Painting the body and face with natural pigments including clay and ingredients such as berries has been used from our earliest origins across the globe from the Americas to Asia to Africa to the South Pacific. Most, if not all, tribal cultures used this practice for reasons that ran from hunting, to religious ceremonies and festivals, to camouflage or intimidation during times of war. Some warriors were known to enter battle covered only by a loin cloth and paint.
The earliest make-up came in the form of decorating the face with patterns and shapes, and is common across cultures. Tribal societies who still follow the ancient custom of face painting, choose the colors according to the available raw materials. In ancient times, only primary and locally available colors like red, blue, yellow or white were used.
Face painting is an important tradition in locations as varied as North America, India and Australia. It is a sacred social act of distinction and a cultural heritage. On special occasions faces of the tribe members are painted to augment one’s appearance and power. For native American Indians, roots, berries and tree barks are most commonly used to make the dyes for face painting. These natural raw materials are ground into a paste and use to make the dye.
Body painting and face painting have been part of Indian culture since ancient times. Men painted their bodies and faces for camouflage when they went hunting. Face painting is a ritual in Indian villages in their religious festivities, dance and drama. Face painting is very much a part of Indian folk culture and tribal art even today. People are often seen getting their faces painted in different styles during temple festivals and religious events in India.
Aborigines of Australia inherited specific face-painting designs from their ancestors. The designs are painted on the face and body using ground ochre mixed with water. They are traditionally applied either in stripes or circles. Even the modern paintings of the Central and Western Desert are characterized by these specific designs. Body painting, decoration and personal adornment traditionally carry deep spiritual significance for Australian Aboriginal people. Body painting is carried out within strict conventions related mostly to spiritual matters, although the creative side also plays a role. The particular designs or motifs used by individuals reflect their social position and relationship to their family group and also to particular ancestors, totemic animals and tracts of land. People are not free to change their appearance at will. They must conform to respected patterns. In many situations individuals are completely transformed so that they ‘become’ the spirit ancestor they are portraying in dance.
One area to explore the continuing traditions of face painting is northern Australia, which remains well off the beaten track. Consider exploring the Aboriginal culture during our 14-day Wild Australia.