Cultural Face Painting

tribal face
jungle face
masaai face

Tribal or Cultural Face Painting has been used for many motives. For hunting, religious reasons, and military reasons (mainly as a method of camouflaging) or to scare ones enemy. Several tribal fighting techniques were calculated to strike terror. Some warriors entered battle naked except for a loin cloth, but their bodies were streaked in bizarre examples in red and black paint. Decorating one's face in various patterns and shapes has been a part of the cultural make-up of many societies since the beginning of time. Face painting is a common theme across cultures as divergent as the Indigenous American tribes in North America and various tribes in Africa and South America. In Native American Tribes, Face Painting has been used for artistic expression since ancient times. The art of transforming ourselves with make-up and masks is a universal phenomenon. Before we sought to vent our artistic impulse on a cave wall, we painted on our faces and bodies. Indigenous peoples of the Amazon have said that in this power to change ourselves, we demonstrate our humanity and set ourselves apart from the world of the animals.

Masaii Face Painting Warrior

Patterns developed over time to signify a variety of cultural events and these, conveyed an emotional meaning that was attached to them. The wide range of patterns that a face painter can create, enhance the emotions and meaning of the cultural events. The patterns can be color specific or randomly geometric seemingly without any significance. The shapes and colors convey a strong bond and meaning amongst people who have a face painting tradition. They are a connection to their past and carry a very strong cultural meaning in their lives. Tattooing was practiced and known by the ancient Egyptians, starting during the Middle Kingdom. Geometric designs have been found tattooed on the chests, shoulders, arms, abdomens and thighs of the mummies of dancers and royal concubines.

Cultural Face Painting

The reason tribes use face art to transform themselves may be varied. Sometimes they choose to do so as a part of a tribal ritual or at other times they do so to mark their status (as is the case with some aboriginal tribes), but the colorful and dynamic language of the face painting remains the same.

Raw materials used for Tribal Face Painting

African Face Painting

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. Sometimes by sprinkling dust or soft bird feathers, special effects were achieved. Nowadays most tribesmen choose to use branded face paints. Painting a face is an art, perhaps the very first art, going back to the origins of human culture. Artists paint bold, mask-like designs inspired by imagery from Nature, imagination, and traditional masks. Unlike dance and music where the most charming modes and sweetest strains disappear before they are understood, painting captures the emotions and expressions and retains the impact for a long period. Painting is essentially a combination of lines, forms, colors, tones, texture and space. It attempts to convey the spoken and unspoken expressions with the strokes of a brush.

Face painting is considered to be an important tradition among Native Americans. It is much more than just a beautifying practice. It’s 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. Each tribe of the Indians has its own and unique way of face painting. For Native Americans Indians, roots, berries and tree barks are most commonly used to make the dyes for face painting. These natural raw materials are ground and made to a paste to make the dye. Clay of different hues is also used in Native Indian face painting. These wonderful colors along with the ideal face painting designs do create a desired effect. The process envolved a strict ritualistic order, that is maintained during the application of these colors. The colors are first applied around the nose and only the index finger and middle finger is used for the application. The rest of the face i.e. the forehead, chin and eye areas are then carefully covered with paint. For some face paintings they would cover their face and then plaster it down with mud leaving the holes for the eyes and mouth. Generally the warriors would paint their faces with colored clay. They would then do the design of their tribe. Each tribe has its own designs for war and ceremonies. After warriors came home from a hunt, they would have a big feast, cutting up the animal they hunted and killed. They would play a lot of games, containing parts of the animal they killed. The Indians would use every part of the animal they killed.

