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Aboriginal painting methodsPaint used in Fine Art


Paint consists of two parts - the pigment to give colour to the paint, and the binder to hold the pigment and to stick the paint securely to the surface. Pigment is a fine powder that is suspended in the binder.

European artists have traditionally used oil paint. Oil paint is a slow drying paint made by mixing the pigments with oil, linseed oil being the most widely used. It dries with a hard film, and the brightness of the colours is protected. Oil paints are usually opaque and traditionally are used on canvas.

Canvas is a heavy woven fabric made of flax or cotton. Its surface is typically prepared for painting by priming it with a surfacing material called a ground. The standard canvas is linen, made of flax, and it is very strong and long lasting. A less expensive alternative to linen is heavy cotton duck. Cotton is somewhat less durable than linen, because it is more prone to absorb dampness, but still an acceptable material for fine art.

Traditional Aboriginal Paint

Paint used traditionally by Aboriginal artists consisted of a pigment, such as ochre or a coloured organic material, and a binder. Ochre is a very finely textured natural rock coloured by iron oxide. Aboriginal artists grind this material and mix it with water to make a paint. To ensure the paint sticks to a surface (whether it is a traditional surface such as rock, bark or a person's skin, or a more contemporary material such as canvas or paper), the artist needs to use a glue (or "binder" as it is called).

Traditionally binders such as spinifex gum or other materials were used. Nowadays the binder most commonly used is professional artist's acrylic binder that is tough, flexible and stable.

The ochre paintings by Tiwi artists that we sell have acrylic binder to ensure that the ochre does not chip off or flake. However, in places the ochre or other pigment can be quite thick, and then it is possible (even with acrylic binder) for the paint to crack or chip if the painting is rolled up. For this reason the paintings we sell are delivered in flat packages (not rolled). Other Tiwi artists use gouache, a modern opaque water-based paint similar to water-colour.

Acrylic Paint and Binder

Acrylic paint and acrylic binder are now widely used by many Aboriginal artists. Acrylic paint is made by suspending or dispersing pigment in a synthetic acrylic resin. This resin is made by the polymerization of acrylic and methacrylic acid. It acts as a binder, or glue, in holding the pigment and bonding it to the surface.

Research into commercial production of a synthetic medium began in the 1920s due to the wish of artists in Latin America, mainly Mexico, to paint large outdoor murals. They needed to find a paint that dried quickly and that would resist wind, rain, and high humidity. They were not produced commercially until 1928 and have undergone many changes since they were first manufactured. By the mid-1950s, researchers in Mexico and the United States had developed a way to mix resins with water, which created a paint that was almost identical to oil paint, yet was more durable and dried quickly. Since their commercial introduction, acrylic paints have become widely used by many artists.

Acrylic paints are water-based so they are easy to work with and there is no need for dangerous solvents. The paint film formed by these paints is very strong and flexible. The most important characteristic of acrylics is the fact that they can be used thin and liquid as watercolour or thick, right out of the tube like oil paint.

Acrylics dry very quickly, taking from just a few minutes or up to an hour or so for very thick applications. Unlike watercolours, which dry lighter than when they are wet, acrylics dry slightly darker.

Balgo artist applying paint
Balgo artist applying acrylic
paint using a fine stick

Acrylics are extremely durable. The question about expected life has been tested repeatedly in laboratory-controlled exposures to heat and light. Acrylics do not exhibit the same changes as oils, which suggests that the life of acrylics is greater than almost all other artists' materials.

For information on handling, storage and cleaning of acrylic paintings, see our page on Caring for Acrylic Paintings.

 

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