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Unchanging Art Supplies

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Technology in art supplies moves fast, and there are tons of amazing ways to enable new creative explorations appearing all the time. Wacom Inkling Pen. Lytro Light-Field Cameras. Terraskin paper made from stone.

Hyperferrule brain-to-glove painting device. © Glendon Mellow. Any steampunk inventor/neurosurgeons out there want to co-manufacture these with me, gimme a call.

Innovations, especially digital ones, leave a swath of devastatingly outdated art materials in their wake. The Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies curated by Lou Brooks is there to document those left behind by trends and utility.

What about art supplies that are unchanging and (as close as you can get to) eternal in the human experience?

Last week, our SciAm blog peep Gozde Zorlu on Creatology reported on an amazing discovery.  As chronicled in a study in Science, archaeologists led by Christopher Henshilwood of the universities of Bergen and Wiwatersrand found what appears to be a 100,ooo year old ochre workshop in a South African cave.  (Make sure to read Gozde’s post Stone Age Art Kit Found in South African Cave for photos and a link to a 60-second podcast!)

Along with umber and sienna, ochre pigments are among the earliest shades used for mark-making.  They come from clays, and can range from yellowish-brown to reddish-brown and are also non-toxic.  The abstract at Science also describes charcoal being found in the cave with the other supplies.

Both charcoal and ochre pigments (in watercolour, acrylic and oil paint; in pastel pencils, and Conte sticks) can be found on almost any foundation-year course list in leading art colleges  today.

If you look closely enough, you'll find some stone age pigments mixing with modern chemistry.

Charcoal and ochre: are there other art supplies that have stood the test of time, and accompanied creative humans in our path from the stone age to the digital age?

Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite and is on Instagram. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. lynn fellman 6:02 pm 10/22/2011

    You may like to know that Curtis Marean, at ASU, has been working in southern Africa for many years and discovered some of the first early remains of pigments.

    Fitting nicely with his research and the group you mentioned is a recent paper in PNAS. Titled “Hunter-gatherer genomic diversity suggests a southern African origin for modern humans”. Check it out — the abstract and conclusion is an easy read.

    Does anyone received an Inkling from Wacom? It was schedules to ship mid-September and then changed to mid-October. I have a preorder with Amazon as advised by Wacom. If anyone knows the real story OR if the Inkling is real Please add your comment.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Glendon Mellow 7:49 am 10/24/2011

    Thanks Lynn! Great resource there. The use of pigments must go back pretty far in human prehistory and it’d be a thrill to be able to put some dates on that. I’m fascinated we still use them in mostly the same form, at least for part of the palette.

    In a quick search, the only review of the Inkling I could find that wasn’t by a Wacom employee was by 3D World magazine, when Wacom employees came to their offices to demo it:

    So it looks like no one has received one yet.

    Link to this

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