The Oldest Art Studio

Ochre pic - from Gizmodo

Ochre pic - from Gizmodo

Here’s some news that blew me away: The oldest art studio ever discovered (National Geographic). In Africa, a cave was unearthed that included all the basics required for making pigments: natural colorants, tools for grinding them (stones), and bowls for holding the pigments (abalone shells) – as well as some evidence of some fairly complex chemistry in their making, and even color mixing. Which is all extremely cool. But here’s the really cool thing: These art materials are 100,000 years old. Yep, a tenth of a million years is how long (at least) we humans have been making art materials – which means, of course, that we’ve been making art for at least that long as well. I’ve always had a younger date in mind, and have often shared that with my students: say, 30,000 to 40,000 years. But clearly, it’s been much longer than that.

I’m excited by the news of this discovery for a few reasons. One, this means that we homo sapiens have probably been making art ever since we’ve been homo sapiens. One related article at CNN mentioned that fragments of pigment have been found from even longer ago than those in this find, though without the related tools found there. Longer than a hundred thousand years is how long we’ve been painting. In a very real way, I think, making art is a part of what it means to be human – as much as tracking, or storytelling, funeral rites, or any other part of our deepest shared culture.

Second has to do with the pigments themselves. The pigments discovered were ochres and other minerals, charcoal, and bone. None of these is unexpected – but what has an impact on me is the feeling that when I paint with a natural earth pigment, I am a part of a hundred-thousand-year-old tradition. That makes me feel differently about what I’m doing when I use these pigments, in a wide but not-quite-definable way. It makes me feel – human. Really a part of our culture, not our modern veneer and glitz, but the real deal. It feels good.

Third, of course, is the fact that I’m a handcrafter of pigments myself. When I read the article, I immediately felt a strong connection, a kinship even, between myself and those color-makers from long ago. I felt part of a string. I thought about myself, and about some artist grinding earth pigments 100,000 years from now, and about those ancient color-makers from so long ago. I wished they could have known about me somehow, grinding earth pigments so long after they did. And I wondered if they felt the same excitement in the gathering and making of the colors, the same satisfaction with the finished pigments, and the same joy in using them for their art.

I bet they did.

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8 Responses to “The Oldest Art Studio”

  1. Chrissy Says:

    I know just exactly what you mean. those ancient people were my people in a way that feels more real and meaningful to me than ‘other americans are my people’ or ‘people from the countries from which my family emigrated to the united states were my people’.. i’ve never felt a strong bond with others who share my same nationality or family heritage, but i do feel that bond with others who practice making art with me, and before me. our people have a very long history, friend! isn’t it great to be a part of that tradition?!

    • llawrence Says:

      Yes it is. I’m so isolated from the natural world at this point, in so many ways – these human connections across time are important to me, and clearly to you too. There will be a time when we are no longer isolated, because that will no longer be an option. In the meantime, these are among the traditions to keep alive.

  2. The Student Palette « Sunsikell Says:

    […] Sunsikell Adventures in the quest for color. « The Oldest Art Studio […]

  3. Aras Says:

    great knowledge,please share the newest ideas with me,keep it up.Thanks alot..

  4. Tilke Elkins Says:

    As a living artist who also grinds her own pigments, I want to point out the obvious, which is that I feel great kinship with YOU and the rest of us who are following this path. Thank you so very much for your generosity — the detailed sharing of your experience — and your love of this process. I do believe our tribe is going to grow.

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