The use of ochre as a painting medium is a tradition that has its footprints from before the first civilisations were born. To put it simply, when much of humankind lived in nomadic hunter-gatherer groups. Ochre paint is one of the essential aspects of Australian Indigenous art. With natural colours and minerals found in soil, the ancestors of today's Aboriginal ochre paint artists would use ochre to portray Dreamtime stories and maps on whatever surface was on hand or hold some sacred significance. Body painting, rock painting, colouring artefacts and sand art all sported paintings that used ochres.Today, traditional and contemporary ochre paintings are held in high regard in the art world, garnering the love of regular on-lookers and avid art enthusiasts alike. We’ll delve deeper into the Dreamtime and explore how this ancient art form has captured the world’s admiration.



What are Aboriginal ochre paintings?


Aboriginal ochre painting is a type of painting that uses ochre, a type of natural pigment. The ochre is usually ground into a powder and then mixed with water to create a paint-like substance. Aboriginal artists will often use their hands or sticks to apply the ochre onto rocks, bark, leaves or other surfaces they wish. This was usually to record important events, stories or maps of the Dreamtime, although many other paintings also feature scenes from everyday life. They would also be used for ceremonial purposes, such as initiating young men into manhood.Today, many aboriginal artists create ochre paintings on canvas to be viewed by and sold to a broader audience. The paintings often incorporate traditional elements along with modern motifs and styles.



History of Aboriginal ochre paintings


The history of ochre paintings and the Aboriginal ochre painting by extension is almost as long as the history of humanity itself. To understand why ochre painting is so important to Aboriginal culture and history, we’ll discuss some of the histories of ochre painting in general.



The origins of root and ochre


Root and ochre are two of the oldest known pigments used by humans for tens of thousands of years. Prehistoric artists used them to create cave paintings, body paintings and pottery. Both have a yellowish-brown or reddish-brown pigment that is made from a variety of minerals. Examples of ochre painting include 30,000 year-old sites in France and Czechoslovakia and the oldest record of Haematite mining activity is a 43,000-year-old ochre mine in Swaziland's Lion Cave. The ancient Egyptians also employed ochre as rouge or lip gloss. During the height of the French Empire, it was also considered a stylish colour; therefore, it was used to ornament or improve architecture.



Ochre as a commodity


When people began to organise themselves into groups with a shared history, culture and belief system, trade of certain commodities between those groups soon followed suit. Ochres were one of those commodities that were highly sought after and a valuable traded product among Australia's many Indigenous cultures. Commercial lines specialised in ochre trafficking extended throughout Asia, similar to the silk routes. Natural ochre colours were highly appreciated, yet some versions were more popular than others. The free exchange of goods and cultures made imaginative storytelling and preserving Indigenous tales possible. It also allowed for the recording of images of Dreamtime spirits and totems. Without ochres as art materials, human creativity would have been limited to scraping on rocks and carving.



Ochre used for Aboriginal paintings


Since much of Aboriginal history is passed down through oral tradition, there is no certain date as to when Aboriginal peoples began ochre painting. However, given that the Aboriginal civilisation is among the oldest continuous societies, we can assume that they have been making visual representations of their sacred stories for at least 65,000 years.The Indigenous peoples did not have written languages, so they would narrate stories using either oral traditions like stories and songs or symbols like concentric circles, U shapes and straight stick forms. These were all created utilising natural colours that were discovered and even mined. There are still some recognisable examples of ancient ochre paintings on rocks at least 40 to 50,000 years old. This is proof that ochre has incredible longevity.

How ochre paint was traditionally made


To bind, retain the colour and preserve their ochre colours, Indigenous Australians blend ochres with various natural gum resins or animal-derived oils/fats (from animals such as emus and kangaroos). On the other hand, Western manufacturers use acrylic compounds, vegetable oils (such as linseed) and gum-based water solutions to obtain the same outcome.



The limitations of ochre


Part of what makes Aboriginal ochre painting so unique is the limitations ochre poses as a medium. One such limitation is that, even with blending and mixing, only roughly six colours could be produced. This greatly limited the palette, thus, resulting in a more rigid, defined art style, which makes Aboriginal ochre paintings so recognisable. People were compelled to consider how they controlled colour and how to effectively use it in conveying their thoughts and feelings due to the few choices of colours. Even though many modern artists can mix natural ochre paint with acrylics to create a broader palette, the original earthy colour scheme has remained a mainstay in the art form. This is part of why ochre has become an important aspect of the identity of Australian Aboriginal creativity.



Ochre paintings’ growth in popularity


Around 1971, the Indigenous Fine Art Movement witnessed the introduction of acrylics or synthetic polymers. Suddenly, artists had access to an entire rainbow of colours. Many painters, including those in Papunya, initially welcomed the use of acrylics because they were easier to use and more widely available. Because they were easier to use and more readily available, Indigenous artists gravitated towards them instantly. Even while employing acrylics, many artists maintained the original palette and style of traditional ochre paintings. There are still those that choose to keep the old methods alive. Queenie McKenzie, Jack Britten and Hector Jandany are among the other painters who have purposefully used ochre as a painting medium. They were all associated with the Indigenous Fine Art Movement. These notable artists in Western Australia's Kimberley region have encouraged others to continue the tradition, making artworks using natural ochres and other earth colours.



Ochre paintings today


Today, Aboriginal ochre paintings have attained wide regard in the greater art world, being very much in demand by both local and international markets. While traditional forms of ochre paint can still be found, artists frequently utilise other more readily available materials, such as canvas and paint brushes. They also tend to mix ochre with acrylic to produce a wider range of colours or use acrylic in their works entirely. The distinctive pattern and design elements seen in the traditional ochre painting are also utilised alongside other motifs personal to the artist.



Aboriginal ochre paintings at Wentworth Galleries


Wentworth Galleries curates and sells some of the finest works of art created by some of the brightest artists, from Australian contemporary art to traditional Aboriginal art. We are honoured to highlight this essential component of Aboriginal culture and give Aboriginal artists a venue to share their experiences with the rest of the world. In our catalogue, you will find pieces that keep the tradition of Aboriginal ochre painting alive while reflecting the unique, individual perspective of the mind that painted it. We exhibit Australia's top artists, regardless of genre and seek to show the best examples of their work. Whether you're looking for a rental painting to enjoy for a few moments or a chance to acquire a one-of-a-kind Australian art, our large range makes it simple to choose the ideal piece of art for your collection.



Own an Aboriginal ochre painting today!


Wentworth Galleries has a curated selection of Aboriginal ochre paintings available for you to appreciate and own. Enjoy top-quality art from talented artists when you shop with us — we provide free home or office trials and a two-year exchange guarantee. Learn more about the most recent art news and if you have any queries, please feel free to contact us. We're always eager to assist you in finding the piece of your dreams.

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