Category Archives: Hierarchy in the Image

Exercise: Reading an Image

Description of a Picture by Mark Oliver

The image is of a sleeping red dragon in a cave with its treasure hoard. Nearby are two human(oid) figures, one is holding a burning torch which illuminates the roof of the cave in bright red/orange.

The treasure is nestled in the encircling body and tail of the recumbent dragon. Atop the pile is a throne of red and gold with green upholstery. The arrow-head shaped tip of the dragon’s tail rests on the throne effectively guarding the hoard with the threat of waking the dragon.

There are two collections of weaponry and armour near the figures and in the background we can see a gloomy arch which might be the way in/out of the cave. One figure is reaching out, pointing to the treasure hoard; her companion is pointing to the exit arch.

The dragon’s head has neatly striped black and white horns on its head.

Analysis of the picture

The picture is a classic scene of its genre – the adventurers and the dragon’s hoard – and we tend to recognise the situation from ‘The Hobbit’ or Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games and associated fiction and artwork.

The story I read from this particular picture is of two young, inexperienced adventurers who stumble across the dragon and her treasure. They do not look like warriors – they could be thieves but maybe they are just journeying. They carry a burning torch to travel in the underground caves and on sight of the dragon the eyes of the green figure widen and her face seems amazed and pleased at the view. She may be looking at the dragon… but the reaction of her companion suggests that the first is looking at the gold – tempted. Her companion looks worried and is indicating the probably way out of the cave at the back.

The two piles of armour and weapons look like they might just be less-valuable treasure scattered around the edge of the cave but the other scenario that suggests itself is that they are all that remains of the humans who have previously gone up against the dragon to steal her treasure. They are depicted in greens and blues which keeps them out of the main focus – the viewers sees them later and the truth dawns!

Many techniques have been used with colour and tone in order to provide the visual message for this illustration:

  • The black and white stripes on the dragon’s horns stand out against the predominantly hot colours of the dragon and treasure which leads us to see the head.
  • There are two white teeth showing – again in contrast to the red of the dragon – and the head is framed on each side with a row of white claws. This end of the dragon looks like the most dangerous end.
  • The dragon’s back is lined with spiny plates, a bit like a row of dorsal fins. These are depicted as casting a shadow and have a dark side visible which allows them to stand out. They lead us along the shape of the dragon’s back and we can follow this line to see the whole of the dragon.
  • The placement of the dragon and humanoids are on the same level (judged against the horizon at the exit) which allows us to make a size comparison – the humanoids would both fit comfortably (uncomfortably!) in the dragon’s mouth… maybe they’d need a little bit of tenderising first.
  • The chair upholstery is green… this is not by chance… green is the opposing colour to red – it makes the red stand out even more to have an area of green lodged in its centre.
  • There are two light sources in the cave – the most obvious is the burning torch which illuminated the roof, dragon and its treasure. There is a secondary light source which is out of the picture that is responsible for the colder, blue and green areas – perhaps a distant glow from the sky? Maybe just the way the torchlight reflects off the cave walls? Whatever it is it contrasts the dragon and roof and fills the shadows with a cold tone.
  • The faces of the two humanoids are lit warmly allowing us to pick them out easily from their immediate surroundings.
  • The roof, where it is lit orange and red, forms an arc over the humanoids’ heads… this does two things – it locates the humanoids at the centre of the arch; it also draws our sights down towards the dragon, relating the two.

Although the whole picture makes sense there is an illogical aspect to it – the torchlight manages not to make the floor and piles of weapons around the humanoids glow or glint in any way. I suspect this is a deliberate choice to help focus our attention away from those areas.

The tonal range of the picture goes from the darkest shadow behind the dragon through to the pin-point of yellow where the torch flame burns… an also the shine of the gold.

The top third of the image is described lightly  in texture – the roof of the cave – and runs from bright hot orange to a dark, cool blue, left to right.

The remainder of the image runs in the opposite direction, overall, from cool blue-green where the figures are standing through to the hot red of the dragon.

Overall the hot red/orange forms a broad band running from top left to the bottom right extremities of the dragon, but not to the edge of the frame. Even though the dragon sleeps, the hot colours give us a dynamic impression of her through this diagonal sweep of heat… it’s a bit like a flight path.

The remaining top right corner of the image is almost completely blank. Above the deeper shadow of the dragon and chair there is barely a feature except for a hint of texture that fits in with this being the roof of the cave still.

The final extremity of the dragon, her hind left claw, is drawn in quite some detail for an extremity but it backs up the potential for fear – it is a monster’s claw and, again, is the same size on the page as the humanoids, and that is its foreshortened measurement!