The main purpose of Thai paintings is the representation of religious and mythological scenes, and they most commonly take the form of wall paintings in monastic buildings.
In a bot or wiharn a picture of the Buddha’s victory over the tempter, Mara, usually fills the wall facing the image. Behind the image are usually compositions from Buddhist cosmology. The side walls are painted from the top of the windows to the ceiling either with three or four horizontal rows of gods and mythological figures, approaching the Buddha in veneration, or scenes with figures, buildings and animals in a landscape setting. Scenes from the Jatakas (previous lives of the Buddha) usually occupy the spaces between the windows. Since the humid tropical climate plays havoc with murals hardly any traces of ancient painting have been preserved.
A linear composition from the ceiling of the well of a staircase in Wat Si Chum in Sukhothai is the oldest surviving painting. A few faded fragments of frescoes of the Sukhothai period can be seen in Wat Chedi Yet Teo in Sawankhalok. The crypt of Wat Ratburana in Ayutthaya (founded 1424) contains the earliest well preserved murals,
The paintings in Wat Yai Suvannaram, Phetchaburi, were probably done about 1650. Rows of divinities seated in adoration, separated by floral ornaments, are drawn with an elegant line and a wealth of lovingly executed details. From the destruction of Ayutthaya to the mid 19th century the compositions grew richer and more complex, the vivid coloring being enhanced by the increasing use of gold leaf. Fine examples of painting in the national style are in the Wiharn Buddhaisawan in the National Museum, Bangkok, in Wat Dusit and Wat Suvarnaram (the “Golden Monastery”) in Dhonburi, and in Wat Suthat, Bangkok.
In North Thailand the frescoes show strong Burmese influence. Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai (early 19th century) has pictures of the legend of Phra Sang Tong. Scenes from daily life are illustrated in the pictures in Wat Bhumindra at Nan.
The well-known murals in the galleries of Wat Phra Keo, Bangkok, are restorations (1927), in which the high artistry of ancient Thai painting is diluted by western influence. Features of Thai painting, as of all Asiatic art, are the lack of scientific perspective, and the contours which clearly pick out figures, buildings, etc., from the background of soft, generalized landscape.
Another form of Thai painting is found in the long banners mainly used in religious ceremonies. Scarcely one of the surviving examples is more than 200 years old: the majority is 19th century. The Buddha is shown between two disciples, or scenes from his life are represented. Also of interest are the illustrations in old manuscripts (the long, narrow palm-leaf books). The National Library contains the oldest and most precious of these, a book on Buddhist cosmology (Traiphum) from Ayutthaya of about 1550.
Lacquer-painting, with patterns in gold leaf on a black ground, is a special branch of Thai painting. Wonderful bookcases, cupboards, and screens are displayed in the National Museum. The panels in the Lacquer Pavilion of the Suan Pakkad Palace in Bangkok are particularly notable.