Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Reading a Painting (Figurative Art)

Reading A Painting Main Page

Subjects, Topic & Types:
- Single Figure (below)
- Multiple Figures
- Aphorism: "Big to small, top to bottom, left to right, inside to outside."

- How To Read A Painting
- How To Read A Painting (Part 2)
- Panjarnata Mahakala #24453

The Four Composition Types all follow the general aphorism of 'Big to Small.' The Floating Figure type of composition with a large number of secondary figures can appear less precise in the organization and can require more care in the analysis.

A single central figure painting is easier to read than other composition types because of a lack of complexity. The large subject is the main topic of the composition. The top portion of the painting is the the next most important with subjects of lesser prominence descending down the sides of the painting. At the top of the composition, the center is the most important position followed by the right side of that figure (viewer's left side) and the left side (viewer's right). Figures will generally alternate right to left down the two sides of the composition. The lower portion of the painting has the least standing in the hierarchy of importance.

'Big to small' means that the largest figure is most important and the smallest figure(s) of lesser importance.

'Top to bottom' means that the upper portion of the composition is more important than the lower portion.

'Left to right' means that the figures on the viewer's left side are more important than on the right side.

'Inside to outside' refers to smaller figures that are immediately adjacent to the central figure have an added importance, or should be considered as part of the central subject along with the large central figure.

Multiple central figure compositions are read the same as the single composition paintings. When there are two large central figures at the center of a composition, the figure on the viewer's left is the primary figure (see example). With four large figures it is read from the upper left row of figures first (see example).

The placement of the secondary figures is determined by iconographic program or by general rules of religious hierarchy as listed below in a descending order of status. Teachers, buddhas, meditational deities and bodhisattvas are generally placed above and wealth deities, wisdom protectors and worldly deities below.

Traditional Hierarchy:
(1) Guru (Teacher)
(2) Buddha (Outline Page)
(3) Ishtadevata/Meditational Deity
(4) Bodhisattva (Outline Page)
(5) Arhat/Pratyekabuddha/Sthavira (Resource Page)
(6) Daka/Dakini (Outline Page)
(7) Protector Deity, Enlightened (Outline Page)
(8) Wealth Deity (Outline Page)
(9) Four Guardian Kings (Outline Page) & Protector Deities (Worldly)
(10) Worldly Gods of the Indian Pantheon

Jeff Watt 8-2020

(The images used in this set are based on HAR #188).