Himalayan style art is completely understandable and easy to grasp if the basic building blocks of form, colour, and simple symbolism are known. Painting is primarily figurative, narrative or diagrammatic in subject. The figurative paintings are by far the more common. There are only eleven basic figurative appearances commonly found in all of the art - with few variations. There are three basic moods which refer to facial expression. As for the limbs, a basic figure has one face, two arms and two legs. When working with symbolic art there can be body forms that have multiple limbs, multiple heads, arms and legs. Figures can have an unusual body colour such as white, yellow, red or blue. The size of the figures within a composition generally indicates importance and the arrangement often indicates the hierarchy and order to follow in reading a composition. Understanding these basic and most common components of the art can lead to a greater appreciation of the meaning and power of the visual composition, symbolic representations and artistic intention.
Fearsome, ugly and terrifying forms are well known in Himalayan style art. The images do not necessarily represent anger, hatred or harmful intention. Both body type and facial expression are used extensively to represent levels and degrees of intention and emotional intensity mirroring everyday life and employed in the pursuit of spiritual practice. Facial expression indicates mood. In Himalayan art there are three basic moods (1) a peaceful mood, (2) an active mood, and an (3) intense (wrathful) mood. 'Wrathful Appearance' is one of the eleven figurative appearances in Himalayan art. Probably it is also the most misunderstood. Unique to this form of appearance is a special type of composition called 'black ground' painting where the entire surface of the composition is painted black and the drawing is done on the surface of that in lighter shades with very little colour added to the finished painting.White Mahakala Meditational Deity, Promoting the Increase of Wealth Tibet, 19th Century D516 (HAR 83416)
As a standard convention in this type of art most fierce figures have three eyes. Unlike other figures who are wrathful in appearance this deity is adorned with jewel ornaments and silk garments. His primary function is wealth producing. By category he is known as a Wealth Deity. He is surrounded by flames that contain variously coloured wish fulfilling jewels. A fierce wealth deity implies a very strong resolve to attain wealth and greater fortune.
The large buffalo headed figure is the most important subject in the composition. The rows of figures immediately below are attendant figures and together they all form part of the meditational circle (mandala) of the central figure. Deities such as this are not real and are meant to be understood as meditational objects. The multiple faces, arms and legs serve as hooks for linking and bringing to mind specific concepts and philosophical ideas. The entire form is a memory model (mnemonic device) which is employed in all complex meditations.
Black background paintings are a type of composition that is reserved for the most wrathful of figures. The figures can belong to the category of meditational deity or protector deity but they must be ferocious in appearance to be painted on a black background. Most figures are either male or female. This is a unique example of a eunuch figure who is without gender.
Framed with a border of human skulls on a red background, this ferocious figure is very large in comparison to the other figures in the composition. With no neck, no apparent waist, and very large feet, this wrathful deity is described as having the body of a dwarf. Adorned with eight different kinds of snakes and gruesome cemetery ornaments he is regarded as the most wrathful of all the deities in the Buddhist pantheon.
This female figure has a lion face and is surrounded by a circle of numerous attendant figures each with a different animal head. Some of the figures are tigers, leopards, dogs, fierce birds and even mythical creatures like a water monster and a demon. Animal faces such as these are meant to inspire a ruthless animal-like resolve to accomplish any intention no matter how difficult.