Category: Creativity

On being unapologetically eccentric

A short tribute to Jim Henson, a creative superstar

Most people probably know who Jim Henson was. If you don’t know his name you’ll probably know some of his work. He is best known for his creation of the The Muppets (Rowlf the Dog, the Swedish Chef, Kermit The Frog and many of Kermit’s Sesame Street friends), Fraggle Rock, and as the creator/director of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and creator and producer of the TV series, The Storyteller.

There’s no denying the appeal of many of Henson’s creatures to children, but part of the magic of his imagination is that his characters are accessible to all ages, and across time. They are as diverse in their characters as they are in their appearances, yet some of them have changed very little in the six decades since their creation. They were lovingly developed, complete with back stories, flaws and aspirations, and performed with consistency and reliability. Henson’s creations set such a high standard, even from their early days, that 65 years after his beginnings Kermit The Frog is a celebrity and a legend in his own right, still appearing on talk shows to talk up his recent adventures. Such was the enduring genius of Jim Henson and the dedication of Kermit’s team of handlers.

My hope still is to leave the world a bit better than when I got here.

Jim Henson

This May marked the 30th anniversary of Jim Henson’s passing, yet his legacy is as far reaching as it ever was. Full disclosure, I am sentimental and crazy about Jim Henson and all he created. As a youngster I recall watching The Muppets every Sunday night and Sesame Street in the afternoons. I still adore the Swedish Chef; I named a dog after Rizo the Rat, another after Ernie, and I now have one called Sweetums. Ten points if you remember which one Sweetums was. I was 13 and a Henson enthusiast as well as a David Bowie fan when Labyrinth was released. I still remember where I sat in the cinema, perched on the edge of my seat, feeling as if the movie was written and made for people like me; I inhabited worlds in my mind just like that, but not as Sarah, or any other character, more as a world-builder like Jim Henson.

As children, we all live in a world of imagination, of fantasy, and for some of us that world of make-believe continues into adulthood.

Jim Henson

I’ve always had a very active imagination, even from a very young age. I’d been writing and illustrating my own stories since I was six and I was an expert daydreamer. The spark of creativity was already ignited in me, as it is in so many children, but I’d always been hyper-aware and self-conscious of it, thus many of my imaginings remained mostly private, even secret. Henson’s work showed me there was a place for world-builders and creators of unorthodox fiction. His work helped fan the flames and ensure they kept burning. His enthusiasm for the imagination gave me permission to let my own imagination off its leash, that it was OK to be that kid with the whacky stories, and that such an imagination was an asset, not a burden. It gave me a foundation upon which I could build that creative power. It was around this time I wrote a story for as part of an English assignment and received my first and only A in English during high school (it was not my favourite subject, despite being an avid reader and writer at the time). The story was nothing like anything Henson did, but it was authentic and unselfconscious and so enjoyed by the teacher she read it to the class and told me I should consider becoming a writer. Naturally my classmates told me I was weird, but I didn’t care anymore. As long as they called me weird, I knew I was being authentic.

I am grateful that I inhabited the world during Henson’s time. I still feel a sense of wonder and gratitude towards him and all he achieved. Henson is as close to a hero as I’ve ever had and it is gratifying to see the legacy of his work continue to inspire young (and not so young) imaginations.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye.

Jim Henson
Sweetums – my dog looks nothing like him, but he is a sweet and lovable monster, just like his namesake. Image from

The Sketching from the Imagination series

I like to recommend the books that most inspire me, especially books that can be enjoyed in more than one sitting. This time it’s a whole series of outstanding and highly addictive books from independent publisher 3dtotal: The Sketching from the Imagination series. There are currently six titles in this series, I have two in my library, the original and the fantasy title, but if the quality of the first two is anything to go by the rest will be the same high standard.

Sketching from the Imagination: An Insight into Creative Drawing

The maiden title in the series is Sketching from the Imagination: An Insight into Creative Drawing. This 320 page book showcases the sketchbooks and portfolios of 50 traditional and digital artists. Each artist describes her or his development process, their aims and the materials they use for their sketchbooks. Below is a quick video preview from the publisher.

A preview of Sketching from the Imagination from the publisher
Sketching from the imagination: Fantasy.

The second book in the series again showcases the sketches of 50 traditional and digital artists from the international art community. The book focuses on the art of the make-believe. This one is hard to put down.

