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A BIT OF PERSPECTIVE – The desire to use color in artwork dates to the Upper Paleolithic period (Stone Age) with the discovery of some of the oldest known paintings ever found. Among these are images found at the Grotte Chauvet in southern France, claimed by some historians to be about 32,000 years old. These images are engraved and painted using red ochre and black pigment and show horses, rhinoceros, lions, buffalo, mammoth or humans often hunting.

A Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave horse painting

There are examples of cave paintings all over the world—in France, India, Spain, Portugal, China, Australia etc. Various conjectures have been made as to the meaning these paintings had to the people who made them. Prehistoric men may have painted animals to catch their soul or spirit in order to hunt them more easily, or may represent an animistic vision and homage to surrounding nature, or just may be the result of a basic need for artistic expression that is innate to human beings, or they could have been for the transmission of practical information.  The Chauvet Cave is uncharacteristically large and the quality, quantity, and condition of the artwork found on its walls have been called spectacular. Based on radiocarbon dating, the cave appears to have been used by humans during two distinct periods: the Aurignacian and the Gravettian. Most of the artwork dates to the earlier, Aurignacian, era – 30,000 to 32,000 years ago.

Another of these sites is the Bamiyan Buddhist site that lies on the Silk Road in the Hindu Kush mountain region in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. The Silk Road is a caravan route inking the markets of China with those of Western Asia. Until the 11th century, Bamiyan was part of the kingdom of Gandhara. It was the site of several Buddhist monasteries and a thriving center for religion, philosophy, and Indian art. It was a Buddhist religious site from the 2nd century up to the time of the Islamic invasion in the 9th century. Monks at the monasteries lived as hermits in small caves carved into the side of the Bamiyan cliffs. Many of these monks embellished their caves with religious statuary and elaborate, brightly colored frescoes.

Buddha oil mural painting from Bamiyan cave said to be painted between the 5th and 9th centuries.

An international team of conservators and archaeologists found what is believed to be the world’s oldest-known oil paintings there. The findings were located in a maze of caves that sit behind two gigantic stone Buddha statues that the Taliban blew up in 2001. The team found that about fifty of the caves were once adorned with glistening murals depicting images of Buddha, bodhisattvas, and female devotees.  In 2008, their research revealed that paint samples from twelve of the caves contained “drying oils,” most likely walnut and poppy-seed oils, which are key ingredients in oil-based paints.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, drying oils were used in medicines, cosmetics, and perfumes. Scholars long believed they were first added to paints later in medieval Europe. “There was no clear material evidence of drying oils being used in paintings before the 12th century A.D. anywhere in the world, until now,” says Yoko Taniguchi, a Japanese conservation scientist on the team. The murals at Bamiyan, which lay on the Silk Road where goods and ideas flowed between East and West, date to the mid-seventh century A.D. “This is one of the most important art-historical and archaeological discoveries ever made,” she says. “It indicates more complicated material and technical interconnections in this area than previously thought.”

In addition, archaeologists recently discovered a painted pattern of black, white, and red among the ruins of an 11,000-year-old house in Jaadet Al-Maghara, Syria on October 9, 2007, making it what is believed to be the oldest wall painting (not cave painting) ever discovered. Researchers uncovered the prehistoric artwork, while excavating the dwelling near the Euphrates River some 280 miles (480 kilometers) north of Damascus.

An abstract wall painting from Syria, which resembles works by Klee

As we can see, even thousands of years ago, the need to seek out materials in order to enhance a message, artwork or vision with color was inherent.

References: Archaeological Institute of America, Wikipedia, National Geographic Society.

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