to try Isan colours," said Kulajit.

"I also hope viewers perceive Isan art as simple and natural with unique lines and colours. In the past, people may not have recognised Isan colours, however, my research has revealed that Isan has a distinct colour palette."

"Isan Palettes" runs at BACC Pop Up, Seacon Square Srinagarindra, until Sunday. Admission is free. Visit

Paintings by Assoc Prof Chavalit Athipatyakul.

Tippayanet Chantakorn created flags to ward off demons.

Decorations for the Boon Phaves ceremony. Suwitcha Chaiyong

Deverana Garden Of Paradise, an accessory collection by Worawikran Khongphutthikun.

Teelapol Saisombat created sculptures inspired by Himmapan creatures.

A chicken sculpture painted with Baan-Taku Pink.

Asst Prof Kulajit Sengna, head of the arts department at Udon Thani Rajabhat University, at 'Isan Palettes'.

A sign guides visitors to paintings and their locations.

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