Cave Painting

Cave Paintings

Experts agree that copying the Masters is one of the best ways to improve your painting technique.

In my Art class a few years ago I was copying a Cezanne: The Lac D'Annecy.

Apparently he didn't like this picture or Annecy but I was drawn to this painting because the point of view was of a place where I'd sat many times. Unfortunately I had trouble getting to grips with this picture. Mainly because I used 5 different copies of it and they were all completely different. So I gave up and switched to another Cezanne painting. This one was called something like "House With Crack" or "The Crack House." This was a lot more fun to paint than The Lac D'Annecy.

What becomes apparent in exercises like this, is the master's use and application of paint and his natural rhythm. It seems that every artist has an inborn trademark squiggle. I noticed that Cezanne often repeated a small simple up and down stroke especially with trees. Van Gogh had a curved shape that often recurred in his backgrounds. Me? I have a squiggle too. It's sort of an S shape or like an 8 on its side. My art teacher also had her signature stroke. It reminded me of a gull seen from a middle distance, soaring on a sea breeze: a very romantic description for a small line on a page.

Recently I was trying to copy some of the Lascaux Cave paintings (from library books). When I began to copy the artist(s?) technique, it became a rather unexpected spiritual experience. As I pored over each dot or shaded area, I felt I was reconstructing an unknown person in my head. The artist after all had been dead for 18000 years. All clues of his life were in this work. This was more than a picture. It was an autobiography. My intrusion was a postmortem of the artist, his, life and culture.

Generally we admire a picture as a whole but when critiquing a picture we search deeper for hidden meaning and reason. When we set out to copy the techniques and style in a picture we enter the mind and hand of the artist. It becomes quite personal.

The Lascaux paintings are spectacular. Bold hands set these images down on stone. Clever hands. The Collecting of pigments and colours and making of tools to apply the paint would have taken premeditated thought and time. To bring all this together would have taken imagination and would have resulted in a degree of job satisfaction.

I didn't have to go to those lengths. I did my first attempts with chalk and charcoal which I figured would be similar to the basic tools of the state of the art Cro Magnon artist. Mostly though I used oil crayons because they looked better. I wasn't drawing on rock either. I just used paper. I wasn't trying to pass off my picture as a perfect fake; I only wished to examine the construction of the pieces.

There were two particular grottos worth of pictures that I focused on. The Laschaux caves and the Chauvet caves. (see Art gallery section for a few pictures.) I found myself more engrossed in the Laschaux pictures than the Chauvet pictures. Laschaux's artwork seemed to be painted mainly by one artist. That is probably not even remotely true but I had an impression of a distinct style. The pictures had colour, often warm colours. Many scenes overlapped but there wasn't the overcrowded feeling that dominated the Chauvet caves. The Chauvet cave gave me the impression that an artist had been practicing within. Lots of images of the same animal are sketched side by side covering whole areas as if the artist was trying to get it just right. There seemed to be several artists' work on display in the Chauvet cave. Some pictures, (EG the rhinos), looked very accomplished while others like a picture of a leopard have the style of an 8 year old child.

Theoretically, I guess art can vary in the same way that subspecies adapt to climate and terrain. People drew with what was at hand. They'd utilize native clays, muds, and stones. They'd paint what they saw when they could. Would it be so strange for people of a certain cave to have an individual style passed down through generations? This could explain the unique approaches to art in different areas. I have noticed several times in modern villages with a small school that everyone seemed to have the same handwriting. I guess this is what can happen when one teacher teaches a whole community to write. I suppose the same could happen with cave art techniques being passed down through the generations of a tight knit clan.

The first picture I drew was the black bull from the Lascaux cave. When I began to draw, at first all I saw was a bull. But as my concentration kicked in, I saw a distinct style to the work. I started by laying down the contours of an elegant backbone then curved along the tapering solid muscle of the upper forelegs, down to the delicate ankles and the low slung belly. I felt I was tracing an ancient road laid down by an unwitting historian. Considering the simplicity of the strokes, they conveyed a lot of detail. Shading the torso, I noticed the hidden reds just showing through the black. Then I noticed it had a black horizontal stripe running along the belly. It was quite well hidden. It looked like the black stripe from a gazelle. Perhaps this bull is in fact a relative of the modern eland. Most likely though it's obviously an Aurochs. There was also a pale stripe that runs below the black stripe.

Copying this picture took me about half an hour but my picture was small. Had I drawn it full size, it would obviously have taken longer: though probably not by much. Copying something is far easier than creating something. I mention this though as I think it's an important factor when making presumptions about the pictures creation. If the artist spent two hours on the bull, that's not really a long time. We're not talking Cystine Chapel stuff here. Plenty of time left over for a few more pictures. So perhaps the art was all painted in the same week 18,000 years ago. No doubt carbon dating or something has discarded that notion as nonsense, but it's fun to think about.

Next I attempted a horse. These ancient horses always remind me of the Przwalskies Horse which I understand lives out near Mongolia these days and is quite rare and unpronounceable. I get the impression that the same artist has produced this work but there are subtle differences. Most of the solid lines are used to draw the legs and hooves. The backbone is constructed of short strokes. The mane is a solid dark mass similar to a zebra mane. The ears appear more like pronghorn horns but it may just have been due to some flaking on the walls. The colouring is a shade of bay which seems to have been applied quickly but accurately in order to give the body a barreled shape. Perhaps it was pregnant. Arrows appear to have been shot at it. But they protrude from the ground and not from the horse. This makes me think on Artistic License. The Artist was apparently painting a hunt. He could have chosen to draw the arrows sticking in the horse's body but he didn't. Did the horse escape? If so then why? Did one of the arrows belong to the artist? The angle of the arrows suggests that the hunters were ahead of the horse and a little to the side when they fired their arrows. Could this be a real live recorded historical event? The artist may even have been poking fun at himself: depicting himself as a terrible hunter. If I had to name this picture I'd call it, "The one that got away."