Preview of the Fantasy edition

I cannot personally testify for the other titles in the series, but I enjoyed watching the previews from the publisher, so I thought I’d share them here. My only problem now is deciding which one to get next.

Sketching from the Imagination: Sci-fi.

Preview of the Sci-fi edition
Sketching from the Imagination: Characters

Preview of the Characters edition
Sketching from the Imagination: Dark arts

Preview of the Dark arts edition
Sketching from the Imagination: Creatures & Monsters

Preview of the Creatures and monsters edition

Travel journals from home

For many of us, even at the best of times, overseas travel is not an option due to work and family commitments and/or the insurmountable expense of going abroad, so we have to make do with living vicariously through others. But the current circumstances have made international travel all but impossible for most of Earth’s citizens. While in some places tourism has resumed, albeit with restrictions and caveats, the majority of countries remain closed to overseas adventurers. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still be adventurers, because, while we might be physically confined, our imaginations are not. All humans are equipped with this immense creative power: the ability to see with our mind’s eye. If your mind’s eye needs a bit of prodding, inspiration can always be found from photos of a long-ago trip lingering on a portable hard drive since you returned, unused and rarely viewed (I’m so guilty of this). Failing that there is always the internet with its myriad of images. There are plenty of sites for good quality free pictures. A favourite of mine is Paint My Photo, which photographers use to share their images with artists to paint or draw using traditional mediums. You can share within the community or on your social media profiles, or just keep it for your own enjoyment. Photographers in the community love seeing their compositions illustrated, especially if you have used it in an original way. It’s also a good way to get supportive feedback on your artwork and test your skills. Other free photo repositories are Pixabay, Unsplash and Pexels to name a few. (Side note: If you plan on selling your work it’s a good idea to check the rights and if you need the their permission. The penalties for copyright infringement are enormous, so err on the side of caution and make sure you know the rules).

In 2006 I went to Bangkok and Phuket, Thailand. I took hundreds of photos, but I’ve never had them developed and I didn’t keep a travel journal. It’s been a long time and my impressions are no longer fresh, so I’m not inclined to create artistic impressions from them, even post-dated ones. Nevertheless, the photos do give me inspiration and I can still use them in other projects. One such photo I found recently, shown below, is of a boat wrecked in the 2004 typhoon that devastated the entire region and changed the look of Phuket’s beaches. At the time, I took the photo because the wreck stood out and spoke of the significant impact the typhoon had on the lives and economy of the local community. The boat had been stripped of as much as possible, its parts reused to rebuild the community. When I looked at the photo more recently, though, I saw a whole new story and was inspired to use it to sketch a loose thumbnail for a project I’m working on. Though it’s not a faithful rendering of the photo, I wanted to capture that feeling of abandonment and raise some new questions about why it was there in the shallows of a populated bay. From this one photo, the thumbnail will be developed in to a two-page spread for a travel journal (with a twist) I’m working on.

A quick, slightly altered thumbnail of the boat
A photo I took from Ayuttaya in Thailand in 2006. I love it, but I’ve never done anything with it.

So, if you’re pining for the road, collect a bunch of photos from your own collection or the internet, pick up a pen and a sketchbook, and let your nomadic heart wander.

Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer; A Recommendation

This isn’t a book review, it is a recommendation and a tribute to what might possibly be one of the best books ever imagined for creative people. First published in 2013 and revised in 2018, Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction is a must read for anyone interested in creativity.
You don’t have to be a writer to enjoy the book; it is an invaluable resource on any bookshelf as a guide to creativity and the workings of the imagination. But if you are a writer, you will be pleased to know it is packed with instructions for plotting, narrative structure, character creation, world-building and more. The book is fat and heavy with many examples, interviews, essays, and stunning illustrations. It really is a book of wonder – a beautifully crafted work of art that is both an homage to, and a textbook for the imagination.

Book Trailer on Abrams Books
Preview the book on Amazon

Are multiple journals better? (Spoiler alert Yes!)

How many journals do you really need? The short answer is, it depends . . .

For some, one, omnifarious volume is all they need, where anything and everything goes. If you’re disciplined and you can commit to one journal, something like a bullet-journal might be all you need. I confess I am not a bullet journaler, so I am not qualified to testify to its pros and cons, moreover, I am not motivated enough to commit to the upkeep. And, I’m messy. Which is why I always have more than a few journals going at any given time. Most of my journals are sketchbooks, some are themed, but all are related to specific projects or themes.

