The artwork of the Aboriginal people of Australia is as varied as the land and the climate of the continent. Until the 1970s, the people of each region only used the natural materials that were available to them. Even though many Aboriginal artists now have synthetic paints and manufactured paintbrushes, their artwork is still similar in style to the art that has been done on the continent for thousands and thousands of years.
In the far north, such in the area of Queensland, bark paintings were among the most popular forms of Aboriginal art. Tribesmen stripped bark off of eucalyptus trees during the rainy season, let it dry while pressing it flat, and then used it as a surface for painting. Many bark paintings feature "x-ray" views of animals, as well as a type of cross-hatching known as "rarrk." Some bark paintings also feature the use of dots of paint, but patterns of lines seemed to be most common in this style of artwork. Many bark paintings illustrate stories of the tribe or from the "dreaming."
Dot paintings are the traditional art form of the Aboriginals in Western Australia. Dots of paint cover the entire surface of the painting, and the dots create symbolic patterns that illustrate different legends and stories. Bright colors have become common in the years since the Aboriginal painters started using modern materials, but traditional dot painters still use colors that come from the earth, such as pigments from different colored rocks which are crushed and mixed with water, wax, or natural glues.
Dot paintings are based on the tradition of sandpainting in the central desert of Australia, and usually there's no "right" way to view the pieces--they look okay any way you turn them. Even today, most dot painters choose to work with their canvas or cloth on the ground, rather than on an easel. Many of the symbols that they use include concentric circles and other dotted designs that represent water holes, people, rivers and journeys. Some of the paintings are like "maps," which tell a story.
Other Aboriginals painted or carved on rocks, and they often painted "stencil" images of their hands. To do this, they would hold their hand up against the rock and blow a mixture of paint and water out of their mouth onto it. When they removed their hand, its outline would be visible against the rock. They also made stencils of boomerangs and other weapons in this way.
Many rock paintings show animals such as the rock wallaby (a small kangaroo) or mythical creatures such as the Mimi figures--thin, stick-like spirit beings that are important characters in their creation stories.
Despite the fact that rock paintings were usually done in sheltered areas such as caves, they are very fragile and can be damaged by the effects of wind, rain, and plant growth. In ancient times, rock paintings would be renewed and repainted by special tribe members, but now so much traditional knowledge has been lost that Aboriginal groups are trying to simply preserve the rock paintings that are left.
Rock carvings, also known as petroglyphs, were often done on rocks that stood out in the open. This type of rock art is thought to be much older than the more fragile rock paintings. Petroglyphs often showed traditional symbols such as concentric circles, and most were engraved by scraping the design into the surface of the rock with a harder rock.
In addition to painting or carving on surfaces that have already been mentioned, Aboriginal people also made use of body art. They would paint their faces and bodies for sacred rituals, and they also would carve designs into their skin, in a practice known as scarification.
Scars were made in the body for many reasons, but usually this was done during special ceremonies to mark initiations or changes of status within the tribe. The Aboriginal people would cut into the skin with a sharp shell or stone, and then press an irritating substance--such as ash from a fire--into the wound. When the wound healed, raised scars would remain, and these scars were usually in patterns that had meanings known only to certain members of each tribe. This form of body art is rarely practiced now.
Aboriginal artwork is both new and old at the same time. Even though Aboriginal artists now create paintings using modern-day materials, their continued use of traditional symbols and art styles helps to keep their ancient culture alive.