Teacher background information


Year 4 Science Content Description

Science Understanding

Chemical sciences

Natural and processed materials have a range of physical properties that can influence their use (ACSSU074 - Scootle )

  • considering how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ knowledge of natural and processed materials informs the preparation of effective, vibrant and long-lasting paints (OI.5)

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to learn that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ scientific knowledge of the properties of natural materials has long informed, and continues to inform, the careful selection of natural materials to manufacture paint. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples use paint to record and communicate knowledges using a variety of mediums, including rock paintings, bark paintings, body decoration and embellishment of implements. Effective, vibrant and long-lasting paint is made from a variety of natural materials. The selection and preparation of paint materials requires scientific knowledge of the physical properties of the material, including absorbency, stability, vibrancy and durability. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples use pigments to confer additional physical properties and incorporate binders to thicken the paint. After the paint has been applied, fixatives are used to prevent smudging and preserve the paintwork. Students will have the opportunity to learn that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ longstanding scientific knowledge of the physical properties of materials has informed, and continues to inform, the preparation of effective, vibrant and long-lasting paints.

Paint is a liquid mixture, coloured with the addition of pigments and dyes, that is spread over a surface to leave a solid film after drying. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long used, and continue to use, paint as part of a larger system of recording, communicating and preserving knowledges. Paint is used on a variety of substrates (surfaces), including rock, bark, wood and skin. The selection of paint preparation materials differs depending on the surface on which it is to be applied and the purpose of the painting. For millennia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have prepared pigments for paint using natural resources, including mineral and plant materials. Understanding the physical properties of resources informs the careful selection of natural materials to ensure that the materials are fit for purpose. Paints are further enhanced by adding other natural materials to act as binders and fixatives to preserve paintings or to achieve desired styles, such as sharp, defined edges.

Many of the paints that have long been used, and continue to be used, by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples contain pigments extracted from minerals. The mineral pigments that are selected for the manufacture of paint are insoluble in water to ensure that the prepared paint cannot easily be removed from a surface, even when exposed to rain, groundwater or perspiration.  The manufacture of paint begins with the mining of ochre to obtain the natural, raw pigment, followed by the cracking, crushing and grinding of the ore into a uniform powder. Minerals that are used as pigments are selected based on the colour they impart to the paint and include: kaolin or huntite for white; ochres (ferric oxide) for yellow, red and orange; manganese oxide for black; haematite for red and limonite for yellow. Paint is prepared by combining the powdered pigments with a binder, the liquid component that allows the paint to be applied as a film onto a surface.

Aboriginal Peoples understand the physical properties of the mineral pigments that they use in paints, such as durability and stability. The selection and quality of materials, and changes in climatic conditions, can impact the longevity of a painting. For example, the white huntite pigment sourced by the Ngarinyin Peoples of the north west Kimberley region in Western Australia is known to be powdery and can flake from the rock surface after application. For millennia, rock sites in the Kimberley region were revisited regularly to repaint and restore the paint pigment to the rock surface so that the illustrations were preserved. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples use their knowledge about the special properties that make some pigments, such as the deep red iron oxide mineral haematite, more resistant to degradation. In Tasmania, haematite was mixed with animal fat, blood, saliva or water to create paint for application to rock surfaces. Rock paintings created using red pigmented paints at Jowalbinna in north Queensland have persisted under water, due to the physical properties of the pigment.

Pigments for paint can also be extracted from plant material. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples understand the physical properties offered by biological pigments, such as stability and solubility, and use this knowledge to select plant rather than mineral material for paint. The non-toxic red fruits of the saltbush are used by the Arrernte Peoples of the central desert region in the Northern Territory and the Wurundjeri Peoples of the Yarra River area in Victoria to make face paint. The Wimaranga Peoples of the western Cape York Peninsula use the bark of the mountain ash to produce a red-brown paint that is applied to wooden implements such as spears.  

Binders are selected based on the properties they confer to the paint, including adhesiveness, viscosity or thickness and the finishing effect. Binders can be derived from carbohydrate (honey, orchid sap), protein (egg, blood) or lipid (oils, fats). Binders can be used to control the painting style; viscous paints are used for clear, defined lines and thinner paints produce a translucent effect.