My current journals

Pen and ink trees

Since trees are my favourite subject to sketch, I keep an A4 sketchbook for rendering trees in pen and ink. This sketchbook has good quality, smooth paper so I can do finely detailed renderings which can be scanned and made in to prints when the need arises. The trees can be either a faithful rendering of an actual tree, usually from a reference, or something entirely made up. What I’m interested in is finding the best way to render the textures and shapes I see. I use this sketchbook when I don’t want to just scribble or knock out some quick scenes, since much of the time I spend hours on one tree.

Blob creatures

Pareidolia is the tendency of recognising images or patterns in a random display of shapes and lines, such as seeing faces on the side of a natural land formation, or in the clouds. I see blob creatures. Some of them are common enough – a dog in the dish soap as I wash up, or my utensils forming a crane-like bird – others are more alien, but still very recognisable as creatures. I see them so often I decided to make a watercolour journal for the sole purpose of recording them. Sometimes I will lay some loose watercolour paint down, wait for it to dry and sketch over it with pen and ink to see what I can make. This journal is good for exercising creative muscles when I’m not really sure what to do, but I know I want to paint. It’s useful too for observing the nature and reactions of watercolour when it hits a wet or dry page.

Two project journals

I’m working on a fairly large project at the moment which requires a great deal of thinking and sketching. For the thinking I keep a journal of visual notes, where I can capture ideas and develop the concepts of the project. This journal is structured and somewhat more organised and has a lot of information crammed in. The second book is a cheap sketchbook for sketching thumbnails of scenes that will later become properly rendered work. It has to be cheap because I know I will fill many sketchbooks in the coming months with copious thumbnails. Doing it this way allows me to keep the momentum going without being too precious about what goes in it as it doesn’t have to be tidy, or in order. Both journals are equally important references for the project, but with two distinct intentions and functions. Having two journals enables me to capture a lot of information quickly and helps me keep the two separate elements of the project organised.

Watercolour journal

As well as the other three, I like to keep a journal with smooth watercolour paper. I use a refillable leather cover and tear down sheets of 190 gsm hotpressed watercolour paper to sew in. I use this journal with watercolour and pen and ink for when I just feel like playing. I don’t always get time to do do this, but it’s there and I’m not worried about how long it will take to fill or what it will look like when it’s done. I also love that I can remove the complete signatures and bind them in to a more permanent book.

The pros and cons of so many journals

Some reasons to keep seperate journals

  • Themes: Themed sketchbooks, such as a nature journal or artist’s reference journal provide a good reference for artists and a way to expand the mind’s visual library. It makes sense to have dedicated journals for these occasions.
  • Projects: keeping all your projects in one volume, no matter how big, could become complicated. Giving each project their own home gives it substance and consequence, and since you’ve dedicated an entire journal to it, you will hopefully be more motivated to complete it.
  • Occasions: perhaps you want to document a particular event, such as the birth of a child, or a vacation. Having separate journals for each big occasion allows you to organise those important moments in to distinct volumes. You’ll be able to find them easily and enjoy them.
  • Mediums: You might like to keep individual journals for different kinds of mediums, such as one for multimedia projects and one for watercolours, or one just for coloured pencil to practice and hone your skills. Since watercolour paper is not cheap, it feels like overkill to lay down a sketchy thumbnail in pencil or ink, so it makes sense to keep a cheaper, more accessible journal for these.
  • Size: A large sketchbook is good for home, but if you want to take it with you when you go to the beach or travel with it overseas, it can be cumbersome, especially if you’re carrying a full pencil case, brushes and watercolours. A smaller, more portable sketchbook makes sense for this and can be added to the bookshelf when it is complete.

