Australian Aboriginal Ochre Painting

What is Ochre Aboriginal Painting?

Australian Aboriginal people have a tradition of using ochre pigment to paint that dates back to ancient times. These ochres are primarily natural pigments and minerals found in the soil, or even in charcoal. Paintings using these natural pigments (colours) depict Aboriginal Dreamtime stories and maps. They were used either in body painting, rock painting, on artefacts and sometimes even on sand.

How Old is Aboriginal Ochre Painting?

There are sites in Australia where the Aboriginal ochre painting has been dated as being at least 65,000 years old. The discovery of this cave rock art makes Aboriginal people one of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet.

What is Ochre Painting About?

Australian Aboriginal people never had a written language so their ochre painting told important traditional stories. They have rich oral traditions such as stories and songs. In their painting they also use symbols like the concentric circles, U shapes and straight stick forms. The symbols vary depending on where an artist is from. These symbols were painted using the natural ochre pigments that were found or specifically mined. Ochre is the main medium used in Australia's ancient Kimberley rock art.

Read: Kimberley Rock Art: A Traditional Owner's Perspective

How is Ochre Painting Used in Aboriginal Culture?

Ochre painting was used for storytelling on rock walls as well as decoration on possessions. It especially prized for body painting for big ceremonies, initiation ceremonies or dances to do with rain. The Seven Sisters stories were often represented by ochre pigments in women's body painting and men's paintings. There are several communities who maintain a tradition of painting their contemporary fine art using local ochre pigment.

Was Ochre Traded Between Aboriginal Tribal Groups?

Originally ochres had enormous value to Aboriginal people. They were traded between different tribal groups across Australia. There were trade routes almost like the silk routes that went through Asia. However, instead of silk, the valuable products were natural ochre pigments. Some were more highly prized than others. Some places didn't have a lot of ochres, but still had the same needs to tell the stories and record images of Dreamtime spirits. Sometimes the ochre paintings gave warnings regarding hazards or instructions about how to find the nearest water hole. They might show a map of where there was good hunting for different types of animal and fish. However, the main use was in storytelling and depicting important Spirits and totems.

Read: Science Uses Ochre To Map Ancient Aboriginal Trading Routes

How Many Colours in Aboriginal Ochre Palette?

There are only about six available colours even with blending and mixing, so this did create a limited palette. In some ways, these palette restrictions also produced an art form that was more rigorous, more defined. It taught people to consider the use of colour. A limited palette teaches an artist which colour to use next to another. The tradition of Aboriginal ochre painting carried on for tens of thousands of years and helped communicate Aboriginal culture and character to a wide audience.

View: Aboriginal Ochre Painting Colour Palettes

When Did Aboriginal People Start to Use Acrylics Instead of Ochre?

The advent of the Aboriginal fine art movement around 1971 saw the introduction of acrylics or synthetic polymers. Suddenly there was a whole rainbow of colours available to artists. Initially, many artists, like those in Papunya, embraced the use of acrylics because they were easier to use and available. You didn't have to mix them with a binder to affix them to a board or an artefact or cave wall. They were a lot simpler to use. Even so, many artists stayed with the original palette even when using acrylics. This carried on for quite a few years.

Read: Early Influence of Geoffrey Bardon

When Did Aboriginal Artists Start To Use Colours Beyond The Ochre Palette?

It wasn't until artists like Walmajarri Jimmy Pike from the Kimberley came around in the 1980's that the use of colour shifted. He introduced extremely strong, vibrant acrylic colours, and even texta colours into his paintings. His influence completely transformed the contemporary Aboriginal fine art movement. There was then a transitional phase from ochre to acrylic in the Central and Western deserts. After that, there was a real flourish of colour across the whole movement. Artists were embracing colour and the different options it gave them. Many of the artists, even though they had often worked with a limited palette most of their lives, were brilliant colourists, and natural at using colours. You see artists putting colours together that you wouldn't think would work. Instinctively they knew what they were doing.

Is Aboriginal Ochre Painting More Popular Than Acrylic Painting?

The use of bright colours underpinned the rebirth of the Aboriginal fine art movement to its recent peak in 2007 where it achieved international worldwide success. Had contemporary Aboriginal painting just been limited to just the ochre palette, perhaps it might not have had the same impact worldwide. Many believe that bright acrylic painting sparked the interest which then spread to include the ochre painting.

Do Aboriginal People Still Paint Using Ochre?

Today there are still several communities using the traditional ochre pigments in their paintings. One of the main ones is the Warmun Art Centre in the Kimberley. This used to be called Turkey Creek. Some of the greatest of the Aboriginal fine art movement have worked with ochre paint.

Read: Wandjinas, Ochre and The Art of Mowanjum People

Who Are The Most Famous Aboriginal Ochre Painters?

The use of natural ochre pigments and the limited palette probably led to the genesis of one of the greatest artists, Rover Thomas Joolama. He was famous for his very spare paintings where less is more. He went on to achieve international success. This is in part through his use of the medium of natural ochre pigments that informed his storytelling and his painting skills. Some of the other greats from the movement were Queenie McKenzie, Jack Britten, Hector Jandanay who came from one community alone. They carried the banner for ochre pigment painting.

How Is Ochre Painting Used in Arnhem Land & Tiwi Islands?

In the Northern Territory, specifically in the Arnhem Land and in the Tiwi Islands the adherence to natural ochre pigment carries on to this very day. Many artists in those communities use rarrk, which is a crosshatching format of painting using natural ochre pigments. In this crosshatching, each artist has their own identifying rarrk. They're all painted in the limited palette of natural ochre pigments. In Arnhem Land they're still using ochre and their works are very fine. They're also often figurative. Some also embrace the technique that today call X-ray style where you can see the internal workings of animals. They also use the ochres to paint totems, and statues and carvings, usually made out of the local ironwood, but also of other woods found up in the tropics. To this very day most of the art from those particular regions in the Northern Territory and Arnhem Land, is still painted in traditional ochre pigments. Even with the body paintings that still carry on the ancient traditions of using ochre pigments.

Read: Tiwi Island Ochre Colour Palette

What Are Ochre Painted Larrakitj Memorial Poles?

Larrakitj memorial poles are found in Arnhem Land. They are made from hollowed out stringybark logs which are painted with ochres. They were designed as coffins.

Is Ochre Painting Still Used In Traditional Aboriginal Ceremony?

There is still widespread use of ochre pigments for ceremonial dances and corroborees. This includes many Aboriginal communities who have embraced acrylics and synthetic polymers for their paintings. Ochre still has a spiritual significance to Aboriginal people because it has that ancient connection that goes back unbroken for tens of thousands of years. The use of ochre underpins, to a large extent, Aboriginal art and culture from all around Australia.

Do Aboriginal Ochre Paintings Require Special Care?

The surface of an ochre painting can be more vulnerable than the surface of an acrylic work. In the article below an expert in ochre painting restoration discusses the ochre medium and the type of care required for these artworks.

Read: Restoration of Australian Aboriginal Ochre Paintings


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