Hunting for the History of Charcoal

Thousands of years ago, when the earliest human cultures made the giant leap forward into artistic expression in caves across the globe, they introduced the world to a new visual language . . . and to the medium of charcoal.

Charcoal is beloved for its rich variety of artistic effects, but it can also boast its importance as one of the oldest artistic mediums on the planet. This was because it was organic in origin, and early cave painters relied on organic materials and minerals to convey colour and form. Skilled artisans among the Paleolithic peoples would need to mine their environments for the fundamental resources to craft these visual narratives. Charcoal was foremost among these early artistic necessities as it could be derived from any charred carbon source, including wood and bone.


One of the earliest identified examples of this early charcoal work is seen in the slab paintings found in the Apollo 11 Cave in southernmost Namibia. Named in commemoration of the safe return of Apollo 11’s astronauts in 1969, the Apollo 11 Cave offers some of the most impressive and diverse early portable drawings and paintings dating to around 25,000 BCE. Some imagery was rendered in red ochre and white painted pigments while other scenes were created through the use of charcoal. Such is the case for the feline form seen above. Here, even in this early age, the potential subtleties of the medium are revealed, with the hazy contours of the animal creating the illusion of dimension or volume.

The conjuring of these visual narratives appeared almost simultaneously in faraway Australia (Nawarla Gabarnmang rock shelters, c. 26,000 BCE) and East Asia (Khoit Tsenkher Cave, Mongolia, c. 30,000 BCE). They also spread northward to the European continent in the centuries following, with similarly fantastic examples of charcoal work appearing in the decorated caves of Spain and southern France.  


Exemplifying this tradition are the Lascaux Caves, which date to approximately 15,000 BCE. Here, charcoal became and essential means of conjuring contours and shading for different animal species, working in conjunction with the other earthen hues crafted from pulverized ochre, hematite or manganese.


Created nearly simultaneously, the caves near Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc reveal a network of animalistic imagery rendered almost exclusively in charcoal, illustrating the importance of the medium as a means of artistic expression in these early days.  


As artistic skill advanced, charcoal and carbon became essential for the rendering of black pigments. This was true for both the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures. Throughout the second millennium BCE, these neighboring cultures nestled along the Eastern Mediterranean developed much more intricate pictorial styles and conventions that required a more extensive palette. Precious gemstones such as lapis lazuli or azurite became the basis for rich blues; malachite or tyrolite was the mineral used for luscious greens; and yellows and bright oranges were made from calcite and yellow ochre. Despite these innovative colour variations, essential throughout was black, which was typically created using carbon-based charcoal. For the ancient Egyptians, this deep black colour was particularly important, as the colour symbolized, in different contexts, allusions to both life and death. While the medium of charcoal would advance at an even faster pace in the many generations to follow, these early adopters revealed the true versatility of charcoal and initiated its future development into the powerful presence it is today. Did you know charcoal had such a rich history? What do you think encouraged that first prehistoric artist to attempt its use?

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