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Aboriginal painting methodsTraditional Aboriginal Painting Methods

Gwion


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.

Traditional shield painting
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.

Ochre pigments
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 in Australia.

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:

  • blowing a fine spray from the moth to produce stencils (silhouettes)
  • brushing the pigment using a fine stick, crushed stick or hair brush
  • applying the paint using fingers and hands - for example in body painting.

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:

Rock art stencil images

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 painting.

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 northern Australia.

 

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