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

“The Final Passage” – a modern story about ancient story-tellers

Narrated by Marianne Faithful, The Final Passage is a short film from the Rock Art Network which aims to take us on a virtual tour of the cave art of Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave in France. The film is haunting and thought-provoking, without letting us forget the art itself is the story and the gift.

The film is available to view for free until the 7th of June, 2020 so I thought I would post it now while I work on my next post, which, coincidentally, is all about the first creatives and the images they made. Turn off the lights, maximise the browser window and wait for the goose-bumps.

Only two more days left to view the film.

Bigger on the Inside

The Cave wall as sketchbook

Many thousands of years ago early artists scratched, hammered and stained marks on rock, bone and shell (and probably wood too, though, with a few exceptions, wooden artefacts don’t preserve well). Those engraved and pigmented masterpieces, as well as the people who created them, were a source of wonder for me, one which led me to study archaeology and human evolutionary biology (palaeoanthropology).

Interpretations of what that early art meant to its makers are as numerous and subjective as the minds that created them, but I think it’s fair to say the impulses that drove their creativity are the same for us today. Those early images reveal much about the prehistoric environment, but more importantly, they reveal how like ours the minds of the creators were.

The timeless nature of the ancient rock art reminds me of modern sketchbooks in that they are, among other things, illustrated records of our internal lives. Like a contemporary artist’s journal, rock art wasn’t only ornamental or fun; it was intentional and it was meaningful. It provided an outlet for the very human penchant for story-telling. It was creativity illustrated. 

The point of this blog:

I am a full-time artist, deeply committed to pen and ink, and watercolour for my professional work, but I spend most of my time with my head in sketchbooks and art journals – my own and other peoples. I am fascinated by illustrated creativity and how incredibly diverse the methods and formats are, and because it is timeless. I also have an academic and personal interest in the material remains of past and present people, particularly with respect to creativity.

This blog is mostly about pictures (the illustrated kind) and how we use them for story-telling, self-expression, visualisation, reflection, and recollection, and to impart information and to entertain. I created it to explore both traditional and digital media, but also ways for combining the two.  

This blog is in honour of all the illustrators, past and present, who remind us constantly that there is no correct way to illustrate creativity.

I hope you will join me on this visual tour.