I attended a lecture at the Natural History Museum on Cave Art in 1994 which fired an interest in prehistoric painting. Looking for my artistic roots, I wanted to go back further than those who had directly influenced me – Auerbach, Bomberg, Kandinsky, Klee, Picasso, Daumier, Hokusai, Vermeer, Raphael, Masaccio,Giotto – to unknown ancestors who’s reasons for painting with earth colours on dim cave walls we still know little about. For these people a life of hunter gatherer might well include ‘sympathetic magic’, visualising the successful hunt in advance; depicting a love interestRock art. Although priviledged to be given permission to visit the Lascaux caves in France, I was unable to ask these questions of these early artists who lived 17,000 years ago. Therefore, I decided to visit the Aboriginal people of Australia who retain the ancient tribal knowledge of their ancestors, and still celebrate today with rituals involving body painting and rock art using ground ochres they have often collected from pits hundreds of miles away. The simplicity of the images, like those in France and Altimira in Spain, belies the complex nature of these societies and shares much in common – depiction of the animals from their environment and mysterious signs and symbols relating exclusively to their kinship groups. I was made very welcome in the communities I visited over 4 months and was taken to many Rock Art sites, but it was understood that there were areas that were too sacred to be talked about and we must respect this privacy as we would with the private areas of our own lives.
As a graphic artist, as well as a painter, I have become ever more aware that we need not make any distinction or create barriers between various fields in art. The line that creates the image is unique to each of us, and like a voice or fingerprint, from a distance it may appear similar to another artists, but within each is the individualised expression that can never be repeated. Whether the image is a cartoon caricature of a face, or a hunted bison, in a successful picture the intention is always the same and the artist is only the channel through which reality is expressed.
I try to stay faithful to materials local to the place and love the tactile nature of applying paint by hand. Cave and Rock Artists through the centuries have used ochres (iron oxides) which range in colour from deep red to pale yellow, as well as green earth (terre verte), white chalk and charcoal. These are ground down and mixed with water, plant sap, urine, animal fat or blood to make paint which can be blown through hollowed out bones for stencilling, or painted onto a surface using vegetal fibre, animal hair, or pads of moss or fur. There is an intimacy in using materials that come so directly from nature to depict nature itself, and I have brought back boxes of ochres to use in my own paintings. As Paul Klee said “Colour and I are one”. However, we are also subject to our own era, and with chemical achievements which produced acrylics and polymers, I would never want to exclude new tools and materials available to me.
I have the deepest respect for the integrity of the anonymous artists who paid an instinctive homage to their earth and people with their expressive line and colour which and caused Picasso to say on seeing the ancient images in Lascaux, “I have found my master”.