One of the most important foundations of Australian Indigenous art is the use of ochre. Natural colours and minerals, such as ochres, can be found in the soil and sometimes even in charcoal. The original purpose of using ochre in Aboriginal art was to illustrate Dreamtime stories and maps. Ochres were utilised in body painting, rock painting, colouring artefacts, and sand art.
Historical roots of ochre
The usage of ochre in human activities comes with a rich history. The ochre pigment is one of the earliest colours ever discovered and used by humans. At 300,000-year-old sites in France and Czechoslovakia, pieces of haematite — a compact form of iron oxide that’s ground to produce red ochre pigment — were found worn down, seemingly used like crayons.
Natural earth colours such as ochre can be found all over the world. A 43,000-year-old ochre mine in Swaziland’s Lion Cave has the oldest record of haematite mining activity. Ochre was used by the ancient Egyptians as rouge or lip gloss. It was also considered a fashionable colour in France during the height of the French Empire, so they used it to adorn or enhance architecture.
Ochre — a visual medium for Aboriginal culture
Ochres provided Australian Aboriginals with the earliest visual medium to tell their stories, which were typically transmitted through oral traditions such as storytelling and songs.
Since Indigenous peoples did not have a formal written language, they relied on symbols like concentric circles, U shapes, and straight stick forms to help them tell their tales. With ochres, it became possible for Indigenous people to create those symbols and communicate their stories by making use of natural colours and artistic expression.
Long before canvas, linen, and acrylic paints became available, the first Australian Aboriginal art collected by Europeans made use of ochre on eucalyptus bark.
A valuable traded commodity
Ochres were once considered quite valuable and were actually a valuable traded commodity among the different Indigenous communities in Australia. Similar to silk routes, there were commercial lines dedicated to ochre trading that ran throughout Asia. The natural ochre colours were highly valued, although some variants were in greater demand than others.
The different ochres available paved the way for creative storytelling and helped preserve Indigenous tales, as well as recording images of Dreamtime spirits and totems. Without ochres as art materials, creative expression would have been much more limited to scratching on rocks and carving.
Limitations that helped hone Aboriginal art
Ochre had a few limitations. One of them is the fact that even with blending and mixing, only about six colours could be produced, which limited the palette significantly. However, these colour constraints resulted in a more rigorous, defined art form. The limited palette forced people to think about how they manipulated colour and how to make the best effective use of it in expressing their thoughts and feelings. The use of ochre in Aboriginal art lasted for tens of thousands of years, and it has become an integral part of the identity of Australian Aboriginal artistry.
Continuation of ochre use as an artistic medium
Unsurprisingly, some artists still use traditional ochre colours in their artworks today.
In fact, the restraint created by the use of natural ochre colours and a limited palette likely spawned one of the finest artists, Rover Thomas Joolama. Known for his sparse paintings, Joolama went on to gain international acclaim as a result of his artistic talent and skilful use of Aboriginal paint in ochre.
Other artists who had deliberately chosen to use ochre as their painting medium include Queenie McKenzie, Jack Britten, and Hector Jandany. They were all part of the Indigenous Fine Art Movement. These prominent artists in the Kimberley region of Western Australia have inspired others to also continue the practice, creating artworks featuring natural ochres and other earth colours.
The use of natural ochre pigment is also still practised in the Northern Territory, particularly in Arnhem Land and the Tiwi Islands.
Many of the artists there work in rarrk — a cross-hatching painting technique that uses natural ochre colours in a limited palette. Each artist has their identifiable rarrk in the cross-hatching style. They also use the ochres to paint totems, statues, and carvings; they’re mainly made of native ironwood but can also be constructed out of other tropical woods.
Invest in authentic Aboriginal ochre paintings
Ochre painting has always played a significant role in the preservation and advancement of ancient Aboriginal culture, including Indigenous artistry. Therefore, its cultural and historical value to both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian communities can hardly be quantified.
You can own a piece of this Indigenous cultural legacy by purchasing Aboriginal ochre art at an OzBid auction. And since we work directly with several amazing Arnhem Land artists at OzBid and provide a certificate of authenticity with every work of art, you are assured of the origin of each piece you choose.
At OzBid, our pricing guidelines for every piece of artwork are completely transparent, and you have the opportunity to examine each artwork in detail prior to its online auction. The same applies whether you are interested in ochre dot or cross-hatching paintings, bush medicine paintings, bark paintings, or some other Indigenous art forms.
Whether you’re buying Aboriginal ochre paintings for your home or office, we’re here to help you find the perfect piece that will fit right into your budget and complement your space.
Take advantage of expedited shipping at OzBid
Whether you live locally, nationally, or globally, you can depend on OzBid to make it simple to acquire your artwork safely. We offer free delivery to all Australian capital cities and nearby metro regions, excluding Darwin, for purchases with a total value of up to $5,000. Interstate deliveries are properly packaged and traced throughout their journey. Orders from within the Sydney metropolitan region are handled by our local door-to-door service.
