Early native pigments used for hide painting by American Indians were derived from mineral, vegetal and animal sources. While some sources were common and easily adapted, others were difficult to obtain and required skill and knowledge to process effectively. Thus, the finest pigments were of great value, making them an important intertribal trade item.
Commercial trade paints first appeared in the west during the early 18th century but were very slow to become prevalent due to availability, preference and beliefs. They eventually replaced native pigments by the last quarter of the 19th century but even then with exception. While trade paints offered convenience, pigments made from earthly substances were considered sacred, imbued with spiritual power, and therefore essential.
RED – Associated with life force and sacred power. Obtained from mineral deposits rich in iron oxide. Also extracted from buffalo berries, pussy willow buds, savoyenne root and ripe cactus fruit. Heating yellow ochre pigment was a process for rendering shades of red.
YELLOW – Various shades of yellow ochre were produced from iron oxide earth. Also buffalo gallstones and a lichen known as Wolf Moss.
GREEN – Copper carbonate produced a bluish green shade. Dried water plants such as algae slime were commonly used.
BLUE – Dark shades were processed from clay and mud found in crevices between layers of rock along river beds. Other sources were berries and crushed flowers as well as duck excrement.
BLACK – Generally a deep brown shade derived from clays and mineral deposits high in iron oxide. Also lignite, a soft coal containing carbon. Charcoal produced from burning wood and grass and ashes of rye grass mixed with buffalo blood. Boiled roots of black walnut trees, walnut hulls and sunflower.
Plains Indian art was created on items such as parfleche, shields and drums. These were often abstract images painted with the pigments described above. American Indians can be considered the first abstract artists in North America.
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References: Ewers / Grinnel / Torrence