To recognize most elements in Central Australian paintings the viewer must know the site and the Dreaming depicted in the painting. They always refer to sites where mythical activity is believed to have occurred and where ancestral power still remains.

Artists employ a basic set of symbols, such as dots, concentric circles and curved and straight lines. All have multiple meanings depending upon their context. Despite this there are some standard design elements.

Concentric circles usually represent campsites or rock holes. Straight lines between circles illustrate the routes travelled between camps or places. Wavy lines across a painting usually is water or rain. A small "U" shaped figure represents people sitting and straight lines next to them are weapons or domestic implements. (see Iconography page for more detail)

Tracks, whether human or animal, are often depicted in plain view as they appear on the ground. Lizards and snakes are frequently shown as one would see them from above. Significant plant species are generally shown in a stylised but figurative manner and the dotted primary motifs and backgrounds have become the hallmark of the acrylic movement.

All stories and information provided about the icons are public, meaning that all can read and understand these elements of the Aboriginal culture. Many of the icons also relate to sacred ceremonies, but no reference is made to this.