As much as I am committed to the many journals system, there are disadvantages, and it’s not for everyone. Sketchbooks are not all created equal and it can take awhile to settle on a model you love. It’s easy to get sucked in to buying the new trending sketchbook or journal, and there’s a risk of finding yourself with half a dozen unfinished journals (and projects). This can get quite expensive, especially in Australia, where journals with good quality paper at an affordable price can be hard to come by. Buying multiple copies is not always an option. This can feel like a barrier at times, especially if you find one you love, but it is costly and not local. Expensive journals and sketchbooks can be daunting if what you want to do is fill pages with doodles, sketchy practice pieces, or scribble out notes for projects. If the goal is to improve your basic drawing skills I would recommend one inexpensive sketchbook. A cheaper journal allows you create permissible messes and reduces the fear of the blank page while still honing your skills. If mixed media or watercolour paper is what you need it might be more economical to buy sheets of paper (often sold in packs of 10, at least in Australia) and cut them down yourself to bind in whatever way you wish. For pen and ink or pencil there are plenty of good options at lower prices. In fact, yesterday I was surprised to discover Derwent Academy’s Artist Visual Art Diary with 135 gsm paper that is smooth enough and thick enough to deal with ink and water-based markers. This means I can justify having a couple of on the go for different projects.

Another disadvantage of multiple journals might be that finishing one can take much longer. If you’re driven by completion, or the achievement of filling one cover to cover, this could be a source of frustration since your attention and time is divided between more than one journal. I like to live in my journals and I don’t mind sharing my time between multiple sketchbooks so time is not a factor I consider. For me it is as much about mood as it is about the practicality of keeping separate volumes. But they can take a long time to fill, especially because some of them I favour more than others.

Too many journals can be distracting and off-putting. You probably have too many journals if you lose track of what goes where, you have too many unfinished journals from years ago or you just lose interest/momentum in some of them and never pick them up again. If that is the case I’d suggest finishing one of them before picking up another.

An alternative to multiple journals is using loose pieces of paper instead of a codex style journal. You can use whatever paper you like, cut to whatever size you like and either keep them in a ring binder, in a box, stick them on a wall, or share them with others.

At the end of the day is is more important that you keep journaling, whether you’re sketching, keeping a bullet journal or writing your manifesto. Do whatever enables you to keep that momentum going. After all, creativity begets creativity.

Recommended reads: An Illustrated Life by Danny Gregory

If you love illustrated journals, anything by creative superstar and co-founder of Sketchbook Skool, Danny Gregory is a must. A good place to start is his compilation of pages from the sketchbooks and art journals of artists, illustrators and designers. In his own words, Danny Gregory searched for a book just like this since he was a child. Unable to find one, he eventually created one himself and published An Illustrated Life. The book contains interviews of 50 enthusiastic sketchbook keepers, discussing their history, inspiration, methods and materials, along side photographs and/or scans of their private sketchbooks.

I love the unapologetic, raw creativity of the artist’s sketchbooks. Every page is an intimate snapshot in to the minds of the artist that created it, whether they intend it or not. The book is an homage to the brilliance that is the creative mind. At 266 pages long, it is a meaty, and well-organised collection of the eclectic and often messy nature of creativity. It is easily one of my favourite books and I reach for it often, especially when motivation eludes me.

If you’re not already an illustrated journal keeper, I think An Illustrated Life could inspire you to become one. If you’re not convinced, here’s a preview from Danny Gregory himself:

Danny Gregory’s introduction to An Illustrated Life

Lynda Barry on Creativity

When thinking about inspiration and creativity I always turn to cartoonist, artist /illustrator, writer, teacher and all-round creative superstar, Lynda Barry. Her unique style and body of work reveals an innovative, but relatable mind, and it always gives me great pleasure to listen to and observe her work. I could write pages expounding her extensive career and many skills, but I feel I’d just be repeating the many good articles already written about her. Besides, she is a person best understood in her own words and pictures.

If you have an interest in where creativity comes from, or why we do it, Lynda Barry has a few ideas. Watch her 2012 Inktalks presentation.

Barry has produced a number of books including illustrated novels, collections of her comics, and books on creativity. Here are two flip-throughs from the YouTube channel Art Book Walk-throughs & Reviews.

Lynda Barry Syllabus flip through by Art Book Walk-throughs & Reviews
Lynda Barry Making Comics flip through by Art Book Walk-throughs & Reviews

Book arts. Part 2

The advent of visual diaries

During medieval times, handmade reference books, or “model books” (also “pattern books) were used as a source for teaching initiates and as examples of lettering, flourishes and ornamentation, which could be copied by scribes in illuminated manuscripts. Loosely, these could be considered early visual diaries.

