The long shadow seen: forty thousand years of drawing tools

The first time Mankind stained their hand and found, wiping it on the cave wall, that their imagination could leap with this new drawn image  in imitation of the animals they thought they saw cast there by their own shadows from the fire- it was the beginning of something that would distinguish us from all other living creatures: conscious drawing.

I was astounded to find that my own hand-print matched that of one of the Altamira cave-painters of Spain exactly.

hand prints from altamira

Some of my ancestors were from places nearby the caves there, so naturally I speculated that thirty thousand years ago this could have been my own flesh and blood who are amongst the earliest recorded artists in the world.

In the Cueva del Gato in Andalusia, Spain, ‘sgraffito‘ predominates-that is,  drawings scratched into the rock surface. These were probably executed using antler or some other type of horn.


Much speculation has centred on what early cave-painters used to paint, but feathers, split cane, and quills, some perhaps used more as blowpipes for powdered paint mixed with spit, have all been ‘in the frame.’


Brushes are first recorded in the Chinese Bronze Age, and were used to enormous effect with the new invention of ink- mixtures of gallo-tannic acid and carbon, resin, and water, rice size and many other formulations.


In the Ancient Near East, the calamus or reed pen ruled in more than one  sense, and is still used – so easy it is to obtain in any reed marsh, its tip sharpened with a “pen-knife”. Patrick Reyntiens, the great stained glass artist, uses them to this day, getting them from the nearby marsh to draw bold and expressive ink drawings.


Medieval Europe saw the rise of metalpoint. A specially prepared paper or card, carta tinta, was made from a mixture of size glue, crushed and baked bone, calcined oyster shell and pigment. When a metal stylus made of silver, gold or lead was drawn across it, the card would abrade it in very fine lines.


Some of the most highly achieved drawings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance use this technique, from the Englishman and friar, Brother William, (who executed one of the finest drawings ever made of St. Francis, his mentor) to Lorenzo di Credi. (You can see my own version of one of his drawings in silverpoint here.) Possibly the best known silverpoint drawings are those of Henry VIII’s court by Holbein the Younger.

Heightened silverpoint by Hans Holbein


Metalpoint included lead, from which we still say, “pencil-lead.”

In the 1760’s, in Cumberland in the north-west of England, graphite was discovered. It was a revolution in the drawing, and trade in it was intense, going worldwide in very few years and leading to a thriving “black market” in the inns of Cumberland- the phrase comes from the blackish appearance of graphite itself.


Drawing with the pen advanced from about this period too, with the manufacture of the metal dipping pen, and the ruling pen both making use of the process by which ‘reservoirs’ could be created to hold the ink and permit it to flow easily but with some measure of control.

The ballpoint, and many other versions of the ink pen are now ubiquitous, of course, but a revolution has occurred in the last few years. For the first time in tens of thousands of years, a tool is used by Man to draw indirectly, through magnetic action and digital data, rather than directly with ink, with abraded or painted particles: the digital stylus has arrived, used on tablets, or even smart phones.

digital stylus



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.