Learning artistic techniques from cave painting

Hey, this is Misty! Last spring Get Messian Divyam Bernstein and I got started chatting on Instagram about earth tones. She and I realized we often overlooked using them because we’d presumed that brown was, well, a little boring. We challenged ourselves to spend a week working with an earth tone palette.  

While we were exploring the palette in our art journals, I did some reading about the markings that prehistoric people groups have left behind in caves around the world. What I found was a unique glimpse into the past. I want to share some of the highlights with you and then have you explore cave drawings and earth tones in your journal.

Finger Fluting

Lines drawn in soft earth on cave walls are called Finger Fluting. The soft, squishy dirt is called moonmilk, which is a white, creamy substance found in damp limestone caves. These meandering lines are found in caves all over the world and are made by both men and women, children and adults.

These finger flutings are in Rouffignac Cave (also known as Miremont cave) in France.

The meanings of these markings are debated with some people saying they are doodles, some saying they could be about hunting or water sources, but mostly there’s no good explanation of why these ancient people decided to leave their mark. I choose to think about how sand feels shifting over my feet when I’m standing at the edge of the ocean and wonder if these long ago artists just liked the feeling of the moonmilk sliding through their fingers.

Hand Stencils

Hand Stencils were another popular way our ancestors left their marks. These hand outlines were made by blowing pigment onto a hand held up to the wall. I wonder if these early people had any concept of how long their images would be around? I wonder if they were pleased with their marks? Did they travel on from the place they left their mark and then think fondly of the art they made and then left? Here’s my hand stencil journal page. I had my daughter and son add their hands and then I made some notes in pen to remember a few things about them.

Animals in Cave art

Animals figure prominently in cave painting. No one knows for sure if these images for are cataloging migration patterns to remember them for hunting purposes, celebrating outstanding hunts, if they were just amazed at the animals they encountered, regardless of the reasons, animals are everywhere in cave art. I found an image I particularly liked from Lascaux Cave and reproduced it by tracing it with a pencil and then using a charcoal pencil to transfer it onto my journal page.  

Human Figures in Cave Art

While there are instances of stick figures in cave art, drawings of human figures are few and far between. There’s some debate about why that is. It could be that drawing the human shape was a religious or cultural no-no. If you search for “petroglyph” you will find more human shapes. Petroglyphs are formed by carving the rocks instead of painting on them. I love Divyam’s take on human figures.  

Grandmother Reaches for the Stars – Divyam Chaya Bernstein

Dancing to the Moon – Divyam Chaya Bernstein

A few notes about my cave painting pages

  • I found that I really liked painting a dark background and then gluing dress patterns down as my bottom layer. If I wrinkled the pattern paper as I was gluing it down, then it made some lovely, rock-like texture.
  • I also did some paint lifting with a wet wipe while the paint was still damp. This left some color but in a streaky, scrubbed transparent texture layer.

Learn More

This article/video report is a fascinating look at cave signs used as communication and the research behind studying them. Here’s another article about the symbols used in cave painting. It has a great chart of the recurring symbols in cave paintings.

Action Items

  • Make an earth tone palette from your stash. Use your earth-toned paints but don’t forget your charcoal pencils, your inks, or your oil pastels!
  • Do a google search for cave art, cave painting, or petroglyphs and pick an image that speaks to you of the past. Recreate it in your journal.
  • Do a hand stencil page for you or you and your significant others. Don’t forget to make a few notes about them to remember this moment in time.
  • Look at the symbol chart from the “Learn More” section above and see if you can incorporate some of the symbols into your work.
  • Visit a real life cave! I’ve been spelunking with my family several times and it is always a delight! Spend some time learning about the cave and its ecosystem. Be sure to look for cave paintings!


Misty is ever-so-slightly obsessed with paint, glue, and paper. Her interests range across a variety of arts and crafts such as contemporary visual art, mixed media, book binding, crochet, and yarn spinning. When she isn’t in her studio slinging paint or gluing things together, she is busy with her family and serving as President of the Board of Directors for Global Women.


  1. CIndy Jacobs

    Wow! I’m so excited about this!! I have been making backgrounds with mountains and I didn’t know why — now I do: It’s because there are caves in there!! 🙂 Thanks Misty and Divyam!

  2. Debora Aubuchon

    I love how your interests lead you to research and new discoveries!

  3. Marsha Smusz

    Love this approach! Connects us with inherited memories -and your earth tone palletes are lovely. Thank you.

  4. Alexandra merlin

    Such wonderful inspiration in this post!! I found those colors were difficult to work with, now I want to explore more of them. The symbol chart is full of ideas for doodling and tangling. Beautiful artwork too, ladies!

  5. Lea Betty

    WOW Misty this is amazing. It looks so similar to many prehistoric “paintings” I’ve seen in real life. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many sites in person and am in awe of it.
    My favorite is your hand print page – what a great idea. Thanks for the inspiration.

  6. Marsha Smusz

    So, I’m back here again, because I just love love love this post! Feeling very inspired by your ideas.

  7. angela zacharek

    When my “littles” end up with MUD on their paper, they don’t care. They make Finger Flutings!
    Very inspiring. Thanx!

  8. Marsha Smusz

    This keeps calling me, no idea what my muse is saying. Going to just get out my materials and let them lead. I love love your examples, and the Guardian article was fascinating! Thank you thank you