THE PALEOLITHIC WALL PAINTING

Post 677–by Gautam Shah

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The wall paintings (upper palaeolithic eras) began as a medium of expression -a ‘story’ telling exploit. It was not a decorative art for a place, but a ceremonial craft in a space. The paintings were in deep caves as well as open sites. Bhimbetka, India, sites shows human occupation for more than 100,000 years, but earliest paintings on the cave walls here date back just 30,000 years ago.

Bison Cave of Altamira

Upper Palaeolithic period began roughly around 40,000/60000 years ago and lasted through the Pleistocene ice age, which is believed to have occurred near 8,000 B.C. This period was marked by the rise of Homo sapiens and their ever-developing ability to create tools and weapons.

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The cave sites were difficult to access but were perhaps special and visited by several generations. The caves were deep and dark and artists worked with lamps and torch lights. The paintings were made on walls, ceilings and even floors. Many of the locations and surfaces were acutely irregular. Artists had to work in squatting lying position or use elaborate scaffolding to reach the heights. The scale of the job was stupendous. Deep cave paintings have survived, whereas open location paintings have generally been destroyed.

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At Bernifal in the Dordogne, the mammoths are painted 20 feet up. Some of the bulls at Lascaux are more than 20 feet long. The big cave vault at Lascaux, known as the Picture Gallery, is more than 100 feet long and 35 feet wide.

Lascaux_painting image by Prof saxx

The cave art consists of simple impromptu works as well as grand executions. The first types were perhaps executed by amateurs or apprentices, and the second by masters. To sustain projects of such scale, the master artists were helped by a retinue of assistants and the community. The assistants helped in erecting scaffolding, preparing the surface to be painted, mixing colours, devising brushes and other colour application tools, feeding animal fats to lighting torches, provisioning food and water.

Bhimbetka_Cave_Paintings

The cave artists have shown very high degree of professionalism. The compositions, understanding of the animals’ anatomical details, animals’ form, dynamism and movement, all represent a keen sense of observation, experience and discipline.

The limited choice of colours has been overcome by the masterly expression of form. There is consistent economy of line. The textural and tonal qualities do not represent the light and shade, yet suggest the depth through colour differentiation (recognizing the ‘grey tone value’). At places existing substrate textures have been exploited. The scale and distribution of objects within a composition do not follow a visual proportion system, yet prioritize the elements of the story.

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Wall painting began as a line drawing. Lines were frequently scrapped through a sharp edged tool. The etched lines perhaps helped in retaining the charcoal or soft stones rubbings. Such art works, as the primary responses were impressed on whatever interior or exterior surfaces that were available. However, it was realized that more permanent work can only be created in a protected space. The caves space and its environment stimulated a spiritual experience for the portrayal. The spaces must have been favoured by several generations, as some of the paintings have been modified repeatedly over thousands of years. The earliest works are refined compared to later works or modifications.

Paintings_from_the_Chauvet_cave_(museum_replica)

There is nothing to suggest that the art was a setting of a ceremony. There is no depiction of a sacrifice, or a master of ceremonies like a priest, sorcerer or a witch-doctor. The paintings also have no images of the surrounding terrain or the vegetation of the time.

Bison-Cave-Painting-Altamira-Caves

The palaeolithic wall art consists of three main categories of subjects: animals, humans and signs (abstract or unexplained). The animal figures are the most detailed and naturalistic representations, but drawings of humans are rare and perfunctory. ‘In the case of Chauvet, predatory or dangerous animals dominate, while in Lascaux the main representations are of large herbivorous mammals’. At caves across various geographic locations the animals include: woolly rhinoceros, lions, bison, horses, aurochs, bears, reindeer, wisent, and giant deer and hyenas. At places species which were then extinct (as per the time dating technology), are also painted. Some of the most common species such as the reindeer do not find any representation, though bones have been found in the cave. The wall art also includes prints of spray painted hands, with abstract interconnecting lines.

Lascaux,_Megaloceros

The abstract signs are said to be representing the perception of night skies, of stars etc. Some forms of visual effects of movement or vibrancy (experienced in limited illumination) were perhaps included by use of florescent dyes, and slightly shifted images.

