Native American Painting and Painters

Published on July 23, 2014 by Amy

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Native American Painting and Painters
Native American Painting and Painters

Before European contact, Native American painting was endowed with a variety of ritual and social purposes by diverse cultural groups throughout the continent. Despite the ravages brought by Euro-American invaders and settlers, many Native American painting traditions survived and evolved into new art forms.

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Painting traditions continued in the Southwest, on the Plains and the Northwest Coast, often retaining their ritual function, while new styles influenced by Euro-American painting traditions, new materials and new audiences catered to the new market, while providing a means of perserving cultural identities

Materials and Techniques

Native American paints were made from naturally occurring mineral pigments, primarily black, obtained from lignite, graphite and charcoal, red from ochres and haematite, and blue or blue-green from copper minerals or soladinite, a blue-green iron-based mineral.

The binder used was primarily fish-egg tempera, obtained by chewing salmon eggs wrapped in cedar bark and spitting the saliva and egg juices into the paint dish. After trade materials became available in the late 18th century, imported pigments were rapidly adopted, especially Chinese vermilion, Prussian blue, ultramarine and Reckitts commercial laundry blueing. White and yellow were rarely used on the northern Northwest Coast but became popular further south, especially in Kwakiutl art during the late 19th century. Shiny enamel paints became popular in the early 20th century, and by the end of the century artists worked in a variety of media, including acrylics. Brushes were traditionally made of animal hair (often porcupine hairs) bound on wooden handles with split spruce or cedar roots.

Southwest Indian Painting

Southwest Native American painting covers a great variety of forms, techniques and media that are not easily classifiable. While all forms must be understood within the context of specific local cultural and temporal traditions, there are common features throughout the Southwest.

All painting from the region can be viewed as a form of visual prayer, whose specific meaning is closely tied to tradition. Paintings are produced to serve social purposes, from honouring a deity to signifying group solidarity. Because of this, painting from the Southwest has often been mistakenly dismissed as merely utilitarian and decorative.

Southwest Native American painting existed for centuries before European contact. The earliest works are huge paintings of figures in caves and rock shelters dating to c. 4000 BC. Rock art has continued to the present day as a record of historical journeys and events, clan and kinship designations, mnemonic devices, astronomical symbols and images of both supernatural and natural phenomena.

All prehistoric and historic groups have left an extensive record of rock paintings and engravings that can be found at numerous locations throughout the Southwest. Painting still continues in traditional form as a vivid means of expression. Many objects and surfaces are painted: ceramic vessels and figurines, masks, sculpture and carvings (such as kachina dolls; shields, ritual equipment, musical instruments, hide and woven clothing, the human body, sacred chambers, and cliffs and rocks.)

All of these are decorated with vegetable and mineral pigments in representational and abstract forms that show a clear and highly developed understanding of composition as it relates to multi-dimensional surfaces. Painters adapt their compositions to the natural outlines of the materials, incorporating the form with precise drawings.

In general, Southwest painting is dominated by abstract geometric designs or highly conventionalized treatments of natural phenomena, although it is always the essence, rather than the physical characteristics, that is portrayed.

The most naturalistic expression appears on objects used in daily life or in non-ritual situations, such as pottery, followed by ceremonial costumes and masks depicting spirits, and wall paintings inside Pueblo religious structures, called kivas. On the latter, brilliant pigments are applied with a fibre brush to wood, clay or white plastered walls in a dry-fresco technique. Painted kivas occur from c. 1350 onwards, and the most famous are at Awatovi and Kuauá, where deities and religious symbols are painted in a flat style in outline areas without shading or modelling.

Religious objects are always symbolic, using abstract geometrics as signs. Most esoteric are pahos, altars, tablitas, large cloth screens and fetishes. Equally linear or radial in composition, Southwestern religious art is strongly conventionalized, for as it represents gifts of the Holy People, there must be little artistic experimentation. The symbols are often depicted repetitively, a device that produces rhythm, symmetry and balance, while the use of colour produces contrast.


A remarkable Southwest painting tradition is dry-painting. While made by most Puebloan, Piman, Cahitan and Athapaskan peoples, dry-paintings are most diverse, complex and prominent among the Navajo, who since their arrival in the Southwest in the 16th century have created a repertory of over 1200 distinct paintings.

Dry-paintings are holy, representing deities within symbolic and mythological landscapes. They are used only during curing ceremonies in order to restore harmony and balance. Dry-paintings are ephemeral and are executed only under the direction of a religious specialist with colourful powdered minerals and vegetal pigments, including pollen and pulverized flower blossoms. A small amount of colour is strewn between the index finger and the thumb in a controlled trickle. Lines and outlined colour areas are laid out in circular, centred or rectangular compositions on a prepared layer of neutral river-bed sand, or sometimes on a buckskin spread
on the floor of ceremonial areas. Sizes range from 1 to 2 m and occasionally to 6.5 m.

On completion, the singer consecrates the design, which becomes holy or, in Navajo terms, ‘the place where the gods come and go’, and is capable of curing and restoring harmony. Mnemonic in nature, showing mythological events, dry-painting designs portray the Holy People—a class of legendary beings who taught the Navajo to live in balance with the world. In addition to the Holy People, who are depicted as anthropomorphic beings stylized to curved or angular geometric shapes, other symbolic motifs include comparatively naturalistic images of animals and plants, zigzag lightning, crosses, swastikas, stars and circular solar symbols within a frame
always open to the east.

Design and Style

Designs are formal, geometric and abstract, and their symbolism inherent in placement of figures, composition and colour, being associated with the cardinal directions, seasonality, gender and other important concepts . These designs, characterized by order and clarity, rhythmic repetition and balanced asymmetry, are standardized with little room for variation: they have to be exact in order to become efficacious, and no significant style changes have been noted since they were first recorded in the mid-1880s.

Why did early painters experience tribal discrimination?

Contemporary developments

During the second half of the 19th century, Euro-Americans had introduced new media and concepts into Southwest Native American art (see §2 below). In 1932 Dorothy Dunn founded The Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School to encourage artistic development and pride in native heritage. Students were taught to paint the stylized, two-dimensional compositions that have come to be regarded as ‘traditional’ Native American painting. Subject-matter was culture specific but always focused on ceremonial and daily life, the environment and symbolic
representations from dry-paintings and rock art; Dunn believed that some forms, especially animals, plants and anthropomorphic beings, were prototypically ‘Native American’ and should be the basic stylistic components.

In the 1950s the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe assumed the lead in educational training in the arts, and by the 1960s painters were questioning the value of strict adherence to established conventions of Native American painting that were often reinforced by Euro-American controlled markets and juried shows. By the late 20th century the main problem facing all Southwest Native American painters was misplaced purism.

While traditionalists often suspect innovative painters of abandoning their traditions, purism is centred in the art market where patrons, museums and galleries have tried to persuade Native American artists to conform to ethnically identifiable subjects and styles, thereby reinforcing the 1930s Studio tradition.

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