Painted designs were used by the Maori on the rafters, doors, and windows of buildings, on the under surface of the bows of war canoes, and on cenotaphs. Designs were also painted on the walls of caves and rock shelters, particularly in the South Island.
The designs on buildings, canoes, and cenotaphs are called kowhaiwhai. The colours used are red, black, and white, the latter being the natural colour of the wood in pre-European times, but white paint is now used. The black paint was formerly made from soot, and the red from red ochre (kokowai) mixed with shark oil. The Ngati Porou tribe are said to have also used a bluish paint made of a clay called tutae-whetu. The basic elements of kowhaiwhai design are the koru and the double spiral. The koru consists of a curved stalk with an almost circular bulb on one end. In some East Coast designs there is a type of koru with a “bulb” at each end, and other circular “bulbs” equally spaced along the inner side of the curve between the terminal “bulbs”. The leading elements of the design are almost invariably white, the remaining space being blocked in, or stippled, in red or black. Where red and black are both used in the one design they normally alternate. The various designs have fanciful names, such as mangopare (hammer-headed shark), kowhai-ngutu-kaka (flower of the kaka beak), ngutukura (red beak, or red lips), and so on. Kowhaiwhai design reached its most developed form in the Gisborne district. There are many fine examples from this area in the Dominion Museum in Wellington. An admirable study of painted designs has been made by W. J. Phillipps in Maori Rafter and Taniko Designs, 1960.
Although kowhaiwhai patterns occur in cave paintings, it is more usual to find pictures of birds, fish, reptiles, canoes, and many other designs, some of them very difficult to interpret. A particularly lively reptilian design appears on the roof of Ley's cave, Opihi, South Canterbury. One of these figures is reproduced on the 2s. postage stamp in the pictorial issue of 1960. Unlike the designs in carving, many of the cave paintings are treated in a naturalistic manner.