MATERIALS and TECHNIQUES

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Wall art of upper Palaeolithic age in the early phase did not have any surface preparation except scrubbing off the loose particles and dust. Selected surfaces were away from flowing or leaching water. Early phase drawings were done in line work with charcoal, but compared to this the carbon black, a deposit over an animal fat burning lamp had better binding and colour saturation. Lines were also scratched or etched by a sharp tool and done over with a black colour. Scratching the surface also ensured better colour retention. Later renderings (filling up the colour) with red ochre (Iron oxide from Haematite) and black was done. In the later phase (25000/20000 BC) other colours such as yellow and brown were added to the palette.

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In the initial phase dry colours were rubbed over the surface. In the later phase colours were ground with water and additives like blood, urine, eggs and animal fats. The additives improved the bonding, increased the viscosity (to prevent run off the surface) and reduced the drying time (allowing application and rendering effects). Learning also included: how to prepare intermediate shades (orange and browns), prevent algae like growth, avoid colours that fade over an age and moisture bleeding of colours and additives. Colours were mixed Calcium containing water or nodules to improve fixing.

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The colours were ground by rubbing them over a rough surface, and also through pestles and mortars. At Lascaux, some 158 different mineral fragments were found. Shells of barnacles and human skulls were used as containers for ground pigment pastes. Colour was applied by brushes, twigs and fingers. Colours were also put on by spraying through mouth and blow pipes made from bird bones, and by daubing with hands, fibrous pads and soft skins. Colours were sprayed over hands as the stencils to perhaps mark the participation or visitation.

altamira Hand spraying but of post original work period

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PRIMITIVE COATINGS # 1

Post 411 – by Gautam Shah

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Coatings have been used for decorating and suffusing objects and surfaces for the past 60000 years. These were used for several purposes such as to add a colour, impart a protective layer, ‘plaster’ a surface, imprint a pattern or create an identity signage.

Stone and other artefacts requiring coating or decoration

A primitive person had many objects that could receive the coatings. These objects were natural, reformed or produced ones. The objects had different sizes, shapes and surfaces. The surfaces had characteristic textures, porosities, base-colours and patterns (grains, patches, stains, etc.).

Korea Neolithic age pot

The objects were own body skins, hairs, and nails. Animal products like teeth, animal hides, furs, bones, and teeth. Minerals’ items like sands, clays, stones, rocks, precious stones, and sea shells. Plant items such as dry leaves, grasses, seeds, dried fruits, fibres and woods. The manufactured range of items included clay products, ceramics and metals.

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The surfaces were prepared to receive the coating. Hides were cleaned and shaved by heavy rubbing. Body surfaces were oiled to receive the colourants. Walls were washed and wetted prior to coating application. Bones were ground to remove the sheen and make surface slightly rough and absorbent. Stones and woods were polished or scrapped. Raw and baked clay products were re-fired after coating. Leaves were rolled and flattened and dehydrated at the green stage by burying in layers of ash or sand.

The coatings’ materials were of natural origins, such as available off the ground, or from animals and plants. But the coating materials were processed by filtering or sieving, washing, cleaning, decanting, boiling, singeing, and sintering.

The act of coating was intentional, done with a sure purpose. But the resultant effects were wondrous, something that gave a new purpose to the artefact. The art of drawing and the technique of coating, was seamless process of magic. A process to express, what the postures, gestures or spoken language could not do.

Coating techniques and materials of the primitive age are still being used in many situations, and so continue to be relevant. Blood is perhaps the earliest colourant, as a fresh liquid it has very rich colour. It was a colour to represent the vibrancy of life and metaphorical power over the kill. Blood, however, is biologically degradable material, dries to a darker shade, and has very weak colour-integrity. Wood coal is a dry colourant, easy to handle. It requires a textured base for ‘rubbing-in’ or a binding liquid to form an applicable paste. Carbon (Lamp) black -a deposition collected over burning fat or oil, is much better due to oil content. Whites were procured from metallic oxides and carbonates. Lime is most common everywhere. Other whites included talc, whiting and barytes. Iron oxides are equally common, and have many different hues (such as yellow ochres, browns of sienna and umber, red and black oxides). Oxides are very stable, and have ‘deep’ saturated colours.

