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  • Academic Paper
October 11, 2023

Tae ki te toi: Colour in pre-European Māori art

This is an adaptation of a paper presented at the Impact 11 conference in Hong Kong, in 2021. The adaptation includes commentary that was not in the original version.

by Alan T Litchfield and Karol Wilczynska


There exists a long history where colonisers of any region have sought to differentiate themselves from indigenous cultures. Whether it is by force or arms, style of dress, or by the application of tropes that present the indigenous culture as being primitive and the indigenous people as having a weaker faculty or appreciation. This was no different when the British Empire colonised Aotearoa/New Zealand in the nineteenth century, despite that some were sympathetic to Māori, for example the missionary Thomas Kendall who, for his efforts, was expelled from the Church Missionary Society (Litchfield & Wilczynska, 2018).

During the period of colonisation, William Colenso was an advocate of Māori at a time when eugenics thinkers had relegated them to the scrap heap of colonial assimilation and eventual extinction. He provides a unique opportunity to view the use of colour by the ancient Māori with descriptions that come with the authority of having had a house/whare built for him by skilled artisans, and having met and talked with those who had lived before the arrival of Europeans in their areas and before the colours and materials of Europeans had been adopted. It should be noted that Māori loved the bright colours dyed into fabrics and pigments used in paints and these were rapidly incorporated into traditional artwork and even reshaped some traditional forms. In his descriptions, Colenso compares colours with analogues so that today, we can emulate them albeit on modern substrates.

From our research, we present a process for the visual apprehension of colours as they may have been seen by pre-European Māori. This work is part of a larger research of exploration and experimentation that includes the use of organic pigments and various carriers for letterpress inks. Colenso (1881) provides a unique view of the use of colour by pre-European Māori, with descriptions that come from having met and talked with those who had lived before the arrival of Europeans in their areas and before the colours and materials of Europeans had been adopted. In his descriptions, Colenso analogises colours so that today we can emulate them through the development of printing inks made from naturally occurring pigments.

It is difficult to perceive what pre-European Māori saw as pigments since most artefacts we have to view are faded remnants in glass cases. In the two centuries since their making, artefacts were affected by oxidation, damage from fungus and mould, fading from light, contaminating agents such as sweat from handling and dust, and chemical changes while buried (Siddall, 2018). The passing of those that created artefacts took with them the knowledge of how pigments were obtained, extracted, and synthesised. Thus the descriptions by Colenso (1881) are important.

The analysis of pigments require the application of carefully prescribed processes (for example, Siddall, 2018) that are outside the scope of this study. Instead, we seek to breathe life into organic and inorganic pigments to reimagine colours observed by pre-European Māori in a current context. From a range of local sites, raw materials that display an array of colours have been collected. The materials are in the form of clays, earths, and organic plant-based extracts.

The colour palette of pre-European Māori

This section classifies colours with descriptions by putting them into earth pigments and synthetic or organic pigments. Colenso lists the colours used in Māori art as whero/red, pango/black, mā/white, parauri/brown, kōwhai/yellow, and kākāriki/green. These colours conform to pigments that are found in the archaeological record across the globe and appearing throughout history (Siddall, 2018), but in the context of Aotearoa/New Zealand, they are not all necessarily extracted or synthesised from mineral sources and the processes for extraction vary. This is perhaps one of the reasons that finding examples of non-mineral shades is rare.

Red is a common colour in Māori art and is an important part of the cultural tradition. Red has been used to colour artefacts, the living, and the dead. Red pigments may be synthesised from ochres, where much research into the ancient use of colours focuses on of minerals like iron oxides or oxide hydroxide rich powder containing variable amounts of manganese oxides (Eastaugh et al., 2008). Dyes used in the manufacture of fabrics would be deepened through the application of heat. A dark red dye would be obtained from the Tanekaha tree (Phyllocladus trichomanoides) and applied to the borders of flax garments.

There were various shades and intensities of black. Inorganic blacks were obtained from coal, manganese oxide, obsidian, and basalt. Organic black would be extracted from the sooty funguses commonly found in bush land; Antennaria robinsonii, A. scoriadea, Capnodium mucronatum, and Oedemium robustum (Hughes, 1970). To dye fabrics made from toii (Cordyline indivisia), black dye was extracted by combining the bark of the Hinau (Eleaocarpus dentatus) and Pokaka (E. hookerianus) and fixed with a mordant of aluminous clay. A blue-black may be obtained, presumably, from the fruit of the Tutu (Coriaria arborea et al) which are deeply black but also very poisonous (McLintock, 1966).

Colenso describes several classes of mid to lighter shades of colour; light browns, dark browns, mottled browns, blue-green shades, brown, greys from purple and blue to brown, and light grey. White ranged through to a brownish-white, bright yellow (almost orange) to a pale shade, and various shades of green as they appear in the natural landscape.

Blue was rarely used because sources were scarce. Blue may be extracted from both organic and inorganic sources, with the latter appearing in damp or water logged clay deposits, for example around the roots of sedges like Carex fascicularis, Cyperus insularis, and Isolepis prolifera (Elliot, 2020). The quantities extracted from these clays is limited and geographically confined to southern regions of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Blue earth or vivianite was used by Māori for tamoko/tattoo that was obtained from the decomposition of Moa (Dinornis sp.) bones (Hamilton, 1986) that had been preserved in iron rich waterlogged, and anaerobic conditions (Rothe et al., 2016; Drudge, 2016).

