In this practical, student gain an understanding of how cave painters may have used the natural rock formation to paint the animals and scenes onto them and how later painters have continued with this tradition.

Student Sheet

In this practical I will be:

  • Analysing the accuracy and styling of cave painting.

  • Reproducing examples of cave art, under similar conditions to the original artists.

  • Interpreting cave paintings and discussing my, evidence based, opinion.

  • Express my own story, style and ideas through cave art.


As a science-artist, you need to appreciate the skills and creativity that go into creating a piece of art. For centuries, fellow science-artists have been studying cave paintings and trying to understand the stories that the original artists were trying to tell.

A recent newspaper article has condemned cave paintings, calling them, “ancient scribbles and cave doodles- no better than a toddler’s finger painting.’

You need to help explain how interesting and complex cave paintings are. But to do this, you need to gain a greater understanding yourself…


  • Pictures of animals from cave paintings

  • Photographs of any of these animals 

  • A4 white paper

  • A4 brown paper

  • Brown, black and white paints

  • Paintbrush

  • Beaker and water (to clean your brush)

  • Newspaper (to cover your work area)

  • Pegs or pins to place your paper on a board or wall


  1. Look at the single animal pictures from the cave paintings and select the photograph that best matches the painting.

  2. Describe how accurate you think the painting is compared to the photograph.

  3. Using the charcoal pencil try to reproduce your own drawing of the animal on a piece of clean smooth white paper.

  4. If possible try painting it.

    • How easy is it to produce the image on the clean white paper?

    • Did you try to copy the animal or did you try to draw it in your own style?

  5. Now take a piece of the brown paper and crumple it up (by loosely screwing it up).

  6. Smooth out the brown paper and pin it on a notice board.

  7. Now try to draw and, if possible, paint the same animal on the brown paper on the notice board.

    • How easy is it to produce the image on the crumpled brown paper?

    • Did you try to copy the animal or did you try to draw it in your own style?

  8. Look at the image of a whole wall of cave paintings and try to interpret the paintings.

    • What do you think was drawn first?

    • What is your evidence for that?

    • Does the wall tell a story if so what do you think is the story?

    • What is your evidence for your story?

    • Does everyone agree with you and if not what are their reasons?

  9. Try to create your own wall story using more crumpled brown paper on the notice board.

    • We are trying to understand the idea of style in paintings and the way the artist uses it to paint an image. Comment on what you think of the styles in the range of cave paintings.

  10. How can you make use of the different light effects on the crumpled surfaces

  11. Make a note of your observations of the difficulties, ease of painting on the different surfaces.

Going further:

Look at the paintings of Picasso, particularly the paintings and drawings of bulls.

Can you see any similarities to the cave paintings? If so what are they?


A study of the cave paintings from many places around Europe shows the common themes are large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs, and deer. Also notable, are the many tracings of human hands and abstract patterns.

The animal species are most often those hunted, evidenced by the actual prey found in local deposits of bones, but not always. For example, at Lascaux the deposits of bones are mainly reindeer, but this animal is not portrayed in the cave paintings; the horse is the most common. In some cases the animal form is cut or incised into the rock. Drawings of humans in the cave paintings are rare. When they are drawn they are usually schematic rather than detailed natural images. It has been conjectured that the painting of the human form was prohibited by their religion; but maybe it was thought to bring bad luck!

The evidence suggests that the pictures were not merely decorations of living areas, since the caves in which they have been found do not have signs of ongoing habitation. They are also often located in areas of caves that are not easily accessible. Some theories hold that cave paintings may have been a way of communicating with others, while other theories ascribe a religious or ceremonial purpose to them.

A French Catholic priest, archaeologist, anthropologist, ethnologist and geologist, Henri Breuil (1877–1961), known as Abbé Breuil, studied the cave art in the Somme, Dordogne valleys, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, China, Ethiopia, British Somaliland, and South Africa. He was one of the first to interpret the cave paintings of the Paleolithic era. He saw them as hunting magic whose purpose was to increase the number of animals caught.

Lewis-Williams  worked on the South African cave paintings and advanced the argument that the paintings are the products of shamans. This is based upon his studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. He argues that the majority of paintings are found in the darkness of the caves, and often in areas where the echoing sound is good, or the surface is such that the shadows of the rock helps to give the painting form and shape. This is because the shaman would enter a trance-like state to paint and the chanting and shadow movement enhances the trance and images.

