Painting Our Caves as Writers

A few days ago, my wife, Minay, and I took a behind-the-scenes tour of the Cave Paintings of Lascaux exhibit that’s running at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. It will be here in Houston through March 23, 2014. It has already been displayed in Bordeaux, France, and at the Field Museum in Chicago. It will go to Montreal, Hong Kong, New York, Shanghai and Los Angeles after it leaves here (probably not in that order, I’m guessing). It’s impossible to visit the caves as a tourist now, so if you have any interest in them, and are near one of these cities, I highly recommend going to see it. The museums will also have lectures by some of the people involved with the project. The highlight of the exhibit is a full-scale reproduction of a section of the cave, which includes some remarkable sculptures of Stone Age people (so lifelike you believe they are gently holding their breath). Here’s an image from one of the exhibit walls, taken with my no-frills cell phone, no flash, low lighting.

Image from the Lascaux Caves exhibit at HMNS
Image from the Lascaux Caves exhibit at HMNS

If we go see it again, I’ll take my good camera and replace that image with a better one. Minay has been wanting to make a quilt based on the cave paintings for years, so we will very likely revisit it. Also, Here are links in English and French to the official Lascaux Caves website. Very cool.

So, to the point of the post. It occurred to me that the creation of paintings, and other forms of art, have some commonalities with the act of writing. The cave paintings, for example, were meticulously planned and executed. The outline of the animal they were going to paint was first etched in the limestone with a flint tool, and the outline was then filled in with black pigment (usually manganese dioxide). this allowed them to see the extent of the animal. Then they highlighted the animal’s body by dabbing or sponging the area with reds, browns and/or blacks. The paints were made with ochres and oxides from ore, which means the paintings can’t be carbon-dated, but some tools and food scraps, etc., have dated the caves to 17,000 to 20,000 years ago. Finally, seeing the scope of their animal defined by the outline, and having filled in the body, they began to tinker with the image, scraping away some of the pigment to provide shading, adding other pigments to change and alter the solid color they had already laid down, removing some pigment to reveal some of the limestone behind the image (to expose a white area to create an eye, for example).

Isn’t that exactly what we do as word artists? We choose an animal (a plot, an idea, a story). We create a framework for it (an outline, a treatment, a few notes scribbled on a napkin). We fill in the outline with some substance (our crappy first draft). Then we tinker with it (we add shading and nuance, and scrape away the parts we don’t think will work).

Do you agree or not? Let me know below.

Responses to Painting Our Caves as Writers:

Mary S. Black said: February 10, 2014 at 10:53 am

You’re on to something! I can’t wait to read your book. Please let me know when it is “finished.”

    • michaelsirois said: February 10, 2014 at 11:31 am

Thanks, Mary. I’ll definitely keep you updated. I’ll probably be pitching my newest thriller this summer at the WLT conference.


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