The Anindilyakwa Peoples of Groote Eylandt use the sap of the native orchid as a binder in bark painting due to its physical properties of adhesion and viscosity. Before the sap is added, the ground pigment is mixed into a paste with water. Then, the stem of the orchid is used to incorporate the mucoid orchid secretion. The viscosity of paint can be controlled by the careful addition of water to the paint mixture, until the desired consistency is achieved. The Peoples of the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin in the Northern Territory understand the adhesive properties of various binders. They mix mineral pigments with binders, such as the wax or honey of the native bee or turtle egg yolk, to reduce paint flaking on wooden implements. The Barngarla Peoples of the Port Lincoln area in South Australia use animal fats as a binder prior to applying mineral pigments and charcoal as adornment to the body. Animal fats have the physical property of being insoluble in water and pigments applied to the body with fat as a binder can preserve pigment on the skin for several days. Pigments applied with fats also impart a sheen to the skin, contributing to a shimmering effect of the cosmetic paint in firelight. For example, Torres Strait Islander Peoples from many of the Islands in the Torres Strait use coconut oil to apply mineral pigments to the skin.

Fixatives are important in the preservation of paintings to ensure that the paint remains fixed to the surface. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples understand the physical properties of natural materials, such as water resistance and finishing effects, that can be used as fixatives for paints. The suitability of a fixative depends on the materials that are used to manufacture paint and the surface to which it must adhere.

The Tiwi Peoples use the sap from various plants, including the green plum, to fix paints to wooden implements such as musical instruments. The sap acts as a fixative and ensures that the colours of the pigments remain strong and vibrant. The Ngaatjatjarra Peoples of the Central Desert region in Western Australia use emu fat as a fixative for rock paintings; the hydrophobic property of the fat protects the painting from water damage. Resin from plants, such as grass tree and spinifex, is also insoluble in water and has long been used to fix paint to wooden implements. In areas of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory designs are carved into the wood of musical instruments, such as the yidaki, and pigments made from ash and minerals are mixed with resin to colour and fix the designs into the wood. In north Queensland, the Anguthimri Peoples prepare a paint for wooden implements using pigment and the resinous material from yellow tea tree. The paint is warmed before application to permanently fix the colour to implements such as spears. The Walmbaria Peoples of Wurrima (Flinders Island) in north Queensland use candlenut oil as a fixative for paints, preserving the vibrant colours on wooden implements.

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to learn how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ long-held scientific understanding of the physical properties of natural materials has informed the careful and considered selection of natural materials to manufacture paints. For millennia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have used paint on a variety of surfaces such as rock, bark, wooden implements and skin. Knowledge of the physical properties of natural materials, including durability, water resistance, viscosity and stability has long informed the selection of natural materials to manufacture effective, vibrant and long-lasting paints. Students can learn that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ paint technologies show remarkable longevity, with many painting sites proving to be thousands of years old.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

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Alcock, S. (2013). Painting Country: Australian Aboriginal artists’ approach to traditional materials in a modern context. AICCM Bulletin, 34(1), 66-74.

Artlandish Aboriginal Art Gallery. (2019). Aboriginal art body paint. Retrieved from https://www.aboriginal-art-australia.com/aboriginal-art-library/aboriginal-body-painting-art/

Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material. (n.d.). The things we conserve: Bark paintings. Retrieved from https://aiccm.org.au/things-we-conserve/bark-paintings

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Gatenby, S. L. (1996). The identification of traditional binders used on Australian Aboriginal painted objects prior to 1970 [Master’s thesis]. Retrieved from http://www.canberra.edu.au/researchrepository/items/4cd0e714-ba5b-1e19-98e7-cf57003fcf14/1/

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Rose, F. (1942). Paintings of the Groote Eylandt Aborigines. Oceania, 13(2), 170-176.

Roth, W.E., 1904. Domestic implements, arts, and manufactures. North Queensland Ethnography: Bulletin no.7. Government Printer, Brisbane

Smyth, R. (1878). The Aborigines of Victoria: With notes relating to the habits of the natives of other parts of Australia and Tasmania, compiled from various sources for the Government of Victoria. Melbourne: Govt. Print.

Stuart, B., & Thomas, P. (2017). Pigment characterisation in Australian rock art: A review of modern instrumental methods of analysis. Heritage Science, 5(1), 1-6.

Thorne, A. (2014, December 26). Pigments and palettes from the past – science of Indigenous art. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/pigments-and-palettes-from-the-past-science-of-indigenous-art-35604

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Wagga Wagga Art Gallery. (2010). Women with clever hands: Gapuwiyak Miyalkurruwurr Gong Djambatjmala. Retrieved from https://wagga.nsw.gov.au/art-gallery/exhibitions-landing/past-exhibitions/exhibitions-2010/women-with-clever-hands-gapuwiyak-miyalkurruwurr-gong-djambatjmala