Recently I’ve been studying a bit about primitive art such as the paleolithic cave art of Spain and France, dating back 15,000 to 40,000 years ago. Most of these cave drawings were made using red pigment from hematite or black pigment from charcoal.
My interest began after listening to an art lecture on the need to connect with the past, to recognize the ever-present urge for creative self-expression that has long been part of mankind.
I spent an afternoon copying several images from cave painting sites and found it to be a very inspiring act. It was one of those moments. Oh, how I love those moments when art becomes zen-like, those beautiful times when I’m able to lose myself in the rhythm of mark-making with pencil or brush, those transcendent experiences when making art becomes a spiritual experience.
In learning more about cave art, I considered that perhaps my feelings of awe and wonder were very fitting, profound even.
Cave art is generally considered to have a symbolic or religious function, sometimes both. The exact meanings of the images remain unknown, but some experts think they may have been created within the framework of shamanic beliefs and practices. One such practice involved going into a deep cave for a ceremony during which a shaman would enter a trance state and send his or her soul into the otherworld to make contact with the spirits and try to obtain their benevolence. – Encyclopedia Britannica Online
Although I wasn’t performing any shamanic ritual, and I wasn’t going deep into any caverns, it was almost as if I did enter into a trance-like state as I moved my brush over the page.
Wanting to go further with my learning, I researched paint-making and found a few simple methods. It doesn’t take much to make paint, really, at least not the sort of primitive paints our Stone Age relatives used all those many, many thousands of years ago.
Our grandson Madox was here on Saturday, so together he and I had a lesson on primitive art. We talked about early cave art and looked at images, and we wondered at how our ancestors figured out a way to make paint.
Then, we gathered up our paint-making supplies and headed outside to dig up a bit of dirt. Yep. Dirt. That’s what we made our paint from — although there are other, slightly more sophisticated ways.
We sifted our dirt as best we could, trying to remove any large pieces of debris. We then added a bit of grapeseed oil. We learned in our reading lesson that cave-dwelling artists used animal fats, but that vegetable oils were a reasonably good substitute. Our paint was quite thick, so I also added a bit of water. We came up with a goopy — for lack of a better word – grayish-brown mixture, and we grabbed a couple of sticks to see what we could paint.
The sticks didn’t work too well, so we opted for modern-day watercolor brushes.
We both loved our finished paintings, although Madox thought the paint might have worked better had we been painting on the walls of a cave — or, at least, on a rock.
Definitely not the highest-quality paint, but quite an interesting and enjoyable painting experience.
Other methods for paint-making (which we’ll try in the future) include using charred wood or charcoal, or adding minerals such as manganese oxide, gypsum, or iron oxide. These minerals can be purchased from science or hobby shops. A good ratio is one cup of minerals (well-ground) with a teaspoon of vegetable shortening. Egg yolk can also be added as a binding agent.
This was definitely a fun project, and I think Madox and I have both built important connections to the art of the past and to those cave-dwellers who lived so long ago, yet who remain alive to us today through the simple beauty and wonder of their art.