All text & photographs
© 2002-2012 Matthew Harris
The didgeridoo's sacred role influences how it is decorated, and with what designs. Although most Australian didgeridoos seen in America are painted, supposedly didgeridoos used for recreational playing in Australia are not usually painted. (See Origin & Use to read about the didgeridoo's sacred origins.)
Most, if not all, of the designs used for ceremonies involving didgeridoo appear to be secret. Supposedly a didgeridoo used for these ceremonies is painted with the secret designs beforehand, and the painting is then washed off when the ceremony is complete. For other ceremonies, a didgeridoo is created specifically for the ceremony, and then destroyed afterwards.
Didgeridoo decorations that can be viewed by anyone and can therefore be permanently painted on the didgeridoo include a variety of cross-hatch designs, abstract shapes, and picture symbols which may relate to the painter's clan, tell a story, or reflect the painter's personal Dreaming. (See Figure 3-1).
Lizards, turtles, crocodiles, human figures, birds and other animals are commonly painted, along with pictures representing animal tracks, water-holes, and bush tucker (edible berries and plants, such as yams). Depictions of the Milky Way and other stars visible in the night sky are also fairly common. Decorations based on a painter's personal Dreaming (that is, the painter's personal contact with spirit beings) can be seen by all as long as their meaning and relationship to the Dreamer remain secret. (For this reason, it's probably extremely rude to ask any Aboriginal painter why they paint a particular symbol.)
Didgeridoo painters utilize techniques common in other indigenous Australian graphic arts, and which have come to be known as unique characteristics of indigenous Australian painting technique. First is the frequent depiction of various animals using what is known as the x-ray technique; so-called because the animal is painted in outline form with the internal organs and skeletal elements painted inside the body in their anatomically correct positions. Second is the use of dot-painting, creating a design by painting small dots to make up a larger image. Finally, the specific style of cross-hatching, called rarrk, is also characteristic of indigenous Australian art.
Traditionally, didgeridoos are painted with hand-made earth paints. Various shades of brown and yellow ochre are obtained from different clays, black is obtained from charcoal or lampblack, while other colors are obtained from other natural substances. The painter grinds the pigments, and adds a binder substance. The specific binder tends to be a personal recipe, and varies from painter to painter. A paintbrush made of vegetable fibers is used to apply the paint to the didgeridoo.
Many contemporary didgeridoo painters now use acrylic or oil-based paints to paint their didgeridoos.
In addition to painting the didgeridoo, some artists burn a design into the wood of the didgeridoo.
All text & photographs © 2002-2012 by Matthew Harris