Ochre Paintings

Ochre pigments were used in Indigenous Australian art since time immemorial, in ancient rock paintings and in recent centuries in bark paintings, which are indeed still painted in Arnhem Land today. Some artists have developed additional, innovative techniques described below.

Historically, exclusively four colours were used in ochre-based works: yellow and red and/or red-brown ochres, white from Mawundu (pipe clay) and black from charcoal, which is obtained by burning native timbers. The artists continue to manufacture their pigments themselves. The ochre is first crushed in a large mortar and then pressed through differently grained sieves or filters in order to obtain different grades of powders. After subsequent treatments they are applied to canvas in either a very thin, translucent film or as a pastose layer of pronounced haptic.

The adjacent enlargement of a segment of a painting by Churchill Cann (Yoonany) makes clear that the artists apply variously crushed and finely ground materials in order to produce different textures.

After crushing the pigments in mortars and sieving them, they are combined with water and also the usual commercially available binders. Before the availability of European materials, the juices of certain plants were used as fixatives for the pigments. In some cases the artists mixed in animal blood, in order to increase the depth of some colours.

The artists from Warmun, a small town in the Kimberley region in the northwest of Australia, extend the colour palette from the originally pure four base colours by mixing them with Mawundu (pipe clay) to obtain grey and different shades of red. Sometimes the highly sought after red ochre shades are sold to artists in other regions.

Mawundu (pipe clay) has a grey surface at the time of excavation, but rubbing it brings out a radiant white colour. It is a very fine pigment, which also plays an important role in religious ceremonies, during which the face and body are painted.