Published on May 27, 2014 by Carol
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.
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.
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.