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Going Underground: The Lascaux Cave Paintings

One of the most significant art discoveries of all time began in 1940, when a group of five teenagers and their dog walked to a nearby hill in southern France, looking for hidden treasure. They definitely found some -- they discovered the Cave of Lascaux, home of the famous Lascaux prehistoric cave paintings.

At around 15,000 BC, the climate on earth had warmed and the glaciers receded. Rising sea levels caused more rainfall that supported vegetation and small game animals. Groups of prehistoric people took advantage of these improved conditions and migrated to the Pyrenees of France. Among them were the artists of the Lascaux cave.

The cave was not used for everyday activities. The fact that many of the paintings are located more than a mile from the mouth of the cave lead us to believe that the paintings were part of “ritual“ activities and the cave was a type of sanctuary.

To reach the area where the paintings are located, the artists had to go on an expedition. Since it took days, provisions were needed. Lamps, made of limestone or sandstone that burned animal fat, and torches made from wood coated with fat, had to be brought along. The artists were not deterred by the darkness, the lakes that had to be crossed, or the stalagmites that had to be removed to reach their destination.

The paintings at Lascaux are predominantly depictions of animals -- almost 600 in all. The horse is the most popular animal; others include aurochs, stags, ibex and bison and more rarely, bears and felines. There is only one human representation at the site, not unusual among paintings of this time period.

The images at Lascaux were created using primitive paints made with pigments. The pigments at Lascaux include ochre, charcoal, iron oxide, hematite, manganese and other minerals that produced the browns, blacks, reds and grays in the paintings. These minerals were most likely ground into a powder using stone mortars and pestles. A binder stabilized the paint and promoted adhesion to the stone surface. No trace is left of the binder but possibilities are water, fat, saliva, blood or urine. A vehicle liquefied the paint and allowed it to be applied to the surface. Water or oil are typical vehicles that might have been used.

The artists may have applied the paint with brushes, the fingers or even blowing the paint through a straw. Some of the paintings seem to have been created by using a crayon to draw an outline of the figure and then filling it in with a brush. Crayons were produced by mixing a pigment with a binder, molding it into the desired shape and letting it dry. Brushes may have been made from leaves with shredded ends. There is evidence at Lascaux that the surface of the stone may have suggested shapes to the artist that he/she could then “perfect” by applying paint.

The images at Lascaux were painted over each other with little concern for composition. Yet they evoke a sense of harmony and movement that makes them one of the most significant examples of prehistoric art known to date.

Unfortunately, heavy volumes of tourist traffic at Lascaux began to cause deterioration of the paintings. Consequently, the cave was closed to the public in 1963. To compensate for this loss, the French authorities have created a life-size copy of the sanctuary, Lascaux II, for tourists.

The link to the official site for the Cave of Lascaux is here. Be sure to notice that some of the little pictures are actually buttons to help you navigate the site.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
   You can see Diana's own artwork by visiting her site at