Himalayan Art Resources

Painting Style: Ground Colours (Four Types)

Ground Colours Main Page | Painting Main Page

Painting Ground Colours:
- Multi-coloured Ground
- Black Ground
- Gold Ground
- Red Ground

Subjects & Topics:
- Ground Colour Explanation (below)
- Ground Colours Outline
- Painting Types Outline
- New Ground Colours
- Blue Ground Paintings (New)
- Silver Ground Paintings
- Masterworks
- Others...

There are many different types and styles of paintings. A noticeable feature of Himalayan art paintings are the various back ground colours that can be found. The standard type of back ground is multi-coloured. The creation of Tantric paintings such as these are discussed in the early Manjushri Mulakalpa Tantra.

There are three further types of ground colour, black, gold and red, in this order, according to the time when each began to be used. The variously or multi-coloured paintings are by far the more common in the Himalayan and Tibetan cultural regions. The other three colours are used to invoke mood and emotion. Black is for caution, fear and protection. Gold is for wealth, wonder and opulence. Red is for alarm, power, and resolve.

Black Ground paintings can be dated to the 14th and 15th centuries following even earlier models where wrathful figures are drawn on a black painted surface created from charnel ground ashes. The textual source for black ground paintings is found with the Anuttarayoga Tantras of Indian Buddhist literature. Black ground is appropriate only for wrathful and fearsome subjects. In the Tantric Buddhist system there are four activities associated with four colours: peaceful - white, increasing - yellow, powerful - red, and wrathful - black, or dark blue.

Gold Ground paintings follow an early tradition where compositions are applied directly onto Chinese gold silk without any prepared ground. Gold ground paintings depict the same subjects as those rendered on the un-grounded silk cloth. Gold ground is commonly used for images of the Buddha who is said to 'shine like a mountain of gold.' Gold silk and painted gold ground developed independent of Tantric theory and are the result of the creativity of the artist, available materials, along with the patronage of wealthy donors.

Red Ground is appropriate for all deities that are classified in Buddhist Tantra as Power Deities, along with peaceful deities, powerful teachers and religious leaders. Red ground compositions often include gold outlining, or gold fill for the figures. Red ground paintings began to appear as a popular art form in the 17th century. The popularity can be traced to Central Tibet and the art patronage of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama.

Red ground and gold ground can sometimes be very difficult to recognize as later artists began to combine the two in single compositions. The ground of one painting might be red while all of the figures in the composition are gold filled. The artist might also employ the opposite technique.

Jeff Watt 5-2012 [updated 7-2017]