Around the 14th century artists hand-bound their drawings in to model books, or albums, such as the one created by Italian architect and artist Giovannini de’ Grassi, which contains drawings of animals, as well as lettering. Two fine examples of early sketchbooks are the 13th century Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, an artist about whom little is known, and 15th century Italian architect, painter and writer Fransceso di Giorgio. It wasn’t until the late 15th to early 16th centuries that artists began to bind books with blank pages specifically for their purposes of recording notes and drawings relating to their studies. Some of the more famous examples are the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, which contain drawings, diagrams and notes on scientific investigations.

From left to right, Villard de Honnecourt, circa 1230 CE. Wikimedia. From a notebook of Francesco di Giorgio Martini, 1470, Wikimedia. Leonardo da Vinci’s Old Man with Water Studies, c. 1513 Wikimedia

These blank books quickly became a mainstay for artists, inventors and naturalists, as such many fine examples of sketchbooks and notebooks exist in museums and galleries around the world. A notable example, are the hundreds of volumes of drawings and travel sketches produced by English painter J.M.W Turner (1775-1851), now hosted at the Tate gallieries in the UK..

Despite the digital age, visual diaries are still a popular form of expression, not limited to professional artists and inventors, nor are they limited to architectural, botanical or anatomical studies. They come in a vast array of mediums, styles, and themes and while, for some creative people the codex is still king, the format for creative workbooks is as diverse and fluid as the work that goes in to them.

Experimenting with new ways to collect visual creativity is a popular practice and in today’s media rich world, an art journal can be a hard or soft bound codex, usually stitched or glued, a wire or spiral bound book, a ring binder, index cards, or even a stack of pages in a box. Visual diaries can also be digital. The point is not get hung up on the format; it’s the content and the process that matter.

What is a visual diary?

The term visual diary (also art journal or art diary) is an umbrella term used to describe a collection of informal, personal artistic work, created by one individual, more often in a bound format. It can include drawings, paintings and collage, as well as writing. Images are not limited to hand-drawn renderings, but can include printed or photographic material. The emphasis is often on collection, presentation and layout of material. Visual diaries can be used for practice, creative expression, recording insights and events, or for collecting ideas and inspiration.

Definitions and differences

Defining all the different kinds of visual diaries is complex and often the terms seem interchangable. These should not be confused with themed visual diaries, which I’ll cover in another post. Following is a list of some different kinds of visual diaries and their uses:

  • Sketchbook – a workbook used to support the creative process and to improve drawing and/or painting skill. These can be themed, used as a reference for further work and are used by new artists, doodlers and professional artists alike. Though they are seldom intended to be finished works of art, they contribute significantly to the volume of artwork on the internet. Sketchbooks are flexible in their contents and format. The do not need to be themed, or topic heavy.
  • Field journal – a journal used for recording observations on nature and science, architecture and culture or other relevant topics.
  • Travel journal – similar to a field journal, but designed for recording written and illustrated observations of experiences while traveling, as well as tracking trip progress. It is usually chronological and offers a portable and handy way to preserve the highlights of a trip.
  • Mixed media journal, sometimes known as an art journal – a multipurpose art journal which utilities a number of different art supplies (such as paint, collage, ink stamps, stencils, fabric and so on). It often incorporates writing, or typography and are usually expressive and colourful. Most mixed media artists utilise the entire page. Emphasis on layout and overall presentation. The process is equally important.
  • Scrapbook – loosely a scrapbook is a blank paged book for sticking other pieces of paper in to. Early scrapbooks were called commonplace books for keeping letters, recipes, drawings, reading notes – almost anything that could be stuck on the page. Modern scrapbooking has evolved to become an industry unto itself, where all manner of albums, embellishments, pre-printed background papers, and even kits can be purchased. Pages are often themed and richly decorated. In recent years digital scrapbooking has become a major digital industry also.
  • Gluebook or paste book – similar to a scrapbook, but dominated by collages of images taken from magazines and other printed material.
  • Smash book – a combination of scrapbook and gluebook, though it requires less expensive materials.
  • Junk journal – these appear to be handmade journals made from found material, bound in to book format. They are often quite decorative, incorporating many different types of paper, fabric and stitching. The point of the junk journal seems to be the use of scraps to create a piece of art in the form of a book.
  • Bullet journal – a method of visual personal organisation, which uses abbreviated notes for planning and can incorporate illustrated logs and trackers, and copious amounts of washi tape.
  • Omni journal – a hybrid journal which can include a planner, such as BUJO, an art journal and a scrapbook, or any other type of visual journal, all in one.
  • Sketchnote – a form of visual notetaking that uses text, illustrations and symbols to enhance notetaking, develop ideas or summarise important information.

