History Lessons

How were Cave Paintings Made?

How were Cave Paintings Made?

Cave paintings are the art work you can see on ceilings and walls of certain caves across the world. Most of these paintings date back to the pre-historic times, made more than 10,000-20,000 years back from now. Oldest cave paintings known till date are assumed to be the red disk in El Castillo, northern Spain, painted around 40,800 years ago. Most of the cave paintings are made in caves that are quite difficult to reach. At present, more than 350 caves are known to be cave paintings in them, including Altamira in Spain, Creswell Crags in England, and Lascaux in France. Rock paintings in Astuvansalami, Finland, are examples of rock paintings. Such paintings have now perished due to erosion through all these years. If you ever wondered: how were cave paintings made? oneHOWTO has come up with a complete answer.

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  1. Purpose of Cave Paintings
  2. Materials used for making Cave Paintings
  3. Types of Cave Paintings
  4. How certain Cave Paintings could have been made

Purpose of Cave Paintings

Also called as parietal paintings, cave paintings are drawings painted on the ceilings and walls of caves during the prehistoric times. They can date back to as long as 40,000 years. It is not known why these paintings were made. According to experts, they were not created for decoration purpose only, because most of these caves are hard to access, and do not show signs of habitation. Some experts believe that these paintings were made for communication purposes, while others assign a ceremonial or religious purpose to these. The theme of these paintings is quite similar across the globe, since most of them involve images of animals and hands of humans.

Other theories go like this:

  • Shamans were people who retreated into the dark caves and entered into trance states. These cave paintings could have been made by these shamans, who painted these drawings out of their visions
  • They could be some sort of graffiti done mostly by young males of those times. Venus like figures in these drawings are of almost the same age as well. Most of the young adults who painted these drawings are assumed to be males, while some might be females as well
  • There could have been practical reasons for making these drawings as well, such as showing hunting techniques etc.
  • These paintings could have been an art form during pre-historic times, and people used to draw whatever they had visions of. You can check out more information on our article on the difference between Paleolithic and Neolithic art.

Materials used for making Cave Paintings

Most cave paintings were made with either black or red pigment. They used iron oxides or hematite for making paintings in red, and charcoal and manganese dioxide for those in black.

There could have been several types of materials used for making colors, including the following:

  • Clay ochre can be seen to be the mainly used pigment, as it provides different shades of brown, yellow and red
  • For black, they could have used charcoal or manganese dioxide, or even burnt bones. For white, ground calcite or kaolin could have been used
  • They ground these pigments to make a powder, and mixed it with water, animal fat, blood, vegetable juice, albumen, urine or bone marrow to make the paint
  • Extenders like biotite, calcium phosphate, ground quartz or feldspar could have been used to make the colors adhere firmly to the walls and prevent them from cracking upon drying

Some caves have sculptures as well, such as the bison clay statues in Tuc d’Audoubert cave. They engraved soft walls with their fingers, while they used flint tools to make engravings on hard surfaces. Very few of these cave paintings include humans, but some of them have human genitalia and heads in isolation. Handprints and hand stencils of humans are common characteristics of cave paintings made during the earlier ages. Majority of caves include figures of animals, including extinct ones of mammoths, cave bears, cave lions and woolly rhinoceroses. Images of cervids, aurochs, bison and horses are also prevalent in caves. Rare depictions of fish and birds are also present. Geometric signs are also seen copiously painted in caves.

How were Cave Paintings Made? - Materials used for making Cave Paintings

Types of Cave Paintings

There are different types and styles of cave paintings that were made during different periods, and with varying themes. Some of the most prevalent ones are:

  • One style is the schematic drawings of mammoths and horses, frequently showing only the back or head of the animal, and sometimes the schematic vulvas. Dots and lines also form a frequent appearance in this style of cave paintings.
  • Another style of paintings is considered to be parts of religious rituals, and is often found on the rock shelters or entrances of caves. Such paintings are rarely found inside the caves, and often become more schematic by including back and neck of the animals too. Venus like figures are commonly found in this style of cave paintings. Such paintings lack the feet and legs, with only a slight hinting of the arms and face. More concentration is given to the breasts, belly and hips of the figures. Hand impressions were found in this style of cave paintings only for the first time.
  • One more style of cave paintings showed animals and figures in motion. In this style, lines were finer, and the antlers or horns of the animals were shown with a perspective point of view. The figures have very short legs, and the body appeared to be too large for the head. This style of paintings often included drawings of horses and bisons. Back of the animals were shown with marked lines, and were less pronounced than other styles of cave paintings. Both horses and bisons are painted in the same drawing, with other animals merely painted as extras. These cave paintings showed close relation between animals and humans. Negative and positive hand imprints are also present in some of these paintings.
  • Most caves show paintings in this last style. These include appearance of mobile objects, with realistic styling of animals, their horns and antlers. These paintings did not have any perspective view of the figures. Horses were marked with a belly mark, and a couple of lines on the shoulders. Bisons were distinguished with a triangle on the loins. Different symbols can be seen near the animals as well, including arrows, fire, bows and hunters.

How certain Cave Paintings could have been made

Pigments used for making cave paintings included yellow and red ochre, charcoal, manganese oxide and hematite. These cave paintings were made thousands of years ago, and no one is there to tell us how these paintings were made. But we can only make guesses by looking at their structure and formation. Some examples are:

  • As far as hand imprints are concerned, the paint was first applied on palms of adults or children, and then they were imprinted on the walls
  • When we talk about hand stencils, someone placed a hand on the wall, and then the paint was blown over it to create a stencil effect. The paint could have been blown with the help of a tube, pipe etc. This formed a characteristic image of a palm with uncolored, solid pigment. It was then decorated with dashes, lines or other geometric shapes or abstract figures

Whatever figures they painted, they probably collected their pigment like ocher and charcoal, mixed water in it, and used fingers, brushes or tools to paint their drawings on the walls. In some caves, pigment is seen scattered on the floor, which indicates that some paint would have splashed while mixing with water.

How were Cave Paintings Made? - How certain Cave Paintings could have been made

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Teresa L Tande
This was exactly the background I needed for my Humanities 1 students. Thank you!
OneHowTo Editor
You're very welcome Teresa, we're here to help!
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How were Cave Paintings Made?