Artworks Using Synthetic Polymer Paint on Canvas

Synthetic polymer paint is more suitable than oils, under the conditions pertaining to Indigenous artists far from the larger cities, because they dry quickly. That helps explain why painting in synthetic polymer paint is the most common technique. The methods used thereby are, however, extremely diverse.

For a long time, dot painting was seen as the most characteristic feature of central Australian art. Fig. 1: Paddy Japlajarri Sims, Yanjirlpirri Jukurrpa, 2003, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 183 x 61 cm printed in: Altendorf, Ulrike and Hermes, Liesel (ed.): Australien - Facetten eines Kontinents, Stauffenburg Verlag, Tübingen 2010, p. 142 It manifests itself in a variety of styles. In the classical works, the dots must be interpreted as background. It is against this background that each painting unfolds its symbolism. An example is “Yanjirlpirri Jukurrpa“ from 2003 by Paddy Japaljarri Sims.

“Yanjirlpirri” means star and is also the name of a group of low hills, with waterholes and soakages, to the west of Yuendumu. It is also linked with initiation ceremonies of the Japaljarri and Jungarrayi men (1), who travelled from Kurlurngalinypa (near the township of Lajamanu) towards Yanjirlypirri. On their travels they carry out the kurdiji, initiation ceremonies for young men, in which women also dance. The men decorate both sides of their heads with jinjirla (white feathers) and carry wooden stars. Such stars are also integrated into a ground painting, which is created for the kurikuripa (ceremony). Witi (ceremonial speers) are fastened vertically to the shins of the dancing initiates using ngalyipi (snake vine). These witi are symbolized in the painting by long straight lines. The white circles represent the yanjirlpirri (stars).

The importance of the Yanjirlpirri (hills) cannot be overemphasized: young men travelled here for their initiations from regions as far away as the country of the Pitjanjatjara in the south and from Lajamanu, 600 km across the Tanami Desert to the north.

The symbols representing the essential meaning of the paintings - here the ceremonial spears in the form of long straight black lines and the stars in the form of white circles – are the first to be painted on the canvas. Only afterwards are the spaces between symbols filled with a background of dots.

The manner in which dots are painted has evolved since 1970 (2), and the meaning of the dots has also changed. The following styles, among others, can be distinguished:

  • Precise dots of the same size, with gaps between, are set against a particular background colour.
  • Dots that differ in size, colour, and density of application, are placed on the canvas to form certain structures. An example is the painting by Gladdy Kemarre from 1988, which shows the connection between awelye (women's ceremonies, with appropriate bodypainting), and the altyerre (3) of the anwekety (Bush Plum) and alhalkere (the country of the artist).
  • Dots which are painted impasto, very close to each other and overlapping, so that they merge into one another and are recognized only with difficulty as distinct dots. The painting by Lucy Yukenbarri Napanangka is an example. She developed this new technique, the kinti kinti method (kinti kinti means “close together”), around 1990, and it has since been adopted by many fellow artists.
  • Taken one step further, the next technique of dot painting allows the dots to be distinguished only at close inspection. The overlapping dots appear as lines and the paintings are thus akin to line paintings (see below).
  • Finally, the dots themselves can be structured and significantly enlarged, as in the painting by Lily Sandover Kngwarreye. While the other paintings have no overlap between dots and any other visual elements, the dots in these paintings cover the curved lines. Here, they do not form a background, but have their own significance.
    Fig. 4: Lily Sandover Kngwarreye, Ngkwarlerlaneme Altyerre, 1996, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 85 x 85 cm, printed in: Bähr, Elisabeth and Seele, Ralf-Michael (ed.): Zeichen des Seins. Malerei der australischen Aborigines, Meiningen 1999, exh. brochure, cover
    Fig. 4: Lily Sandover Kngwarreye, Ngkwarlerlaneme Altyerre, 1996, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 85 x 85 cm, printed in: Bähr, Elisabeth and Seele, Ralf-Michael (eds.): Zeichen des Seins. Malerei der australischen Aborigines, Meiningen 1999, exh. brochure, cover
  • Another example of the assignment of significance to the dots is shown in paintings by a number of artists from the area of Utopia, whereby the use of symbols is dispensed with completely and instead a myriad of small dots are applied in layers over and adjunct to eachother, such that no pronounced structures are discernable. The individual dots differ only negligibly in their size and, together with a simultaneous reduction in their colour saturation, this leads to a shimmering effect. The paintings nevertheless portray the same themes as those paintings which use symbols.

Painting with dots is simultaneously experimenting with light and shadow. Depending on how the dots are illuminated, how they are angled to the light, different segments of the painting or different sets of dots of the same colour are either emphasized or understated. Such artworks are often painted using a much reduced colour scheme; then the colour plays a subordinated role, compared to the lighting.

This principle, which plays a not insignificant role in this aspect of Indigenous art, namely using special techniques to make the paintings seem to shine or glisten, is practiced by a number of artists who apply the colours in very pastose layers; the gloss of the synthetic synthetic polymer paint is enhanced in this way. At the same time this produces a haptic impression, which is also intended. A further painting technique which enhances brilliance is the rarrk method of crosshatching in bark paintings.

Within the domain of paintings in synthetic polymers, the so-called line paintings represent a large grouping. Their origins can be traced very clearly to ceremonial body painting.  Ada Bird Petyarre, Untitled, 1997, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 85 x 61,5 cm and 86,5 x 61,5 cm, printed in: Städtisches Kunstmuseum Spendhaus Reutlingen (ed.): Bilderwelten in Utopia. Holzschnitte und Gemälde von Aborigines, Speyer 2004, p. 86-87The two paintings by Ada Bird Petyarre from 1997 serve to illustrate this. The linear motifs – painted here in unusually enhanced scale – are inspired by the body painting used within awelye, women's ceremonies. In this case, they are linked with the Australian thorny lizard (moloch horridus). But although body painting was the starting point, these line paintings have departed considerably from the direct pictorial depiction of ceremonial designs, in favour of a style where body painting is used just as a source of inspiration.

The painting by Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula portrays the story of two women who rested during their journey to the north of Walungurru (Kintore) at the sacred site Yuwalki, where they sang the songs and danced the dances associated with that site. The religious rituals are visually translated into a painting which draws the eye into its heart, through the use of ever smaller rectangles in softly gradated colours.


(1) Japaljarri and Jungarrayi are classifications of social relationships, but are not based on consanguinity.

(2) The year 1970 can, with the exception of some forerunner events, be asigned as the true beginning of the new art movement (see The Beginnings of Contemporary Indigenous Art in Papunya).

(3) Altyerre is the term for Jukurrpa in the language of the Anmatyerre, the Indigenous  group to which the artist belongs.