Table 1: Phase collection points.
extbf{Location} Phase Detail Lat. Long.} Alt. (m) Fig. Map
Matauri Bay Clay Deep red 35°3′55.47″S 173°53′41.12″E 227.57 2(a) 6
Yellow 35°3′51.40″S 173°53′38.01″E 210.8 2(b)
Grey (soft) 35°3′54.26″S 173°53′40.7″E 212.7 2(c)
Pink 35°3′51.56″S 173°53′38.19″E 215.3 2(d)
Purple 35°3′51.94″S 173°53′38.49″E 214.6 2(e)
Red 35°3′51.56″S 173°53′38.19″E 215.7 2(f)
Orange 35°3′55.69″S 173°53′41.06″E 243.4 2(g)
White 35°3′51.34″S 173°52′24.79″E 210.8 2(h)
Green 35°38′13.56″S 173°52′12.06″E 240 2(i)
Peria Valley Orange 35°02′54.5″S 173°53′40.9″E 3
Reds 35°02′23.7″S 173°30′46.3″E
Taipa Cream yellow 35°02′26.17″S 173°25′27.4″E 1
Grey blue 35°02′26.17″S 173°25′27.4″E
Oruru Valley Cream light grey 35°01′11.5″S 173°28′14.6″E 20 2
Yellow/orange 35°01′27.93″S 173°28′47.2″E
Cable Bay Orange/red 34°59′29.02″S 173°28′35.52″E 4
Coopers Beach Pale yellow 34°59′06.78″S 173°31′16.28″E 5
Whakapirau Grey 36°09′29.62″S 174°14′13.75″E 7
Desert Road Light ochre ash 39°12.38′S 175°45.24′E 8
Cable Bay Flora Red/pink 34°59′23.83″S 173°28′53.6″E 5 4
Oruru Valley Charcoal Black 35°01′27.93″S 173°28′47.2″E 20 2

Making inks

Phase collection

Figure 1. Phase collection point map, refer to Table 1 for locations.

Phases (Figure 2(a)-(i), clay phases collected from source) were gathered from locations around the North Island, Aotearoa/New Zealand as shown in Table 1 and Figure 1. The focus was to collect White (Taioma), Yellow (Kowhai), Orange (Karaka), Red (Whero, Pu ̄whero), Green (Kakariki, Kārerarera), Browns (Peapeau, Karaka), Light Grey (Kiwitea), Grey (Kiwikiwi), Blue-Grey (ōrangihina), and Black (Māmangu, Mangu). Table 1 details the colours collected, position by latitude and longitude, and height above sea level where recorded.

Figure 2 Clay phases collected from source

Organic phases, soot and plant extracts, have been gathered from two locations and include charcoal from the burnt wood of the Tasmanian Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) to obtain Waro (black) (Figure 4(a)-(d), Charcoal to raw material to print sample) and flower stamens of the Pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa) to obtain Whero, Pu ̄whero (red) (Figure 3(a)-(d) Pohutukawa flower raw material to dye sample).

Preparation and use of letterpress inks

To obtain consistency in pigment, the inorganic phases are manually sifted and sorted by colour. The clay is then broken down by physically breaking into particles. For the small samples, this is achieved with a mortar and pestle and forceful heavy weight application. However, the ideal outcome is to achieve consistency of colour which requires a larger volume of ink. For this, the broken up clays are mixed with a dispersant of sodium hexameta phosphate, Calgon, as a 10% solution and added at a rate of 15ml/kg. The solution separates the clay particles and allows heavy particles to settle out. The clay solution is then is mixed with a liquid polymer flocculant, Crystalfloc, at a rate of no more than 1ml/1l. The reaction causes the solution to dewater, that is for the clay particles to clump together and to drop to the bottom of the container. The liquid is decanted off and the clay dried thoroughly. When dried, the clay is ground until it achieves a particle size of around 1.5μm.

The inks used for printing were prepared using 50:50 clay powder and boiled linseed oil. Unheated Kauri gum resin was added to the ink as binding agent. To assist in drying a drop of Cobalt dryer solution was added just prior to rolling out. While mixing, the consistency and tack of the ink was tested until the desired level was reached. If too wet and the ink takes several weeks to dry, too dry and the print cracks.

Organic phases require unique gathering processes. The six-week process for pigment manufacture from Pohutukawa stamens required first for them to be gathered direct from the tree (Figure 3a). To preserve its rich colour, the stamens were air dried (Figure 3b) before pounding in a heavy granite mortar and pestle (Figure 3c), then ground further with a fine spice grinder. Heating the phase and mixing in carriers of distilled water, isopropyl alcohol, and refined Linseed oil provided different colour densities (Figure 3d). The Pohutukawa stamens changed colour when dried, from intense red to a muted or sober neutral colour. The lighter shade of pink required more grinding and the addition of liquid Shellac as a carrier for a more opaque appearance. For both organic phases, cobalt drier was applied immediately before use. However, the volume of raw material required to produce an adequate pigment base for ink was too great for this study.

Figure 3 Pohutukawa flower raw material to dye sample

The carbon of the Tasmanian Blackwood (Figure 4a) was pounded and ground to a fine powder (Figure 4b) and mixed with the same carriers as the Pohutukawa stamens to produce inks of varying densities and drying performance (Figure 4c).

Figure 4 Charcoal raw material to print sample


To take account of the limited availability of some sources, substitutions with locally sourced natural resins were combined with the locally sourced clays. However, an ink made with oils requires a drying medium and print tests on alternative substrates were variable. The oils took up the coloured clays and no bleed was observed (unlike Isopropyl alcohol and distilled water). The application of these inks in relief printing is still under way. The organic phases provide a much more complex array of requirements and more work is needed to produce inks. It is likely that the dyes produced will be added to the white clay phase rather than attempting to build printing inks from them.


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