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Cave Painting

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One of greatest known art periods, the Paleolithic era, was around 32,000 to 11,000 years ago. Pieces of art from this time period can be placed into two categories; small, detailed figurines/objects, and cave art. The figurines were often carved from bone, stone, or clay.

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These were materials artists could easily get ahold of. These pieces of art were mostly found in Europe and Siberia. Unlike the portable pieces, cave art was discovered in northern spain as well as France. These often took the form of paintings, or engravings on the walls of caves or on rock like surfaces.

French Paleontologist Edouard Lartet was the first to discover Paleolithic art in the 1860’s. His first discovery was an embellished objects within the caves on Southern France. These discoveries were noted as ancient as they had many similarities to the figures found during the Stone Age. After the small discovery it became a must to find more. People began to dig in caves to look for certain objects, not giving thought to the art already noticeable on the walls.

It wasn’t until 1880 when the discovery of the Paleolithic paintings within the Spanish cave of Altamira were found and given great skepticism. In 1895, walls covered in engravings were discovered in La Mouthe, a cave in France. The lengths of time to discover these pieces of art was set back due to the debris that had originally blocked the entrance to the cave. In 1901, more engravings were found in the same region of France just in a difference cave, Font de Gaume.

It wasn’t until right after that that archaeologists stated that cave art has a true existence. A popular and well known cave, the Chauvet cave, was brought to light by Jean-Marie Chauvet in 1994. The cave is located in the Ardeche Valley in southeast France. This cave is home to many animal paintings that date back to 32,000 years, making them the oldest paintings to be discovered, yet.

It wasn’t that long ago that Paleolithic art was only found inside the cave. In 1981 archaeologists discovered multiple outdoor sites in spain, portugal and south africa. These sites were often found along rivers, on the side of large rocks, or on the entrances of caves. They’re expecting these paintings to be approximately 20,000 years old and were often engravings of human-like figures, horses, and wild cattle. Given the notable amount of repeated engravings/drawings scientists now think this type of artwork was common, despite the little that survived due to the erosion of wind and rain.

Art during this era was thought to either mean two things, figurative, meaning it translates animals and humans, or non figurative, meaning signs and symbols. Animals during this time could also be translated to more than one thing depending on period and region of its use. Art within caves would mostly show animals such as bison, horses or even deer. Fish and birds are also within the paintings and engravings but were usually used more for figurine art. Despite the use of them being different they have one thing in common, they’re all drawn using their profile, or from the side. Some animals are even imaginary, as in the unicorn translated from the cave in Lascaux, France.

Human bodys were not typically found in cave paintings but mostly in small portable statues. These figurines tended to be women yet their bodies often differed from what our social norm would be. For example the small female statues known as the Venus have larger than normal breasts, abdomen and hips. Statues that often represented woman had these over-sized aspects to them. They also didn’t have a face, no eyes or mouth. Making the focus be on their body and nothing else.

Materials used during the Paleolithic era were very broad. They used forms by simply changing the base of a material to give it a new meaning. Beads were also commonly made and used out of ivory. Figurines were made out of ivory or a soft stone, and some were made from clay. Art on cave walls was created using multiple techniques. Some images were created using the shape of the rock or stalagmites it is placed on. The shape would help put emphasis on certain points of the paintings.

On almost all wall sculptures there has been traces of a red pigment which tells scientists that they were painted. This red pigment is made of iron oxide which can be found in clays and ores. Black pigment was made out of manganese or charcoal. These materials were often only available in areas surrounding the cave. Painters often applied the paint with their fingers, giving them more control over the look they want. It was later discovered that some used animal hair brushes or small twigs were used to paint as well. Scientists have repeatedly found chunks of these pigments on cave floors believing they may have been used in pencil-like form.

Within cave art scientists also found paintings on the ceilings of the caves. Although some were too tall to even imagine painting on, others show holes in which were used to help support someone paint on the ceiling. Hearths were often used to shine light within the cave however in deep caves artists would need more of a portable light source. Archaeologists have only found a few known stone lamps, which are also known as torches. The debris of charcoal within the cave also proves that fires must have been lit to use as light.

Like I stated above on the ways painters applied the pigment was with their own hands, and eventually other tools were discovered. However to make special effects such as dots, figures or hand stencils, artists used a technique called “sprayed paint.” The artists would use a mixture of powder pigment, water, and a type of oil and use a straw to spit it onto the walls. This is a great way to help get different textures. Given that the size of cave paintings varies, this technique would have been of great help. For example some of the largest are over 2 m in length, and drawings of bulls at Lascaux measure as long as 5.5 m.

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