The big question though is did they have bows and arrows back then? I thought bows weren't invented till about 10,000 years ago. Or are those just little spears? They may have had spear throwers. Or are they just 2 blades of grass? If they are blades of grass then they are the only vegetation pictured in the cave. The lines of the horse's legs are especially noteworthy. The ends all appear to have been carefully curved. This artist didn't like jagged edges on his Pictures. Even horns curve gracefully. perhaps this was his trademark squiggle.

The horse's belly appears white but has been left unpainted. The natural colour of the rock fills in this detail. Disproportionate heads are also a common feature. It seems that horses have traditionally been painted with small heads right up through the 19th century. It shouldn't be a surprise to find the practice goes way back to the Cro- Magnon Age.

These two pictures seemed to be each composed of only two solid lines. The solid line of the backbone and the lines of legs and underbelly. The rest is filled in by colour. Both the bull and the horse are in motion.

In what must have been an era of carnal desperation when mankind held only a mid table position at best on the food chain, I am amazed to imagine some guy coming home from wrestling with wild beasts and saying to himself, I think I'll do a bit of painting. Maybe it was therapeutic. I wonder if the whole clan watched him paint or did he (or she)do it in the wee hours while everyone slept. Did he have a sketching alcove? His studio? Was an area reserved to practice before the main picture was tackled? This could explain his uncluttered walls. I have heard that there is a picture of a shaman in the Lascaux collection. (I haven't seen all the paintings). Could this also be a self portrait? A signature? Was he a shaman? Was he old? Was the artist an old woman? Perhaps someone with some time on their hands.

On the whole, life didn't seem too bad. The pictures are not the work of disturbed individuals. The scenes are of animals and hunting as would be expected but there is very little gore and carnage. They seemed a straight forward, uncomplex people with a strong hunting culture who respected the animals they killed. I'd guess that this tribe wasn't strictly vegetarian. I don't see any murals of giant carrots or broccoli on the walls.

From the Chauvet cave, I drew a rhino. Just a head actually. I love the simplicity of this picture. It gives the impression that it was drawn in one sweeping stroke. I doubt it was though because of the roughness of the walls but however it was painted, it is a wonderful work of art. It almost looks like it's smiling. A caricature? This Rhino is very similar in style to the horse picture in Laschaux. Both artists have used the darkest colours to emphasize important features like the Rhino's horns and the horse's mane and limbs.

One prominent feature of the Chauvet art work is the overlaying of pictures one on top of another. Many of these pictures focus only on the head. Many are black and white with only pale traces of colour. This may have been due to unavailability of pigments or the colours have faded. Or maybe the artist liked working in monochrome. This overlapping gives a sense of abstract to many of the artworks. The horses and rhino scene which depicts about 5 horses does appear to be painted by the same person. Likewise the lion pictures would seem to all be one person's handiwork. Did the same person paint both scenes? I don't know. Horses and lions both lived in herds or prides. It would be natural to draw them in that environment. Rhinos are more solitary which could be why they are depicted alone or singular. I can't help thinking that the lions seem a bit too modern. The style of the sketches reminds me of a book I have about how to draw animals. Maybe there's a fraud out there.

I have to admire these artists for what they have accomplished. If only our modern art will be so long lived and still be bio-degradable. Those artists worked on the field using basic tools at best. They had to study those animals and learn their gestures and anatomy while trying not to get eaten. They were lucky just to get back home. I doubt posterity was on their mind. They had no cameras or field guides for reference work either. Information was stored in the head till it was rendered onto the wall. That's dedication.

I was in Yellowstone last year and I got a bunch of brochures and stuff at the ranger's office. There was a fold out map with a picture of all the animals we could expect to see in the park. They were all posed side by side like a happy family. There were plenty of them too: elk, moose,wolf, bear, beaver, pronghorn etc. I guess if you are careful, Yellowstone provides a great opportunity for sketching animals in the wild. Just as long as you're always looking over your shoulder and have good running shoes you'll be fine. Here's an extra hint for Neo Magnons out there. It might be best to draw from behind a bison proof windshield.

 Nowadays the Yellowstone animal population is probably a mere fraction of its glory day numbers. We can only speculate how dangerous it must have once been. We can hardly appreciate the difficulties facing an average stone age artist who lived in a well stocked Yellowstone environment that spanned the entire world. I imagine his spear shaft had changeable head bits. One minute he's screwing on a paintbrush to paint an antelope, next minute he's frantically trying to get the spear head piece back on because a sabre tooth tiger is charging him.

Anyway, as I was saying.... a few days later in nearby Bozeman, I walked into an art gallery. There was some nice stuff but it was so expensive. There was an oil picture of a rough and mean grizzly bear. It was a great painting but it did make me wonder if the artist had drawn it in the wild or not. That giant grizzly was standing way too close to be casually sketched in safety. My bet was that the artist, being smart, either took a telephoto picture or just copied it straight out a book. That's fair enough. There's no need to die for your art but it did seem a bit like cheating. Anyway as I was leaving the gallery, I saw an enormous abstract painting of a bunch of Yellowstone's wildlife. They were all standing in a row and all their features had been blurred into the background. I was admiring it and its stunning 4 figure price tag when I realized I'd seen this picture before but in a different incarnation. Yes indeed it was the thinly disguised picture from the Yellowstone brochure. I wonder which master he'd been studying?

I guess there was no wallpaper back in the Cro-Magnon era. It would look quite cool though on a modern wall. Turn your room into a cave.