Dot Painting Origin and Reasons

Dot paintings are now internationally recognised as unique and integral to Australian Aboriginal Art. The simple dot style as well as cross hatching maybe beautifully aesthetic to the eye but has a far more hidden meaning and deeper purpose; to disguise the sacred meanings behind the stories in the paintings. Before Indigenous Australian art was ever put onto canvas the Aboriginal people would smooth over the soil to draw sacred designs which belonged to that particular ceremony.

Body paint was also applied which held meanings connected to sacred rituals.  These designs were outlined with circles and encircled with dots.

Uninitiated people never got to see these sacred designs since the soil would be smoothed over again and painted bodies would be washed. This was not possible with paintings.

Aboriginal artists abstracted their paintings to disguise the sacred designs, so the real meanings could not be understood by Westerners. Dot painting originated almost 50 years ago in 1971.  Geoffrey Bardon was assigned as an art teacher for the children of the Aboriginal people in Papunya, near Alice Springs. He noticed whilst the Aboriginal men were telling stories they would draw symbols in the sand.  Bardon encouraged his students to paint a mural based on traditional dreamings on the school walls. The murals sparked incredible interest in the community. He incited them to paint the stories onto canvas and board.  Soon many of the men began painting as well.

At first, they used cardboard or pieces of wood, which was later replaced by canvas.

Thus, began the famous Papunya Tula Art Movement.

Bardon helped the Aboriginal artists transfer depictions of their stories from desert sand to paint on canvas. The Aboriginal artists soon became concerned that the sacred-secret objects they painted were being seen not only by Westerners, but Aboriginal people from different regions that were not privy to their tribal stories.

They did not want them to understand or learn the sacred, restricted parts of their stories so the artists decided to eliminate the sacred elements and abstracted the designs into dots to conceal their sacred meanings.

Early Papunya paintings showed strong representations of artefacts, ritual objects and spiritual ceremonies.  This style disappeared within a few years.

The first paintings to come from the Papunya Tula School of Painters were never intended to be sold.  They were purely created by the Aboriginal people who were displaced and living a long way from their original home country.

The works were visual reminders of their own being. They painted land that they belonged to and the stories that are associated with those sites. In essence they were painting their identity onto the boards, as a visual assertion of their identity and origins.

Originally colours were restricted to variations of red, yellow, black and white produced from ochre, charcoal and pipe clay. Later acrylic mediums were introduced allowing for more vivid colourful paintings.

These art works could show dots, cross hatching, maps of circles, spirals, lines and dashes which is the long established pictorial language of Western Desert Aboriginal People.

Aboriginal artworks painted in acrylic are a beautiful blend of traditional and contemporary. The dot technique gives the painting an almost 3D effect and a sense of movement and rhythm.

Many people comment that the paintings look alive and that they literally seem to jump out at you. The flat canvas comes to life with energy and vivacity just like the dreamings and rituals that inspired them.

Dot paintings vary from the finest of minute marks neatly arranged on the canvas to the wild multi-coloured large dotting of some of the desert women. Some artists merge their dots into lines, or even into wide areas of connecting dots which have more of a stippled effect than a 'dotted' appearance. The defining criterion for a dot painting is the technique used - that it is produced by repeated imprints of a paint covered brush, dotting stick or other implement onto the surface of the painting and that in doing so, there are recognisable 'dot' marks on the canvas.

Within the Dot painting style, Aboriginal artists may overlap or 'enclose' dots within other larger dots, or they may be closely joined to give the appearance of lines, and even dotted so densely that they create a flat coloured area - however to be a 'dot' painting, the dotting method must still be visible.

Aboriginal Dot paintings are commonly executed in both Ochre paintings and Acrylics, however Acrylic paint is the more commonly used for these artworks. The paint used may be highly textured with a very raised surface or flat.  Perhaps the most proficient dot work is done by using well mixed acrylic paint with a high level of viscosity (thickness and cohesiveness) - when this dries, it forms a raised profile - from the side, this makes a curved shape on the canvas, with the centre of the dot highest and a tapering effect towards the edges.

Dots range from exceedingly fine work done with very thin sticks, to large dots of up to four centimetres in diameter. The patterns may be extremely neat, traditional designs, some using Ochre paints and some using Acrylic. Or they may be wild, overlapping, unstructured works where the Aboriginal Artist is highly expressionist in the execution of the work. Some of the most exciting dot paintings artistically, are those painted by older Aboriginal Artists. Not only do these artworks represent ancient stories and iconography, but by virtue of the advanced age of the artists, frequently in their seventies, eighties or even older, are less precise and steady than works by the younger generations.  This gives the works a beautiful, painterly quality and a loose, relaxed style which is not only aesthetically pleasing but can often be a signature of the Aboriginal Artist's work.

For example, Willy Tjungarrayi's works of recent years can be recognised instantly by the occasional 'tadpole' dots whereas he lifts his stick from the canvas a short tail of trailing paint is created. Some of Walangkura Napanangka's works also, gained a wavery and less precise quality in her later painting years. Works by other Aboriginal artists such as Ningura Napurrula and Mitjili Napurrula also went through stages of increasingly unruly dotting work, because of eyesight or other health problems, and then later and following successful treatment of their conditions, the artists began to produce works which were amazingly neat by contrast. Correlating the year the Aboriginal artist painted the work with the unique quality of their dot work is one important way (but not the only way) of being sure of its authenticity. Similarly, the way an artist places their dots and the quality of their dot work and paint application is as recognisable as a signature to someone who knows their work, and it is relatively easy to recognise the Aboriginal Artist simply by looking at their dot work.

There are several theories as to where or how dot paintings originated, and it is likely that all of them have their part to play in the works of different Aboriginal artists. One certain reason is that early in the Aboriginal art movement, the People were concerned that non-initiates may be able to understand or learn the sacred, secret or restricted parts of their stories. Drawing a painting in sand had previously posed no problem because it was generally smoothed away after the telling, or if left on the ground, it was done so only in their own lands, safe from prying eyes.  But the permanent quality of acrylic paints gave birth to a concern about inappropriately revealing secret information and the subsequent practice of 'over-dotting' served to obscure the sacred or 'classified' information beneath. A second source of the dotting style is that the educational sand drawings carried out mainly by the Central Desert peoples, were intrinsically made up of both line and gestural dot work. The dotting style of many of the Aboriginal artists from this region was a natural evolution from their sand drawings as they translated the stories on the modern materials of paint and canvas. A third, which is not altogether separate from the second, is that the land itself, the subject at the heart of many Aboriginal artworks, is often completely studded with dot like stones, spinifex plants, flowers and distant trees. The 'dotted landscape' inspired its representation in dot patterns. Like any art style, especially those that are successful, dot painting inspired other Aboriginal artists to develop dotting styles of their own. Subsequent generations learning from their families, took the style even further. Now Aboriginal art is best known by dot artworks (although when you get to know more, you realise dot paintings are not all it is about). 

Artist Willy Tjungurrayi “Tali” (Sandhills)