Contemporary Aboriginal artists use a considerable variety
of materials and techniques in painting. Some of these materials
are rooted strongly in tradition - such as the use of ochres
in the Kimberley and, to a lesser extent, ochres on bark from
Arnhem Land. Other artists have adopted modern media and work
with acrylic paints on canvas,
gouache or ochres on archival
paper or other surfaces.
Apart from the materials used, Aboriginal artists have shown
considerable innovation in the techniques they adopt for applying
paint and creating designs - ranging from the crushed end
of a stick, as used for example by Emily Kame Kngwarreye in
some works to produce characteristic large smudged dots, to
the fine brushes used to produce the delicate rarrk
patterns of Arnhem Land art.
||The traditional method of painting
a shield in north east Queensland was for
two men to work at opposite ends using lawyer-cane brushes.
Ochre Pigments and Paint
Ochre was the most important painting material used traditionally
by Aboriginal people. It is mined from particular sites and
is a crumbly to hard rock heavily coloured by iron oxide.
The source material was traded extensively across Australia
in the past, with some material traveling many hundreds or
even thousands of kilometres from where it was mined to where
it was used. It comes in a variety of colours from pale yellow
to dark reddish-brown.
Ochres from western Arnhem Land
Ochres give a rich warm colour to contemporary artworks from
the Western Desert, Kimberley and Arnhem Land. The surfaces
it was used on varied widely from rock, wood and bark to the
skin of participants in ceremonies. Red ochre was particularly
important amongst desert peoples as it symbolises the blood
of ancestral beings.
In the west Kimberley, the ancient gwion gwion images
are painted in beautiful mulberry red on rock overhangs and
caves. The gwion gwion image is used on this Web site
as the logo on each page. Gwion gwion is the name of a long-beaked
bird which started as a spirit man - it pecks at the rock
face to catch insects, and sometimes draws blood, leaving
the images behind on the rock.
Paints are made by grinding the source rock to a powder and
then mixing it with a fluid to bind it together. Traditionally
this fluid could be saliva or blood, while in contemporary
art an acrylic binder is more commonly used. The rich dark
red in some of Jack
Britten's paintings comes from the use of kangaroo blood
mixed with ochre powder.
Traditional use of ochres included not only body and other
painting (such as bark and wooden sculptures), but also a
role in mortuary ceremonies. For example, in Arnhem Land and
the Kimberley as a final stage in mortuary rites the bones
of a deceased person may be painted with ochres and then wrapped
in paperbark and placed in a rocksheleter or cave, or placed
in a log coffin.
The oldest evidence so far found of mortuary practices by
modern humans (and hence evidence of a belief in an afterlife)
is at Lake Mungo in western New South Wales (see Australian
Prehistory page). At this site, one of the most significant
archaeological sites in Australia, a female cremation burial
was identified in 1969 and provided evidence of the world's
oldest known cremation rite - around 26 000 years old. A few
hundred metres away, and some thousands of years older, a
man was buried (called Mungo 3). His bones had been covered
in red ochre, staining the burial pit pink. Since ochre does
not occur near Lake Mungo, some of this pigment must have
been carried there.
In 1999 the remains were examined again and dated using more
recent techniques. Alan Thorne and his colleagues obtained
an estimate for the age of the skeleton of 62,000 ± 6000 years.
This is far older than previously believed. The results have
been disputed by a number of archaeologists, and many believe
that the limit of modern human occupation of Australia is
around 45 000 years. Regardless of the exact age, the Mungo
3 burial (through the use of ochre paint) is evidence of communication
and ceremonial practices, and perhaps also of trade, amongst
the early human residents of eastern Australia.
Ochre is plentiful across most of Australia and it occurs
in many of the older archaeological sites. Some pieces have
flattened surfaces indicating use and there is other evidence
of pieces of ochre being ground up or pulverised. Most have
been carbon dated with ages between 10 000 and 40 000 years
(the effective limit of carbon dating), and one site had what
appears to be an artists palette of ochres - dated 18 000
years old. The use of ochre pigments is thus a very long tradition
Applying the Pigments
In contemporary Aboriginal art, artists select from the
same broad variety of modern and traditional materials and
techniques as non-indigenous artists. Traditionally, the main
pigments used in addition to ochres were charcoal, fine white
and coloured clay and mixtures of blood, feathers, fat and
other organic material. In painting, charcoal and fine white
clay were traditionally most commonly used.
These traditional materials were applied in several ways:
Stencil images are found widely in rock art, usually of
hands or arms, animal tracks, boomerangs, spear throwers or
other tools such as stone axes. Stencil images are some of
the oldest painted images known from the Australian continent.
For example, in Arnhem Land stencils are common in the earliest
rock art - there are numerous stencils of boomerangs, though
these are no longer used in Arnhem Land except as clapsticks
for music, and they include all the main types of boomerangs
ever found in Australia. Stencilled images occur widely across
Australia and some fine examples are found in the Carnarvon
Range in central Queensland:
George Chaloupka has described how one old man in Arnhem
Land remembered being carried as a child on his father's shoulder's
as his father climbed up a log leaning against a rock wall.
His father then sprayed his hand with red ochre against the
rock - leaving a stencil he could still recognise many years
later. The main function of the stencils was to record people's
presence and association with a site or to identify a particular
In Arnhem Land, surfaces such as bark and wood were also
painted with great care using different brushes for different
effects. The surface of say a bark sheet is first covered
with a single layer, usually of red ochre. This layer traditionally
had a binder of orchid sap or yolks of turtle eggs, though
now the most frequently used material is polyvinylacetate
glue. The main forms and lines in the design are outlined
in black, yellow or white ochre using a brush made of a stick
with fine grass or fibres attached.
The next step is to apply the distinctive cross-hatched pattern
that creates the shimmering effect in Arnhem Land art. (see
article on Yolngu painting).
This is done with a special, fine brush made of a short stick
with straight human hair tied tightly onto it. This gives
the delicacy needed to produce the fine parallel lines of
the rarrk patterning. The last step is to outline the figures
and crosshatched areas in white ochre, again using a brush.
The painting Macassan by Charlie Matjuwi is a good example
of all these steps in application.
Pigments were also commonly applied by fingers or hands,
especially during painting of skin for ceremonies. Body painting
occurred extensively as part of ceremonies in central and