R. D. Guthrie  took a different route and reached a different view. He argued that, from the art and skill point of view, there is a wide range of skill and a range of ages amongst the artists. From an analysis of the themes of the paintings, mainly hunting, it suggests that these paintings are the result of adolescent male fantasies. This idea is countered by D. Snow  who has analysed the hand prints and stencils in French and Spanish caves and concludes that many of these are of female hands.

Teacher and Technician Sheet

In this practical students will:

  • Analyse the accuracy and styling of cave paintings.
  • Reproduce examples of cave art, under similar conditions to the original artists.
  • Interpret cave paintings and discuss differences of, evidence based, opinions.
  • Express stories, styles and ideas through cave painting.


(The topic could start with a group discussion during which teachers introduce the following ideas, especially the words in bold.

This practical is not intended to be a pure chemistry practical but a general introduction to the use of texture and the use of materials. It is a foundation for all the other practical work and for understanding the articles.

The aim is to help the student gain an understanding of how cave painters may have used the natural rock formation to paint the animals and scenes onto them and how later painters have continued with this tradition.)

At first glance cave paintings appear simple. But are they?

Look very carefully at images of cave drawings downloaded from the Internet. These can be images from Lascaux, Niaux, and Chauvet.

All the animals are recognisable. This means the representations are reasonably accurate. Their body parts are in the right place. There is a sense of proportion. Secondly they are often comic strips that tell a story. That means the painter has a sense of time and can picture a time line.

Paintings from other parts of the world carry on the same traditions. But there are some, like those of Australia, which show a ritual in a dreamlike sense.

Download images from other places in the world for the group to look at and analyse.

(This practical can be done with pupils working as individuals but it is better when they work in groups of two. Groups of two allow for good discussion between the pupils about the images. Teachers can use the questions set as the stimulus for discussion and the answers can be used as a group report, poster or presentation.)

Curriculum range: 

All ages can take part in this activity since the aim is to gain some understanding of the thinking of the artist. It links with:

  • reporting on findings from enquiries, including oral and written explanations, displays or presentations of results and conclusions; and

  • using straightforward scientific evidence to answer questions or to support their findings.

Hazard warnings: 

There are no hazards in this practical.


For each group of pupils:

  • Single images taken from the internet of animals in cave paintings
  • Single photographs taken from the internet of animals that match those seen in the cave paintings
  • Pictures of whole walls of a cave showing the relationship of animals to each other
  • 6 (or access to) sheets of A4 paper per pupil to draw and create a report
  • 4 (or access to) sheets of brown paper about the same size as the A4 white paper
  • 1 charcoal pencil or charcoal stick per pupil
  • (access to) Poster paints (if available) brown, black, white
  • Notice board and pins (or peg and Blutack® the paper to an available wall)
  • Newspaper (or similar) to cover the work area
  • Paintbrushes
  • Beaker and water to rinse the paintbrushes

Technical notes:

Images of cave paintings and photographs of animals that are seen in the cave paintings are readily available from the internet. 

For example:

The charcoal pencils or charcoal sticks, brown and buff coloured sugar paper (sizes A1 – A4) and the poster paints are all readily available from suppliers.

If the available poster paints comprise only of primary colours then mix blue, yellow and red to create brown. 

Paper can be pegged and/or blue tacked onto an available wall before painting onto the paper. 


This practical is easy to set up and carry out. The equipment needed is readily available and the learning objectives are achievable within the allocated lesson time. 

The hazards are minimal assuming the required level of behaviour from students. 

Students should be able to assess that painting is easier on smooth A4 paper on a flat horizontal surface. 

Students should also be able to assess that it’s less easy to paint a picture onto a non-smooth surface and that the way the paint is applied needs adapting. 

This includes observing and incorporating the ‘crumples’ of the paper into the picture and how different colours are applied and in what order. 

Going further:

Look at the paintings of Picasso, particularly the paintings and drawings of bulls by clicking here. 

Can you see any similarities between the Picasso drawings and the cave paintings?

If so what are the similarities and the differences?

What do you it is that makes you think it is a drawing of a bull?