Ojibwa (Chippewa) rock painting - Lake Superior

Pictographs. Discover facts and information about the culture of ancient Native American Indians and their use of the Pictographs to convey meanings

  • Definition of Pictographs
  • Creating Pictographs
  • Examples and Pictures of Pictographs
  • Pigments and paints used
  • Interesting facts and information about Pictographs created by ancient civilisations


What are Pictographs? Definition: Pictographs are rock paintings, that were often found in caves and on rock faces and created by ancient civilisations. Pictographs are ancient rock art figures and symbols that are drawn or painted onto a rock face, normally without any pecking or abrasive methods of creating the picture. Paint made from powdered minerals, blood, charcoal, or other substances were used to make pictographs. Pictography means the application of pigments.  For those interested in working with stone please refer to the following articles:

Flint Knapper
Stone Tools

Origin of the word Pictographs
The word Pictograph comes from the Latin word 'pictus' meaning painted and the French word 'graphie' meaning to carve, "a writing, recording, or description" and was first used in reference to Native American art in 1851.

Purpose of Pictographs
The purpose of Pictographs was to express artistic or religious meanings, acknowledge special events or were created as a form of magic or to illustrate mysterious Mythical creatures and monsters.

Surfaces for creating Pictographs
The location for creating Pictographs was important because the paintings needed to be protected from the elements and erosion. The most common place chosen to create pictographs was in sheltered caves and large alcoves. The pictographs at Canyonlands National Park, Horseshoe Canyon in Utah are located in large alcoves protected from the sun and the rain. The above picture shows the 'Great Gallery' which is an extensive panel of Pictographs which contain depictions of dozens of mysterious, armless figures, up to 10 feet tall. The gallery extends across the canyon walls for over 200 feet. The pictographs have been created on light brown sandstone and painted in various shades of red and brown.

The above pictographs at Lake Superior were created by the Ojibwa people and feature a canoe representing water and depictions of two serpents and a horned reptilian creature. The picture at the top of the page depicts a modern reproduction of the famous Piasa Bird Pictograph. Antlers and horns signified spiritual power, especially when applied to animals that did not ordinarily have them such as birds, panthers and snakes (Serpents).

Materials used for Pictographs
Various materials are used in the art of creating pictographs. A suitable surface was first located to create the pictographs. The materials used consisted of different colored paints and tools or utensils to apply the paint. The tools for creating pictographs included the following:

  • Stone Tools to smooth the rock surface
  • Bone and stone tools to crush the pigments
  • Receptacles to mix and contain the paints and pigments
  • Brushes to apply the paint made of materials
    • Brushes were made of animal hair, plant fibers such as the yucca and hollow bird bones filled with pigment

Colors used for Pictographs - Creating the Colors
The colors used for Pictographs were created from the natural resources and raw materials that were readily available to the ancients. Paint in its simplest form, consists of a ground up pigment suspended in some sort of liquid, or binder, such as water, urine, spit, egg yolks, animal fat, tree saps and even blood. Common colors used to create Pictographs were red, black, white and blue. The materials used to create the pigments used in pictographs are believed to include the following:

  • Red and Brown colors - Red clays containing red iron oxides and the roots, including redroot, hematite, or the barks of trees
  • White - White kaolin clays, limestone, ground gypsum, eggshells or sea shells
  • Black - Charcoal, mixed with spit or animal fat and the bark and ashes from various trees
  • Yellow: A yellow pigment was made from flowers, barks, plants or moss and shrubs such as rabbitbrush and sagebrush. A yellow substance found in some internal organs of the buffalo was also used to produce a yellow pigment
  • Blue - Blue pigment or paint was obtained from oxides, ground turquoise, powdered azurite and lapis, sun flower seeds, duck manure and different types of clays
  • Green - Green paint was made from ground malachite, flowers, berries, moss or algae
  • Purple - Purple coneflowers, Blueberries and hibiscus all produced a purple pigment used as paint
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