As I paint, I watch my kids draw pictures with their markers and crayons. I wonder- what did we ever do before Crayola? Before we could run to the store to buy tubes of paint in every color imaginable?

    For this month’s Arty-facts, let’s go back to the beginning. To the cave paintings.

    Long ago, as long as 40,000 years ago, people drew on the walls. And they didn’t get in trouble for it. They used what they had around them, which was clay, rock, charcoal, and earth pigments. Pigments came from materials such as ochre, hematite, and manganese. Making “paint” took quite some effort. First, people spent time crushing the rocks into a fine powder. Then, they mixed the powder with spit or animal fat. Really, they used anything that would bind the powder into paste, including vegetable juices, urine, blood, and bone marrow. The fluid mixture was then painted using brushes made from animal hairs or plants. They also dabbed with fingertips or pads of lichen, drew lines with twigs, blended with feathers, or “airbrushed” by blowing paint through hollow bones. They were seriously creative in finding ways to depict their lives in pictures.

    Here are a few impressive cave paintings from around the world. Contrary to what we see in the movies, the paintings are not simple stick figures or hand prints. They are complex and subtle portraits with impressive details.

Chauvet Cave, southern France 16,500 to 14,000 years ago
Chauvet Cave, southern France 16,500 to 14,000 years ago

Lascaux Cave, southwestern France 15,000 years ago
Lascaux Cave, southwestern France 15,000 years ago

Kimberly Australia 3,000 B.C
Kimberly Australia Cave paintings 3,000B.C

Sego Canyon, Utah cave paintings 7,5000 years old
Sego Canyon, Utah cave paintings 7,5000 years old

    How did we go from cave paintings made with rocks and body fluids to Monet’s water lilies?

    In 1500 BC, color was thought to have magical and healing powers. Colors were made with milk paint and used on everything from furniture to the insides of King Tutankhamen’s tomb. The basic ingredients of milk paint included lemon juice, milk protein, lime, clay, and earth pigments. People experimented with the recipe and tried additives such as plant oils, eggs, animal glue, or waxes. Many people still use milk paint today, claiming that the paint produces a more authentic feel of colors in nature. It also remains environmentally friendly, containing no harmful chemicals.

    Milk paint was the main form of paint until the 15th century. Flemish artists began to add olive oil to their paint, but it had some problems with drying.

Jan Van Eyck- Ghent central panel
Antonello da Messina- Madonna
Antonello da Messina- Madonna (1460)

Around 1410, Jan van Eyck established the first stable oil paint. His paint set the standard for many years. The small country of Belgium is famous for not just waffles and fries, but for developing the first set of oil paints. His recipe was improved upon by masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Antonello da Messina, and later again by Rubens. The recipes were closely guarded secrets, as each painter had to mix his own supplies. 

    In India and China during this time, it was popular to mix carbon black or bone black with glue to make India ink. Another medium was also invented called egg tempera, which mixed pigments with water and egg. The painting didn’t last very long, but it had a highly polished look.

    In the 1700’s, oil paint became commercialized. Manufacturers added lead, mercury, formaldehyde, ammonia, borax, and other poisonous additives. And I thought adding urine was unpleasant. These chemicals caused serious health problems. It took until 1978 for the US to ban the sale or use of lead-based paint. The lead paint could retain color for centuries, but the health problems were far too great- both for the painters and the people living in the houses. Around this time, paint was also mixed with honey and dried into cakes for use as watercolors.

    New pigments made with non-toxic alternatives to lead were made popular in the 1800’s. With the invention of devices to grind pigment more efficiently and the use of linseed oil as an inexpensive binder, painting took off. Decorating buildings and walls became the standard and the paint giants Sherwin-Williams and Benjamin Moore took over.

    Today, we can choose from a huge variety of media- oil based, watercolors, tempura, acrylic, latex, milk paint, dyes and inks. We can get any color of the rainbow in a tube, a marker, a crayon, or a cream. There are colors in glow in the dark versions, ones that respond to UV light, and those that change with the temperature. There are paints that absorb odors, act like a chalkboard, become a dry erase board, are magnetic, or are fluorescent.

Blacklight body art by John Poppleton
Blacklight body art by John Poppleton

Cristofaro Scorpeniti- glow in the dark painting
Cristofaro Scorpeniti- glow in the dark painting

Flourescent painting by 2nd grader
Flourescent painting by 2nd grader

With all these choices, the possibilities are endless. So tell me, what are you going to paint?

Thanks,

Marla Bender

ARTY-FACTS: The history of paint