Indian Face Painting

The Plains Indians used paints to adorn themselves, their clothing, their homes and their horses. Though their culture lacked a written languages, the pictures and symbols they drew were rich in meaning and told the stories of the people. Many different colors of paint were used, originally made with the materials at hand — plants, clays, even duck dung. Reds were by far the most popular color, but early natives used brown, red, yellow, black, blue, green and white as well. With the availability of pigments from white traders, 19th century Indians used other colors as well. A yellow paint was made from earth from the Yellowstone River, as well as from bull berries and pine tree moss. Blue was obtained from duck droppings found on the shores of lakes, or from blue-colored mud. White earth and clay were used to make white paint. Green was made from plants, copper ore or mud. The pigments were placed over a fire to dry, then ground into a fine powder on mortars of stone or wood. They were then mixed with tallow. The colors, kept separate in small buckskin bags, were mixed with hot water when the artist was ready for them.

Indian artists painted with straight willow branches (which acted as rulers to draw straight lines) along with short, flat sticks that he or she used to trace a pattern onto a hide. Brushes were made from chewed cottonwood or willow sticks, or from buffalo bone. Each color had its own brush.

Significance of the Colors

Ethnic Face Painting

Colors in Native American culture have special significance. Red is a violent color; it is the color of war. Strangely enough black, which is considered to be an inauspicious colors in most cultures, is the color of ‘living’, worn on the face during war preparations. White predictably is the color of peace. The color green when worn under the eyes is believed to empower the wearer with a night vision. Yellow is the most inauspicious color, it is the color of death, as it is the color of "old bones." Care should be taken not to wear a lot of yellow, and is worn only when a person is in mourning. Also yellow, means a man has lived his life and will fight to the finish. Each Indian tribe has its own and unique way of face painting. Face paintings can be the lightest streak of color on the face. It can also mean covering their faces completely.

19th Century Seminoles

While early 19th century Seminoles would paint their face and hands for special occasions, this practice was no longer done in public by the late 19th century. It was done on special occasions only, to augment one's appearance and power. All face painting should be done sparingly, and with high regard for the occasion. It might not be out of place at a battle re-enactment or for a serious ceremony, but would be entirely inappropriate for an encampment or for a casual demonstration. A reenactor would be misplaced if he painted himself while he lounged around camp, or while stomp dancing in any except a Green Corn Dance. It would be a big mistake to put on face painting without having a genuine reason or need. Face paint was a way the Seminole drew upon the natural powers in his world to add to his own. A rough parallel might be the personal strength many Christians find in a crucifix hung from their neck.

In India

Body painting and face painting are being practiced in 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. Face painting is also an intrinsic part of the rich dance and drama culture of Indian life.


As all the stories depicted in Kathakali relate to mythological characters and as the natural stage is nothing more than a few square feet, lit by a single coconut oil fed lap, the entire get up is designed to generate an atmosphere to suit the story. The loud instrument used, the make-up and costumes employed, the painting of the faces, the display of the 'Chutti' as part of the facial make-up, are only the instruments used to achieve this objective. Irrespective of the individual who puts on the costume of a character like Nala, the audiences sees only Nala. The individual artiste is fully submerged by the elaborate make-up. It is, however, true that the outstanding talents of an individual artiste cannot be contained within the formal frame-work of a standard costume. In course of time, the individual does make an impression on the audience, but on a basis quite different from other histrionic arts. The costumes are thus intended to make the play as impersonal as possible.

The costumes are very elaborate and fall into basic types. The make up is equally elaborate. While being made up, the actors lie on their backs as the make up men work on their faces. The facial makeup is designed in such a way as to indicate the intrinsic nature of each and every character. Pacha, Kathi, Thadi, Kari, Minukku and Theppu are the different types of make-up followed in Kathakali which are determined according to the basic qualities of the character portrayed. The underlying purpose is to create in the minds of the audience an atmosphere of the supernatural.

Kathakali face makeup

Henna Art

Women in India are traditionally painted henna on their hands and feet, insides of their arms and up their shins most often for a wedding, or other special occasion. Sometimes the chest, neck and throat will be tattooed. The subject matter is rather abstract, and often incorporates religious and auspicious symbols.