I hope I have covered the most common types of visual diaries. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but a beginning to understand the many ways we present our visual creativity. I hope it inspires you to take one up yourself. The possibilities are endless.

Further reading

Medieval Super Models
Giovannino de’ Grassi and His Animal Notebook

Book arts. Part 1

I’m a sucker for hand-illustrated books, whether they are published books or sketchbooks and art journals. I spend a good amount of time combing Pinterest and YouTube for photos and flip-through’s, or enjoying my modest collection of illustrated and decorated books. I get most excited when I see a unique compositions and illustration styles, or unexpected content, but I am also fond of the oldest handwritten/hand-drawn works.

Before the codex (bound book) writers and artists recorded their work on a number of materials, including stone, ceramic or wax tablets; on bark, cloth or leather, and scrolls made of parchment or papyrus. Early Chinese writers used bone and shell, bamboo strips and eventually rice paper. In India, early script was recorded on pillars and walls, copper plates and tablets. In the Americas, early works were inscribed on objects, monuments and bark, such as the Pre-Columbian folding books created by the Mayans. Sadly, few of these survive today, but they comprise some of the most stunning creative works (see the image of the Dresden Codex in the slide panel).

Following is a very small sample of some of the earliest forms of written and illustrated material.

The Codex

The oldest known multi-page book is thought to be the Golden Orphism Book, which consists of six 24 carat gold pages, bound together with gold rings (see image in slide panel). The gold sheets contain illustrations and writing in Etruscan and dates to around 660 BCE.

It wasn’t until many hundreds of years later that the codex, as we know it today, replaced scrolls and tablets, at least in Europe. Most early codices were handwritten religious texts, although rare examples of non-religious scholastic texts exist, such as the exquisite 6th century Vienna Dioscurides (see example page below). Illuminated manuscripts developed from these early texts and would become the first illustrated codices. The bound manuscripts contained ornamented borders and lettering, as well as elegant illustrations.

Prior to the invention of the printing press in the early 15th century all books were written and illustrated by hand and thus, not widely distributed. Not only were they time-consuming to produce, requiring significant skill and resources, they were large and often very heavy. Owning one was considered a privilege. The invention of the printing press meant texts could be mass-produced, with woodcut illustrations, and later, illustrations produced on metal plates. By the end of the 15th century books were smaller, more portable and produced in greater numbers across most of Europe.

Early codices were not produced for the single purpose of generating pretty illustrations or conveying vast amounts of text; they were engaging communities, and in the case of religious texts, enhanced religious devotion. More than this, though, the considerable time and resources devoted to producing such works, and the way in which they were protected and preserved (or in some cases destroyed), is itself an homage to their creators.

Handmade creativity

Today, the books are a source of wonder and a popular topic for writer’s and artist’s alike, not to mention bibliophiles (of which I am one). As an artist and an observer I am mindful of my own reactions to early illustrated volumes. While they do not hold spiritual significance for me personally, I am not ignorant of the the sacred nature of the works. I think handmade creativity, especially illustration, for a lot of people, is a sacred act, or at least meditative. It’s part of the reason we can’t stop doing it, or stop looking at it. We want more because we are moved by handmade creativity, and we are moved because we’re predisposed to be. The desire to illustrate our thoughts is as old as art itself. It is a shared habit and is what keeps creative folk scribbling in their sketchbooks and art journals. It moves us toward creating our own illuminations.

