Object: Bark Painting

Australia: Bark Painting
20th century
Materials: bark, ocher

Australian Aboriginal bark painting is an involved process that takes skill and knowledge to accomplish.  The art has been practiced for centuries and the methods of bark painting have been passed down through the generations.  To create a bark painting an artist must first collect the bark that is used as the canvas.  The Stringybark or Gum Tree (Eucalyptus tetradonta) is the type of tree that works best for bark painting because large uninterrupted portions of the bark can be removed at once.  The Stringybark Tree is native to Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand and is often cultivated in the temperate zones as shade trees on plantations. These trees can grow to be quite large, over 250 feet tall, but are more commonly around 30 to 100 feet tall.  To remove the bark, an artist uses a hatchet to chop around the circumference of the tree above his head. A strait, tall section of tree must be selected for the cutting.  Then the same is done at the bottom of the tree.  The bark begins to loosen and can be easily removed from the tree leaving the tree naked as seen in the picture to the right.

To prepare the bark for painting it first has to be smoked.  A fire is lit and burned down to embers.  Then the embers are rolled down the inside of the bark piece. This burns away any stray fibers and heats the bark so that it can be flattened.  Once flattened, the bark must be dried for two or three days.  When the bark canvas is ready, it is time to make the paint.  Paint is made from naturally occurring ocher found in the area.  Ocher is a mineral deposit, mainly iron oxide, that ranges in color from white and yellow, to orange and red (see examples of ocher in picture at left). This mineral is used as a natural pigment.

The ocher is then ground into powder and combined with a fluid agent to create paint. Traditionally saliva or animal blood was used as fluid, but contemporary artists more often use acrylic as a binding agent.  Paintbrushes are made by pounding wood with stone until the fibers are exposed.  Sticks or small paintbrushes are also used for detail work.  Ash is brushed over the bark first to create a dark background then a design is painted in ocher. A video of an artist making a bark painting can be seen here.

[Katrina Kassis Swihart]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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