Art Styles

Much of Aboriginal painted and engraved art can be divided into two broad groups:

1. Figurative art is when any person looking at the motifs is able to recognise the subject being depicted. Within this group, the figures vary from life-like to simple crude representations of the subject. The most life-like examples can be described as having a naturalistic style, while less naturalistic art can be described as stylised.

2. Non-figurative art is when the motifs are abstract and the intended subject is less obvious. This includes the range of ovals, circles, spirals, concentric circles, meandering lines, maze-like designs, and other motifs common in the art of inland and central Australia.


Figurative and Naturalistic Art Styles
Amongst Aboriginal art, figurative and naturalistic styles occur predominantly across the north of the country and down the west and east. Thousands of painted rock shelters in the Kimberley (Western Australia), Victoria River District (Northern Territory), Kakadu and Arnhem Land (Northern Territory), and Laura region (northern Queensland) are included. Engravings with figurative art styles occur on exposed rocks in the Pilbara region of Western Australia and on flat rocky pavements in the Sydney region of New South Wales. 


aboriginal art


A group of Bent Knee Figures painted in a Kimberley rock shelter, Western Australia.
Photo: David M. Welch


A thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) with its pup. Kakadu National Park, northern Territory.
Photo: David M. Welch.



aboriginal art


A catfish painted in the Laura region, northern Queensland.
Photo: David M. Welch


A group of human figures depicted dancing with outstretched arms and legs. Pilbara region, Western Australia.
Photo: David M. Welch.

aboriginal art dancers


aboriginal rock carvings NSW

An engraved shield motif and a fish or other marine animal near Sydney, New South Wales.
Photo: David M. Welch.


Within each region, the art is further divided and classified based on various factors. Aboriginal people use their cultural knowledge to describe whether a painting or engraving depicts an Ancestral Being, a spirit figure, hunting magic, or sorcery. Anthropologists and rock art researchers classify the early painted rock art based on its apparent age, subject matter, colouring, and degree of stylisation.

There are many types and styles of figurative Aboriginal art in Australia. One type consists of all the animal tracks, engraved on rocks throughout the country. Even these can be examined and further classified.


Arrow-shaped motifs representing bird tracks at Ewaninga in Central Australia.
Photo: David M. Welch.

aboriginal rock art


In the Kakadu / western Arnhem Land region, one style has developed where artists illustrate the internal anatomy of animals and occasionally, of humans. This is referred to as X-ray art.


aboriginal x-ray art


A kangaroo in X-ray style painted with the depiction of its lungs, heart, diaphragm, liver and intestines. Western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. Painting by Lofty Nabarrayal Nadjamerrek.

Photo: David M. Welch





Read About Reggie Sultan, an Aboriginal Artist --->

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