|Native American Painting and Painters
Overview of Native American 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.
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
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
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
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?
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.