Sunday, December 23, 2007

Art History – Cave Painting

My copy, in oil pastels, of a cave painting of a horse. The original is in the Lascaux Caves in France and dates from around 15,000-10,000 BC. I picked oil pastels because I thought that the broad pastel effect would be the closest to the results produced by the original, pre-historic, artists. When working with oil pastels, I like to start by using the colours in a very light, sketchy way. I keep going over the drawing lightly with different colours until the grain of the paper is largely filled in and the pastels begin to “skid” over the surface. I then use a conical “stub” of paper, rolled to form a hard point, to blend the various shades together. (If you work too soon and too heavily with one particular colour and the paper grain becomes clogged, it becomes difficult to modify it by blending in other shades.)

When I first started my website (, I intended to include a series of art lessons, for the possible benefit of both students and teachers, simply because my retirement seemed to otherwise waste a great deal of my experience. (Whether or not the lessons are actually any good is, of course, another matter entirely.) The problem was that, as I became increasingly busy with my own painting, this project has gradually been falling by the wayside. So a change of strategy is called for! What I intend to do is to write up my thoughts on these lessons, as they occur to me, as part of this blog. Afterwards I will tidy them up and incorporate them into my website as time allows.

With regard to Art History, what I hope to do is to take personal “snapshots” of the various periods and movements of Art History. In particular, I hope to provide links between the sections, to show how one influenced or grew out of another - or, sometimes, simply how similarities exist without there being any other connection at all! There is no intention to cover movements in detail - others have already done this and much better than I can! My intention is to create a series of “pegs” that a more detailed study can be hung upon at a later date. For this reason, I am including links to web sites that I found particularly interesting and useful (if you can suggest others that would be particularly appropriate, I would be grateful if you would e-mail me with your recommendations).

This is my first attempt – a look at Pre-Historic Cave Painting. I found this to be a useful introduction to art history for my 1st year pupils (Secondary School). The French Ministry of Culture provides a great virtual tour of the caves at, which, with the aid of a data projector, I found very useful – and the pupils loved it. The site also has a lot of good follow up material.

Paintings like the original of the horse (at the top) have only survived because they were created in nearly inaccessible places which have been protected from the ravages of the weather. But these places would have been even more difficult to get to thousands of years ago, with no more than primitive lamps and torches to show the way. The paints were created from the materials available at the time, such as coloured earths, charcoal and chalk. The effort involved in collecting these, carrying them down narrow passages deep into the earth and then creating the paintings at the other end should not be under-estimated. To justify such effort, the paintings must have been of considerable importance to the people at the time.

It is likely that there was a 'magical' purpose behind this act of creation, although not perhaps not in the way we might think. I cannot believe that people who were intelligent enough to create such works of art were simply indulging in wishful thinking, i.e., that they thought that by showing the animal pierced with arrows and spears, this would guarantee a successful hunt. I think that the process would have had to have been one of identification with the hunt and the animal being hunted.

When a person totally immerses themselves in a subject, the creative process swings into action. Solutions to problems come to mind without the need for conscious thought, both mind and body tune up for action. I am completely certain that the process of creating these paintings resulted in the participants becoming better hunters - because we still make use of essentially the same process today! This is exactly what a sportsman does when he 'psyches' himself up for a competition. He devotes himself to thinking exclusively about what he has to do, he may run through the act repeatedly within his imagination and, usually, he is surrounded by the paraphenalia and trophies associated with his sport. (Evidence of past success helps to create a mental environment favourable to future success.)

When we do something like this as a group, we often go to a special place dedicated to that purpose. This may be a clubhouse or even a place of business, but whatever its ostensible purpose, its ritualistic aspects are likely to be revealed by its furnishings. These are quite often portraits of earlier sporting or business 'heroes' or perhaps framed certificates, the equivalent of battle honours in military establishments. At one time or another, often without realising it, most of us have been in such environments and participated in group activities designed to promote a group identity and to enthuse us to greater efforts. I doubt if we have really changed that much from the days of prehistoric man.

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