Create your own prehistoric paintings at Penn State's Arts Festival booth

June 26, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts will have no shortage of some of the most innovative contemporary artists working today — but what about artists from hundreds of thousands of years ago?

There might not be any cave paintings on display, but Penn State’s “Art of Discovery” booth will feature a hands-on, family-friendly demonstration of how early humans made the paints that still adorn cave walls around the world — offering festival-goers the chance to create their own artwork from their own handmade paint between 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 14.

“We’re going to have samples of ochre pigment, or iron oxide, as it naturally occurs, which takes the form of rock that has to be pulverized,” said Claire Cleveland, a doctoral candidate in geosciences, who will help festival-goers go back in time to understand these prehistoric masterpieces. “Then we’ll mix that pigment with gum arabic, honey and clove oil, giving us a safe and all-natural paint much like those used by early humans.”

The popular demonstration made its debut at the festival last year thanks to Heather McCune Bruhn, Penn State assistant teaching professor of art history. At the time, Bruhn and Maureen Feineman, assistant professor of geosciences, had started developing the interdisciplinary geosciences and art history course “Rocks, Minerals and the History of Art,” which examines naturally occurring art materials from a geological perspective while also tracing their usage in art throughout history — giving her the idea to help bring this fusion of art and sciences to the public and help them (literally) get their hands dirty.

Bruhn said taking people through the same paint-making process as early humans can help foster a greater appreciation for art and the human drive to create. For early humans, gathering the pigments and materials used in cave paints often involved a great deal of effort. Yet despite this, these cultures valued art enough to gather rare pigments, crush them, and venture deep into isolated caves to paint.

“We have no record telling us explicitly why these people were making cave paintings, but clearly it mattered to them,” Bruhn said. “That’s something very special. It can make these works easier for people to understand by appreciating the sheer amount of effort our ancestors went through for the sake of making art.”

Cleveland said she’s expecting a fun and busy time at the festival, as the paint-making demonstration was a big hit with everyone from children and families to students and seniors last year.

“The kids loved it because they got to create something and take it home, and the parents usually made something themselves, too,” she said. “This a great way to explore art through a new lens. If there’s a take home message, it’s that science and art aren’t always so separate.”

  • Art of Discovery 2018 banner

    "The Art of Discovery" at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts will explore the art of science and the science of art through free, hands-on demonstrations from researchers, professors, and students from across Penn State.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Ochre deposit in Clearwell Caves

    A naturally occurring ochre deposit in England's Clearwell Caves, which were used as iron mines for thousands of years and show evidence of Neolithic mining. 

    IMAGE: Heather McCune Bruhn
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Last Updated July 24, 2018