OzBid offers a variety of solutions for overseas customers to ensure the safe transport and delivery of their Indigenous artworks. We work with a variety of service providers and couriers to give you competitive estimates and ensure that you receive your new artworks at the soonest possible time. If you have any questions or need any assistance, please reach out to us at OzBid.
What are ochre paintings?
A number of Australia’s Indigenous cultures have employed ochre as a traditional visual medium for over 60,000 years. The fact that rock drawings from at least 40,000 to 50,000 years ago are still identifiable today demonstrates ochre’s enduring qualities.
Ochre paintings are just some of the outstanding applications of this material, which was also extensively used in map-making, body and rock painting, adorning artefacts, storytelling, sand art, and even medicine.
Earlier generations of Indigenous artists only ever had access to a few natural pigments, which is why they mastered the nuanced applications and hues of ochre in their art. But even with the introduction of newer mediums like acrylic paints, some artists, particularly some of those who formed part of the Indigenous Fine Art Movement, continued to use ochre as their pigment material of choice.
This is why today, we are fortunate to still find ochre dot paintings as well as ones done in the cross-hatching style.
How did the Aboriginal people find ochre?
Although much has been studied and written about the significance of ochre in Australian Aboriginal culture, there is no concrete information about how ochre was first discovered and used.
What we do know is that as far back as 40,000 years ago — and likely even longer — Australia’s Indigenous cultures were already using ochre. This was established with the discovery of the burial site of a Koori warrior known as ‘Mungo Man’ at Lake Mungo in Mutti Mutti, Barkindji, and Ngiyampa region in south-western New South Wales.
Mungo Man was neatly buried in a sand dune with his hands crossed in his lap and his body dusted with red ochre acquired from a deposit in another location. This find is the oldest confirmed example of ochre use in Australia for ceremonial and aesthetic purposes.
How was ochre turned into paint?
Ochre is an iron oxide pigment that comes in a variety of colours, ranging from white to yellow to red and brown. Aboriginals used ochre or iron clay pigments to produce colours like white, yellow, and red, while black was created from charcoal.
Miners would crush the soft ochre rock into a powder and then combine it with water, saliva, or the fat or blood of fish or other animals like the emu, goanna, or possum to make a paste. This paste was then used for a number of artistic, practical, and ornamental purposes.
Sometimes, ochre was heated to specific temperatures to achieve the depth of colour required by the creator or artist. The ochre was then powdered, prepared and blended with a binder so the artist could begin using it to paint. Since commercial binders were not accessible in the early days, the first ochre painters made use of natural binders like ‘garliwun’ or tree resin, bush honey, egg yolks, and kangaroo blood.
The thickness of the ochre palette employed depended on the desired outcome of the artwork. Some artists used thick-palette ochre with a lot of grain, while others preferred finely powdered ochre to achieve a translucent impression.
To achieve a very subtle ochre imaging, the early ochre masters would prepare the canvas with ochre paint, let it dry, and then rub it back with a flat stone. Ochre is a durable natural pigment that’s unaffected by direct sunlight and can withstand severe temperatures and climates. This is why rock and cave paintings from thousands of years ago survive to this day.
What was ochre used for?
For Australian Aboriginal people, natural clay ochre was one of the most essential and valued trading goods. It was used it for body adornment during corroborees and spiritual rites; decorating wooden and stone utensils, as well as ritual objects and hunting tools; and rock, cave, and sand art.
Ochre was also extensively used for medicinal purposes. The people mixed it with fat or grease to prepare ointments to treat bruises, muscular sprains, arthritis aches, and a variety of skin diseases. It was used as a drying agent for wounds, either in dry powder form or combined with water or saliva, and sprayed over the affected area. It was also used to treat head and chest colds when rolled with eucalyptus leaves.
They also used it as protection from insects like mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks. Mosquitos are particularly drawn to human scents like carbon dioxide and sweat. The use of ochre served as a protective screen, as it masked bodily odours effectively. Big game hunters pursuing animals like kangaroo and emu benefited in particular from the scent-masking ability of ochre.
Where is ochre used in Aboriginal art?
The natural earth colour ochre was widely utilised in Australian Aboriginal rock art, which is thought to be the first known human style of painting. Depending on the art style, the pigment was used dry or blended in various ways using blood, fat, or water to create images rich with symbolic meaning. As a medium of artistic expression, it was used for body and rock painting, sand art, and decorating artefacts.
What does ochre symbolise in Aboriginal art?
Aboriginal art symbolism and emblems are quite varied. The oldest Aboriginal art in Australia is estimated to be around 60,000 years old. While Aboriginal art has taken numerous shapes since then, a few basic meanings have remained constant.
Ancient Aboriginal societies used red ochre to represent blood, yellow ochre to represent sand or sunshine, and white paint to represent water. Stars, ancestral desert paths, and bodily parts were frequently portrayed using black dot patterns, while lines denoted waterfalls, rivers, and landscapes.