Types of Rock Art

Rock art encompasses all forms of painted, drawn, pecked, engraved, incised, scratched, stencilled, printed, arranged or carved figures on natural rock surfaces. Within Australia, the most commonly occurring rock art types are: Pictographs, Petroglyphs, Stencils, Prints, Beeswax, and Geoglyphs.



A pictograph is a painting or drawing. In Australia rock paintings are commonly made using natural materials such as ochre (red and yellow), pipe clay (white), charcoal (black) or introduced materials such as Reckitt’s Blue washing powder (blue). These pigments are usually ground, mixed with liquid and other substances (such as natural fixatives), and then applied to the surface of the rock using a brush (often made from reeds, bark, or tails of small animals) or the artists fingers. Drawings on rock are made by rubbing dry pigments against the rock surface. For example, a piece of charcoal or ochre can be used to draw directly onto a rock surface.



A petroglyph is a figure that has been deliberately engraved, incised, pecked, carved, or scratched into a rock surface. Very often in Australia the term ‘engraving’ is used incorrectly to describe all of these different types of petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are generally made by cutting into the rock surface with a hammer stone or a hard, sharp stone tool. Alternatively, they can be made through indirect percussion - using a hammer stone to pound against another rock, placed on the rock surface as a chisel. Specific types of petroglyphs include:


  1. Grooved petroglyphs include motifs that are made by first pecking the surface to create a break, and then by abrasion to create smooth grooves that are rounded on the bottom.
  2. Incised petroglyphs often include motifs that have been incised or scratched into a rock face with a sharp stone tool resulting in a thin line that is V-shaped in profile.
  3. Cupules are engraved or pecked pits which form a kind of ‘cup’ mark in rock surfaces including: boulders, platforms and rock walls. Cupules are often arranged to cover vertical surfaces in orderly, tightly packed rows. 



Stencils in Australian rock art are made by mixing dry pigments (such as ochre, clay and charcoal) with water and/or saliva in the mouth and spitting the mixture onto the surface of the rock to create a negative image or outline of an object or body part. The most common stencil in Australia is the human hand (this is true of many countries around the world). There is, however, a great diversity of stencils that occur in Australian rock art including other human body parts or whole bodies, boomerangs, stone axes, string bags, fruits and vegetables, birds and introduced items such as Indonesian (Macassan) knives.



Prints are produced by dipping a material in wet pigment and applying to the rock surface. This type of rock art is rarer than stencils in Australia and seems to be limited to human hand prints and grass prints.


  1. Hand prints are made by dipping the palm of the hand in wet pigment and pressing it onto the rock surface. In some parts of Australia (such as western and north-western Arnhem Land) hand prints can be in-filled with painted patterns after the print is made. 
  2. Grass prints were produced by dipping grasses or reeds into wet pigment and throwing or flicking it onto the surface of the rock.



Beeswax rock art is the application of native Australian beeswax onto a rock surface to form a design. Such designs can be made by forming pellets, strips, and sheets from the prepared wax. The use of the word ‘beeswax’ for this type of rock art is not as straight forward as it at first appears as the ‘beeswax’ used for rock art is not a wax but a resinous compound. There are also examples of rock art made from other resinous substances including gabbai (made from the roots of the ironwood tree Erythrophleum chlorostachys), and another resin called kalapartaman found in central Arnhem Land. In general, however, beeswax (sugarbag wax) is used as a common name for the substance left when the honey has been extracted from a clump of sugarbag (the nest-building material of the Australian native stingless bee).


To-date the majority of beeswax rock art is found in northern Australia, specifically Arnhem Land, the Kimberley, and the Victoria River District, with a few scattered examples in northern Queensland.



Geoglyphs are formed by piling cobbles and small boulders into a pattern on the ground surface, thereby creating a positive image. Examples include arrangements in the shape of praus (Indonesia or Macassan fishing vessels) in north-east Arnhem Land.