Part 2

Image attributions

  1. The Kish Tablet, José-Manuel Benito Public Domain
  2. Book of the Dead: A sheet from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, circa 1075-945 BCE, Image: Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund,,_ca._1075-945_B.C.E.,_37.1699E.jpg
  3. Golden Orphism Book, Ivorrusev CC BY-SA 4.0
  4. Soghaura inscription, Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1865
  5. The Dresden Codex – Public Domain
  6. The Vienna Genesis, Public Domain
  7. Vienna Dioscurides,
  8. The Codex Amiatinus, Public Domain.
  9. The Barberini Gospels,

Creative renderings: early evidence for creative minds

Some examples of archaeological finds described as art. Top: Trinil engraved shell. 540,000 years BP Henk Caspers/Naturalis Biodiversity Centre (CC Attribution Share-Alike 3.0) Bottom, left to right: Cupules from Chief’s Rock, 290,000 years BP. Auditorium Cave, Bhimbetka rock shelter, India. Image by Dinesh Valke (CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0). Blombos engraved ochre. 73,000 years BP. Henshilwood C.S et al, public domain. Bottom row left: Panel 78, La Pasiega gallery, 65,000 years BP, D.L Hoffmann. Lubang Jeriji Saléh Cave painting of a bull, circa 44,000 years BP. (image via Wikimedia)

Early messages

Creative thinking is universal to humanity. We’ve been doing it for a long time, longer than previously thought. One of the earliest bits of evidence for creative thinking comes in the form of engravings on a fossil shell from Trinil in Java. The shell was found in close proximity to the remains of a Homo erectus individual, an extinct species of hominin (bipedal primate) considered to be antecedent to modern humans. The purpose of the cut marks is unknown, but the deep geometric marks do suggest humans were thinking creatively at least half a million years ago. The shell has been dated to between 540,000 and 700,000 year old, making it an extremely early example of a deliberately engraved object (Joordens et al, 2014).

Between 290,000 and 700,000 years ago in a cave at the rock shelter site of Bhimbetka, central India, archaic humans created cupules (circular depressions on the surface of a rock) on a large boulder. While the intention and purpose for the cupules is unknown, they have been descried as a common form of rock art (Bednarik, 1996). Very ancient cupules, all many tens of thousands of years old, are known from the Africa (such as the Kalahari desert and Sudan), Europe, Asia and Australia.

From Blombos Cave, along South Africa’s southern coast, early modern humans created geometric engravings on pieces of ochre. These small artefacts have been dated to between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago. From the same site perforated shells were found, as well as a 73,000 years ago stone flake with ochre markings. This piece has been dubbed “the world’s oldest drawing” (Blakemore, 2018). The finds at Blombos cave were older and more sophisticated than previously thought possible for their age. They are evidence for the deep roots of creative thinking.

Further, extremely significant evidence comes from the 65,000 year old cave paintings from La Pasiega cave in Spain. A remarkable feature of these paintings – aside from the fact they predate the famous Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave art from France by some 30,000 years – is that they predate the arrival of modern humans in Europe. This means the most likely creator of the abstract paintings were Neandertals, since there is no evidence modern humans were in Western Europe before 42,000 years ago (Wong, 2018). This revelation forced some archaeologists to rethink long-held assumptions that modern humans were the first and only hominin to create art.

The discovery and acceptance of very early art forms that predate modern humans adds a new dimension to our understanding of the evolution of hominin cognition. They have far-reaching implications for understanding the relationship between evolution and the creative mind and how creative expression has been a significant driver in human cognitive development. New dating techniques also means we are constantly expanding the timeline, thus deepening the relevance of the art habit.

As an artist and student of archaeology, the deep origins of the creative mind, and in particular art, are fascinating and go some way to explain its appeal. The reasons why we started doing it in the first place, and its early role in cultural development, would require many volumes of books to do any justice to the topic. My purpose is not to explain the evolution of creative visual thinking, but to reveal it in all its diversity and to show that it is, and always has been natural, instinctual and immortalising.


Bednarik, Robert G. (1996), The cupules on Chief’s Rock, Auditorium Cave, Bhimbetka, The Artifact: Journal of the Archaeological and Anthropological Society of Victoria, Volume 19, pages 63–71

Blakemore, Erin (2018) 73,000-Year-Old Doodle May be World’s Oldest Drawing, National Geographic

Joordens, J. C. A. et al. (2014) Nature 

Wong, Kate (2018). Ancient Cave Paintings Clinch the Case for Neandertal Symbolism, Scientific American

Further reading

An excellent resource for information pertaining to palaeolithic archaeology is Don’t Maps.

Another excellent resource for rock art enthusiasts is the Bradshaw Foundation. This site contains information for rock art across the world.

For more in depth discussions on early and prehistoric art, see The Encyclopedia of Art ( In particular Earliest Art of Prehistory