Uli drawings are strongly linear and lack perspective; they do, however, balance positive and negative space. Designs are frequently asymmetrical, and are often painted spontaneously. Uli generally is not sacred, apart from those images painted on the walls of shrines and created in conjunction with some community rituals.
The drawing of uli was once practiced throughout most of Igboland, although by 1970 it had lost much of its popularity, and was being kept alive by a handful of contemporary artists. It was usually practiced by women, who would decorate each other's bodies with dark dyes to prepare for village events, such as marriage, title taking, and funerals; designs would sometimes be produced for the most important market days as well. Designs would last about a week.
Most uli designs were named, and many differed among various Igbo regions. Some were abstract, using patterns such as zigzags and concentric circles, while others stood for household objects like stools and pots. Some represented animals such as pythons and lizards; others showed plants, like yam leaves, or heavenly bodies, including a crescent moon and stars. Still other designs depicted cutting and other actions.
The use of uli was not limited to the human body. Igbo women would also paint murals of designs on the walls of compounds and houses. These generally used four colors which could be created from natural bases easily found in the area; black was made from charcoal, reddish brown from the camwood tree, yellow from either soil or tree bark, and white from clay. When the British arrived in the area at the turn of the twentieth century, they brought with them a commercial laundry additive which some painters used to create blue pigment. Uli was not meant to express a specific message; instead, it was meant to beautify the female body and buildings to which it was applied, as beauty is equated with morality in Igbo culture.
Today the practice of uli is being kept alive by, among others, the artists of the Nsukka group, who have appropriated its designs and incorporated them into other media.