Indian Henna Feet

The history and origin of Henna is hard to trace with centuries of migration and cultural interaction it is difficult to determine where particular traditions began. There is very persuasive evidence that the Neolithic people in Catal Huyuk, in the 7th millennium BC, used henna to ornament their hands in connection with their fertility goddess. The earliest civilizations to have used henna include the Babylonians, Assyrians, Sumerians, Semites, Ugaritics and Canaanites. The earliest written evidence that mentions henna specifically used as an adornment for a bride or woman's special occasion is in the Ugaritic legend of Baal and Anath, inscribed on a tablet dating back to 2100 BC, found in northwest Syria. Henna has also been used extensively in southern China and has been associated with rituals for at least three thousand years, during the ancient Goddess cultures. The use of Henna in the 4th-5th centuries in the Deccan of western India is clearly illustrated on Bodhisattvas and deities of cave wall murals at Ajanta, and in similar cave paintings in Sri Lanka. The evidence proves henna usage in India seven centuries before the Moghul invasion, and hundreds of years before the inception of the Islamic religion, which began in the mid-7th century AD.

Henna Hand Painting India

The Henna Page Resource Website

Have a look at the following website: The Henna Page is an educational resource devoted to the history, traditions, techniques, science and art of Henna, and is part of a site group devoted to Henna and related arts. This site also has awesome resources and some free downloads. There is a vast array of useful henna information. 

Click Here for a Free Henna Page Calendar 2008

Click on the graphic to view the latest Henna Calendar.

Aboriginal Face & Body Painting

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Aborigines who inhabit central Australia have inherited specific face painting designs from their ancestors. These designs are painted onto the face and body using ground ochre mixed with water. They are applied either in stripes or circles. Even the modern paintings of the Central and Western Desert are characterized by these specific designs. It seems the aboriginal tribes have devised an entirely new language of painting, using cryptic symbols for different things. Body painting, decoration and personal adornment traditionally carry deep spiritual significance for Australian Aboriginal people. Body painting is carried out within strict conventions that are primarily related to spiritual matters, although the creative nature of these activities is also acknowledged. 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.

Aboriginal Face Painting

Chinese Face Painting

The development of the art of painting faces is closely related to that of dramatic art, although the earliest painted faces, or their precursors appeared long before Chinese drama took shape. As Chinese dramatic art developed, the drawbacks of wearing masks became increasingly evident, for masks prevented the actors from showing their facial expressions. A vividly painted face however enables audiences to see expressions clearly. In the beginning only three sharply contrasting colours - red, white and black were generally used in facial make up. The earliest painted faces were simple and crude but within time the designs became more elaborate and ornamental.

Chinese Face Paint

Chinese Operas were based on old tales of heroes and the supernatural. Today the stories often deal with heroes of the communist revolution or with great historical events of the recent past. The variety of Chinese Opera known as Beijing Opera is the most familiar in the west. It was developed in the 19th century as a synthesis of earlier provincial forms.

Chinese Face Painting Opera

Beijing Opera, which is also known as Peking Opera, has existed for over 200 years. It is widely regarded as the highest expression of the Chinese culture. It is perhaps the most refined form of opera in the world. Although it is called Beijing Opera its origins are not in Beijing but in the provinces of Anhui and Hubei. It was originally staged for the royal family and was introduced to the public later. Beijing opera was regarded to as one of the rare forms of entertainment. There are thousands of opera pieces covering the entire history and literature of China.

