Pictograph Painting Methods

The artist in her studio experimenting with red earth pigment and binder

Prehistoric Native American Art

    Some prehistoric pictograph painting in North America was done by using a single color. This is called monochrome painting. Depending on where you look in North America, Native peoples used different types of materials as pigments.

    Among the most common types of material used to create pictographs in North America, hematite or heated limonite was regularly used. Some small bags, found in pre-contact Native medicine bundles have been shown to contain powders believed to have been used for painting. These included dust from red pipestone (Catlinite), dried Cochineal bugs, different colors of ochre, charcoal, and red earth.

    Interestingly, Cochineal bugs, used to dye fabrics and hides, were often found on Prickly Pear cactus, and the use of the sap as a binder may have been a natural evolutionary progression in pictograph painting.

    Other binders, used to affix pigments to stone or hides were made from a variety of ingredients including animal fat, marrow, yucca plants, Prickly Pear cactus, and hide glue. There is also evidence that certain food by-products with a high acid content may have been used to help etch images into rock surfaces when mixed with binders.

    Brushes or painting sticks were made out of whatever materials were at hand; sticks, bones, plant fibers, dried plant parts, and even feathers.

    Some prehistoric images were applied by spraying the pigment out of the mouth against a hand or other form of primitive ‘stencil.’


    In the 1700’s, Traders began showing up with Vermilion, a poisonous compound derived from Cinnabar ore, containing mercuric sulfide. Vermilion had been used for a long time by European painters (with disastrous results to their health). 


    During this period, Vermilion became a favored trade item for Native Americans and they soon began applying the substance to their faces, bodies, and robes. Over time, this had a tragic effect on health. Once it was discovered that Vermilion was toxic, its use was discontinued by Native peoples.

Authentic pictograph painting process used by the artist.

    For Paula, creating authentic pictographs using the methods employed by her ancestors begins by obtaining red earth (red ochre).

    Please note that many original sites with outcroppings of pigment-bearing minerals are located on either private, state, federal, or tribal land. It is imperative to obtain permission whenever harvesting these materials.

    Paula knows that gathering red paint in the traditional manner of her ancestors also requires strict observance of ancient Native protocols. These practices, observed prior to harvesting red earth, vary somewhat depending on the tribe and the traditions of its people in the medicine lodge. In any case the particulars cannot be shared openly however we do have a photograph below showing some of the important botanicals used in the process.

Image above (l to r): Birch bark in round bowl; tobacco twist, sweet pine, and Sweetgrass on rectangular tray; deer leg bone. Top: Chunks of Red Earth.

Be respectful, follow protocols, and always ask permission when harvesting raw materials for paint.

    After harvesting, depending on the raw materials, the pigment may have to be dried, sifted, heated, crushed, or ground. The finished pictograph paint powder is then stored in tightly sealed containers to keep it dry. Pictograph paint (pigment and binder), is usually made fresh, in small batches, and best when used on the day it was mixed.

Prep: red earth, wooden bowls, a few paint binding ingredients, and stone tools for crushing the red earth.

Crushing red earth. Note empty bowl on left for pulverized red earth and larger rock for crushing harder pieces of material.

    Although Paula does most of her work on stone, some projects will call for a different type of binder. For example, whenever she is painting pictographs on a hide, Paula prefers red earth with a high clay content. This helps affix the images. Sometimes, in her stylized works on tempered board or canvas, on request, Paula adds a small amount of Acrylic binder to ensure smooth coverage and lasting images. Once the proper binder has been chosen for the project, the work can begin.

We hope the information on this page will inspire you to learn more about Native American pictographs and rock art. Miigwech! (Thank you)!

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