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Black Carbon of Soot or Lamp black

In this palette of colours, the notable absence was Blue and Green. Blue and green appeared very late in the form of Lapis lazuli and Malachite (copper carbonate hydroxide). Brilliant Red that could represent the fresh blood, and Brilliant Pink of the meat were also absent. Purple was nearly unknown. The absentee colours were sourced from plant juices and natural dyes, but had poor colouring strength or low opacity (transparent), sun light fading, and biodegradable colours so were not long lasting.

Sprayed colours

The primitive colourants were mostly of dry powders or soft rocks. These had no binding capacity. Mineral pigments were heavily rubbed on the surface to trap them in the micro cavities of the surface. Liquid juices could absorb into the surface. Some form of binding material or technology was needed. Water has temporary binding capacity and can be used as a carrier agent. To fix colours plant oils, mutton fats, fish oils, etc. waxes, and plant latexes were used. These substances except the wax were ‘non-drying’ and remained wet for a long time. The wet surface attracted dust and trapped insects. The oily substances biologically deteriorated, and on oxidation turned darker in colour.

Proteins-based materials like blood, eggs, milk, urine, and starches were also used as binding materials. Plant and insect exudates or natural gums had binding properties but were highly hygroscopic (affinity with water) materials. Plant milks or latexes, like materials, were also used. Wax was used to mix with pigments and as a protective layer. Wax and natural Creosote were used to protect wood and leather surfaces.

Number of cementing substances were used for coating or plastering. Mud plasters, slaked lime and Pozzolana (volcanic) ash, were materials that had binding properties. Colouring these substances, or coating over it (fresco style) required large quantities of materials, or concentrated pigments. Lime when mixed with a colourant imparted a white shade creating a ‘pale’ effect. Pozzolana had darker colour so made the colourant several shades darker. Plastering and daubing, were frequently used to prepare a better surface for a wall painting. Primitive binding materials can be categorized like, 1 Materials that are water reducible, water resistant and hygroscopic, 2 Air drying and non drying, 3 Non water-based materials.

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The primitive age craft of coating can be summed up as 1 Surface preparation, 2 Application of the coating, 3 Applying tonal variations or shades, and 4 Covering the surface with water protective coat, usually of oils or other transparent materials. The process of application of colourants or the coating system was adapted to the nature of the base surface, as much as to the type of colourants and binders.

Twig brushes

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Drawing points and crude shading brushes

Primitive coating applications are varied. The simplest way of marking cave walls art was to make finger-nail traces in the soft layer of clay covering the rock. Lime stone walls were engraved and filled in with iron oxide (Hematite, or ochre), or the black pigment such as the manganese or charcoal. Analysis of cave wall art pigments, reveal the use of extenders (dull or low opacity powders) such as talc or feldspar, to increase the bulk of pigments. The coating also shows traces of animal and plant oils, used either for binding or as a protective covering. The pigment in paste form was applied with fingers, and also tools like fiber pads, animal-hair brushes or crushed twigs. Lumps of pigment discovered on the floor of caves were perhaps used as crayons, or were grinding onto colour powder. Colours were often sprayed, from the mouth or through a tube. A network of ladder, supports and scaffolding was used to reach the ceilings and upper portions of walls. Light was provided by hearths, or portable burning torches. The coated surfaces were ground to achieve a sheen on the surface or re-coated with a protective layer of egg-whites, oils or fats.

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The earliest known use of colourants dates back to 70000 years, whereas Cave wall art is about 40,000 years or older. BC. Lascaux, an underground cave, 17300 BC, located in SW France, has walls and ceilings, decorated with some 1,500 engravings and about 600 paintings in shades of yellow, red, brown, and black. The subtle tonal gradations of colour on animals painted in the Altamira and Lascaux caves appear to have been dabbed in two stages with fur pads, natural variations on the rock surface were exploited to create the effects of volume.

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