Bororo of Niger

Faces Of Africa

Those who feel that their competition is too great often voluntarily withdraw from the challenge. Those who remain eventually replace their ostrich feathers with horsetail plumes, signifying the next level of competition. The dancing becomes harder, more wild, and more intense. This is a beauty contest, and the judges are three unwed young women who have been chosen by the elders by their beauty. Concealing their judging eyes with their left hand, they nit-pick the dancers, looking for the most beautiful man. In turn, the men use every facial expression and body movement they can to attract the judges favor. The young women are looking for precise characteristics in the men: tall, lithe limbs with graceful movements, long, straight hair perfectly braided in a beautiful style, and light, smooth skin. A slender nose, thin lips, sparkling white eyeballs and teeth, and an elongated face are desirable. A high forehead, long fingers, large eyes and a long neck are ideal. Once the young women have made their choice, they slowly creep toward the dancers. The most beautiful men are chosen with a graceful swing of the arm. The winners receive an increased pride in themselves as well as the admiration of other men and women. The Gereewol celebration provides a venue for men and women to meet and attract mates, and in the Bororo tradition, a man may have multiple wives. Many teegal marriages (marriages of love and romance, rather than an arranged marriage) are the outcome of these yearly celebrations. These teegal marriages often take the form of willing abductions, where both the man and the woman agree to flee, and often occur during the night after the charm competitions. Married women who are not happy with their current husbands are free to choose another man, and if she leaves her marriage, must leave her children behind as well. If the new couple who have run away can slaughter a sheep, roast the meat and share the food before they are caught by the family (or husband) of the girl or woman, the marriage is confirmed. The Bororo tribe has attracted attention because of their traditional value of beauty. Dubbed as the inventors of beauty pageants, the Bororo consider themselves to be the most beautiful people in the world. Their long history of tradition, culture and values are the core of their lives. A nomadic people, the Bororo have been able to resist most colonialization, imperialism and modernism that is plaguing Africa today.

Karo Man with Body Painting, Kolcho Village, Ethiopia

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Xhosa face painting of South Africa

Xhosa Face Paint

The local Xhosa tribes called the Hogsback area Qabimbola (‘red clay on the face’) as this is where they obtained the clay for their face painting

“In all my guidebooks, it talks about traditional Xhosa face painting and shows people with white on their face. What does it mean?” He smiled and replied “Home-made sunscreen, of course” as if it were a silly question. Why HAD the guidebooks romanticized this simple custom? I could relate to needing sunscreen!

Pondo Diviner

Pondo Diviner Body Paint

On the last day of the initiation (umgidi), a final confession by the novice is marked by a more elaborate performance: with a crowd gathered around her at her umzi (homestead), she appears naked to the waist, her torso painted with white clay and adorned with idwabe leaves, which she has collected the night before in the bush, using her visionary powers to find them. Her face is also painted with white clay. The designs painted on her torso make her resemble her ityala animal—in this case, a leopard—and she wears a wreath and anklets of the idwabe leaves, which her ityala animal likes to eat. The pattern on her torso and the painting on her face appear to link her to the ancestors who have both caused and cured her illness. In this attire, she dances and confesses to having seen her ityala, and thanks the ancestors for curing her.

Maori Ta-moko influences Face Painting

Maori moko tattoo design

Ta-moko is the art of (primarily) facial tattooing as practised by the Maori tribes of New Zealand. It is belived to have originated in Polynesia and to have migrated to the island, where its use was elevated from merely being used primarily for denotation of communal and family rank, to a fine art. Each persons moko is so distinctive that they were used in place of a seal by some non-literate tribal chiefs and, although all westerners claimed they all looked the same, other Maori chiefs instantly recognized these "signatures" and acknowledged them as authentic.

Tattooing amongst the Maori tribes was most predominantly a male activity. All tattooing was done in total silence, by male specialists, (tobungata-moko). Before beginning the ta moko process, the specialist would consider the recipients bone structure, and other facial attributes. Unique differences in some individuals' features would be incorporated in the design. Since these specialists were not bound by a single village, tribe, or even localized by region, styles are more bound by cultural areas, or pre-historic regions

Moko was unique in that the face was decorated with intricate spirals which were not only tattooed but incised into the skin to make scars in the form of parallel ridges and grooves. With the exception of slaves and commoners, all men were tattooed on the face and most were also tattooed on other parts of the body. An elegantly tattooed face was a great source of pride to a warrior, for it made him fierce in battle and attractive to women.

Maori warrior face paint

This ancient art of tribal tattooing is having a marked influence on modern face and body painting designs as artists are exposed to the designs and images displayed in the media. Artists hungry for ideas to re-work have found inspiration in the linear patterns that have a modern similarity to the lines found on electronic circuit boards.

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