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MHS Library | How can chemical principles be applied to create a more sustainable future?

Investigation topic 3: The chemistry of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ practices

Throughout history, people all over the world have hypothesised, experimented, made empirical observations, gathered evidence, recognised patterns, verified through repetition, and made inferences and predictions to help them to make sense of the world around them and their place within it. Recent research and discussion have confirmed many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups use the environment and its resources to solve the challenges they face in the different Australian climates in ways that are more sustainable than similar materials produced in Western society. Their solutions can be explained by a variety of organic and non-organic chemical processes.

Questions that may be explored in this investigation include:

· How do binders and fixatives work to allow Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples’ paintings to be preserved for thousands of years?

Binders and fixatives play a crucial role in preserving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' paintings for extended periods, allowing them to endure for thousands of years. These traditional art forms often employ natural materials and pigments, which can be susceptible to degradation and fading over time. Binders and fixatives serve as protective agents, helping to stabilize and safeguard the artwork.

Binders are substances that bind or hold together the pigments and other materials in the painting. They provide adhesion and create a durable bond between the pigment particles and the painting surface. Traditional binders used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists include natural substances like plant resins, animal glues, and other organic materials. These binders form a cohesive matrix that secures the pigment particles and helps them adhere to the painting surface.

Fixatives, on the other hand, are applied over the completed artwork to protect it from environmental factors and potential damage. They form a protective layer that shields the painting from moisture, dust, pollutants, and light. Fixatives also help to prevent the pigments from flaking or smudging. Traditional fixatives utilized by these Indigenous artists include natural resins, such as tree sap, or mixtures of organic materials.

The use of binders and fixatives helps to enhance the longevity of the artworks by providing structural support and protection against deterioration. They aid in preventing the pigments from fading or losing their vibrancy, thereby maintaining the visual integrity of the paintings. Additionally, these materials help to minimize the impact of external factors like humidity, temperature changes, and exposure to light, which can accelerate degradation.

It's important to note that the specific techniques, materials, and methods employed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists can vary across different regions and communities. Traditional knowledge and cultural practices have been passed down through generations, contributing to the preservation of these valuable artworks for thousands of years.


Binders are selected based on the properties they confer to the paint, including adhesiveness, viscosity or thickness and the finishing effect. Binders can be derived from carbohydrate (honey, orchid sap), protein (egg, blood) or lipid (oils, fats). Binders can be used to control the painting style; viscous paints are used for clear, defined lines and thinner paints produce a translucent effect.


Fixatives are important in the preservation of paintings to ensure that the paint remains fixed to the surface. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples understand the physical properties of natural materials, such as water resistance and finishing effects, that can be used as fixatives for paints. The suitability of a fixative depends on the materials that are used to manufacture paint and the surface to which it must adhere.

Read more at the source: Australian Curriculum

The Australian curriculum. (n.d.). The Australian Curriculum (Version 8.4).



Further reading

Gatenby, S. L. (1996). The identification of traditional binders used on Australian Aboriginal painted objects prior to 1970 [Master’s thesis]. Retrieved from

New South Wales Department of Primary Industries. (n.d.). Iron oxide pigments. Retrieved from

Davidson, C., Kowalski, V. Kredler, V., Marawili, D., Sloggett, R., & Stubbs, W. (2014). Harvesting traditional knowledge: The conservation of Indigenous Australian bark paintings. In J. Bridgland (Ed.), Proceedings from the ICOM-CC 17th Triennial Conference, Melbourne (pp. 1-8)Paris: International Council of Museums.

Gott, B. (2019). Aboriginal plant use. Retrieved from

Puruntatameri, J., & Northern Territory Parks Wildlife Commission. (2001). Northern Territory Botanical Bulletin: Tiwi plants and animals: Aboriginal flora and fauna knowledge from Bathurst and Melville Islands, northern Australia (Bulletin No. 24). Darwin: Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory.

Rose, F. (1942). Paintings of the Groote Eylandt Aborigines. Oceania, 13(2), 170-176.

Roth, W.E., 1904. Domestic implements, arts, and manufactures. North Queensland Ethnography: Bulletin no.7. Government Printer, Brisbane

Smyth, R. (1878). The Aborigines of Victoria: With notes relating to the habits of the natives of other parts of Australia and Tasmania, compiled from various sources for the Government of Victoria. Melbourne: Govt. Print.

Stuart, B., & Thomas, P. (2017). Pigment characterisation in Australian rock art: A review of modern instrumental methods of analysis. Heritage Science, 5(1), 1-6.

Thorne, A. (2014, December 26). Pigments and palettes from the past – science of Indigenous art. The Conversation. Retrieved from

Tworek-Matuszkiewicz, B. (2019). Object conservation: Conserving Aboriginal bark paintings. Retrieved from

Tworek-Matuszkiewicz, B. (2007). Australian Aboriginal bark paintings: Their history, structure and conservation. Studies in Conservation, 52(Sup1), 15-28.


The identification of traditional binders used on Australian Aboriginal painted objects prior to 1970

Gatenby, S. L. (1996). The identification of traditional binders used on Australian Aboriginal painted objects prior to 1970 [Master’s thesis]. Retrieved from