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Paleolithic Cave Painting

The first truly formed artistic expression to come from mankind dates back to the Upper Paleolithic age of the Earth. In the range of time between forty thousand and ten thousand B.C.E. the appearance of cave art developed from older abstract and geometric patterns found in Africa to the wall art in European caves that showed realistic depictions of real beasts the artists saw in the world around them.

Termed the Magdalenian art system, these early paintings are both powerfully evocative in their imagery and extremely fragile in their physical composition. As far as subject matter for their art, there is the ubiquitous human hand patterns, a huge number of animals of many types and some geometric patterns. The human figure itself is rarely included and then only in the most basic stylized form as though they were of much less import than the beasts of the fields.

Lascaux, France


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Some of the earliest pictograms were done using clay as finger paints. These fragile pictures have had the greatest difficulty in surviving their rediscovery by modern man. Many floor paintings of this type have been obliterated by the passage of tourists. The paintings discovered during World War I in Bedeilhac in the Pyrenees had been totally destroyed within six months of their discovery.

As the Magdalenian painters of the Paleolithic age evolved their art, the productions became more complex and involved. There is evidence within the caves of not only scaffolding but also the use of assistants to aid the primary artist to complete his work. Often the paintings were done high up on the walls, Some of the bulls in the Lascaux caves are twenty feet long.

As well as using clay, the Paleolithic cave painter began utilizing flint and stone picks to work their designs directly into the stone. Taking advantage of different mineral layers this early low relief sculpting displayed an amazing level of depth and perspective. The next development was in the creation and use of color to further realize the imagery they were attempting to display.

Albarracin Cave
Teruel, Spain

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The first color palette was rather limited. Using various tinted clay ochers the prehistoric artist developed the traditional deep red ocher as well as yellow and orange colors. Black was produced with manganese dioxide from pine and juniper ash carbon and also by using hematite as a form of coloring stick. White was produced using kaolin and mica, but this color was only used sparingly.

By combining the artful shaping of the cave wall and then rendering the painting along the subtle contours created with the flint and stone picks developed an image that, when viewed under the flickering torch light that was all these prehistoric artists had to work with, seems to move upon the wall. This added an even greater power of expression to the static images.

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