Palaeolithic Chinese Horse

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This horse aptly named Chinese Horse derives from the Lascaux Cave in Dordogne, France.

“Palaeolithic Art developed over a period of 20-25,000 years and continued until the end of the last ice age, 11,000 years ago”. Radiocarbon testing is what is used to establish these rough dates for the majority of paintings.

Contrary to popular belief, many paintings and engravings were found in open-air sites but exposure to the elements and erosion have left only the faintest traces of their details. Engravings, however, have survived at a better rate.

History of European Palaeolithic Art

The history of early artistic mastery is fascinating. It begins with the first modern human culture named Aurignacian. They hunted reindeer, horses, bison and aurochs. They sometimes hunted mammoths and used their bones and tusks as raw material. These people knew how to make decorated objects (portable art) as well as wall art (cave paintings and rock shelters). “They had mastered all of the available production techniques”. Their early artistic abilities, with highly realistic rendering of animals, has raised questions about the origins of art. These people co-existed with Cro-Magnon and Neanderthals and could possibly have taught them many art techniques.

The next culture was the Gravettian culture. The art they promulgated was that of negative handprints made by stenciling. Another important invention was baked clay.

The Solutreans succeeded the Gravettian around 22,000 years ago. Flint-knapping and the “fineness of their flint points suggest that the bow and arrow may have been invented by this time”. Examples of spear-throwers also materialize. The first bone needles appear. “The needle is the most ancient tool still in use today in its original form”.

Finally, the Magdalenian culture, dating from 17,000 to 11,000 BP (Before the Present) is the best-known Palaeolithic culture. Art objects and adornments proliferated. Pendants and engraved bone discs, spear-throwers were decorated with animal or geometric motifs. “Sandstone, schist or calcite plaques were engraved in a way reminiscent of wall art. They embellished caves and shelters, with each having its own masterpieces: sculptures at Cap-Blanc and Roc-aux-Sorciers, black drawings in Niaux and LePortel , polychrome paintings at Altamira and Ekain, clay modeling at Tuc d’Audoubert, engraving at Les Trois-Freres”.

The Geography of Palaeolithic Art

Palaeolithic cave art covers a vast geographic area from the Iberian Peninsula to England, in Sicily and as far East as the Urals in Russia. Portable art was even found in Siberia. It seems that the Paleolithic people carried their basic equipment with them wherever they settled.

The distribution of decorated caves and shelters is unevenly distributed even in Europe where more than 95% of these caves are found in France and Spain. In France there are about 170 sites with four main areas with decorated sites. The most famous is the Chauvet Cave. In Spain, most of the decorated sites are found on the Cantabrian coast. The Cave at Altamira is the most renowned. There are also some open-air sites and free-standing rocks with engravings as well. Not all Palaeolithic art was created in deep caves.

Techniques used in Palaeolithic Art

Lighting would have been problematic and many paintings were painted without any light. (Refer to my article Rock Art 13- Art Placement and Painting in Total Darkness). When light was used, two techniques were employed: torches (which would produce charcoal) and grease lamps. This would provide a light source for several hours. You can just imagine how the flickers of light and projected shadows would affect their perception of the caves.

Palaeolithic artists used a variety of techniques but the dominant techniques were painting (Niaux, LePortel, Ekain, Cougnac) and engraving (Les Trois Freres, Gabillou). Lascaux and Fontanet caves contain both.

Palaeolithic people applied red or black pigment to the rock surfaces. The black came from charcoal or manganese dioxide (mineral) whereas the red came from a hematite mineral, an iron oxide.

They painted the walls of caves and shelters with a piece of charcoal as if it was a pencil, a brush, their fingers, or by “stump-drawing: that is by applying paint and spreading it with the hand or a piece of hide”.

A second technique is now known as negative painting. Dry or liquid pigment was diluted (spit) and blown through a tube around the shape of the hand. The hand acted as a stencil.

A third method was engraving. This involved removing part of a rock surface. On rock surfaces that were soft, it was possible to do finger tracing or fluting. If the rock was hard, flint blades or flakes made it possible to create fine lines. Larger engravings required the use of other tools “such as pieces of wood, the ends of wooden torches and fragments of concretions.” Some artists even created their engravings on cave floors (Niaux).

Lastly, another form of sculpture, clay modeling, has been found in only four Magdalenian caves. The small number of caves with this applied technique is curious as it is a relatively easy technique to do yet ….

An interesting facet to the paintings at Chauvet is that the walls were “sometimes scraped clean before paintings were made. The outlines of the animals were silhouetted to make them appear more clearly, their legs or bodies were put into spatial perspective by various different means, and their forms were given volume and shading through stump-drawing.”

Palaeolithic art demonstrated much variety of techniques and themes. Themes that were represented included the abstract, the fantastic, animals, anthromorphs and geometrics. These same designs could also be found on antlers, stone objects and animal teeth as engravings. Stone plaques could also carry engravings.


There was a wide range of artistic themes during the Palaeolithic era. These included abstract geometric signs to human figures on cave walls.

Objects and wall art carried far more pictures of animals such as snakes, fish, etc… Animal depictions included horses, bison, ibex, mammoths, lions, wolves, and cave bears. These animals could be standing alone or in herds, motionless or moving, created with lines, partially or completely painted.

Not very many representations of humans (barely 20; mostly incomplete and not “particularly naturalistic)” occurred on cave walls. Isolated body parts were more frequent. Horses are the most represented animal and “[embodied]” in a “range of visual imagery and meanings”. Geometrics and animals abound. Geometrics consisted mainly of red dots and small bars.

“Handprints belong to the oldest phases of cave art, dating back perhaps to the Aurignacian” times as in the Chauvet Cave, and certainly to the Gravettian” period as found in the Cosquer, Pech-Merle caves.

Another theme found in caves is that of anthromorphs, therianthropes and sorcerers. They are known as “composite creatures”, they may have the head of an animal and the rest of their body is that of a human.

My painting

My painting attempted to recreate the look and feel of a cave wall with all its dips and indentations, minerals flows and and rough and smooth textures.

Many layers of gels were used including Soft Gel, Pumice gels, Fine, Coarse Garnet Gels (actual garnet included) and Acrylic Ground for Pastel for the look of travertine flows.

A blending technique was used to softly integrate the image with the background rather than force the image to come forward with hard lines.

Reference: Clottes, Jean, Cave Art, Phaidon, pp. 11 to 21