Aug 15

The History of Technology in Visual Art

Venus of Willendorf

Paleolithic sculpture of the female form

Our opposable thumbs make us inveterate tool users. Tool technologies have been the foundation of new artistic techniques throughout history. In fact, the history of art is the history of inventions in tool technology. We take it for granted now, but the paintbrush was once a brand new invention.


Anthropologists agree that artistic creations first emerged in the Paleolithic period over 50,000 years ago. Ancient peoples in the Middle and Late Paleolithic period carved female figures like the well-known Venus of Willendorf, which was excavated near Willendorf, Austria. They used ochre and manganese oxide for cave paintings such as the amazing examples found in Lascaux and Chauvet, France. Ancient humans proudly adorned themselves with beads and carved bones. Now, some 50,000 years later, sculpture, painting and jewelry creation are still very much alive in the human imagination. And our tools have evolved along the way.

The early Egyptians invented not only the first art and writing paper but also the first pens. Bones, rock and sticks were of no use on papyrus paper, so the first pens were created. This was in 4000 B.C. and today pen, ink and paper are still essential tools of any accomplished draughtsman.

At around the same time that Egyptians were inventing pen and paper, the ancient peoples of Sumer were inventing the potter’s wheel. Before the potter’s wheel, creating clay pots was a labor –intensive endeavor. The potter’s wheel brought symmetry and graceful curves to pottery. The first wheels were spun with one hand as the other hand shaped the vessel. Today potters use a kick wheel, which still utilizes the flywheel technology invented by the Egyptians in about 3000 B.C.

More recently, in 250 BCE glassblowing was discovered by a Syrian craftsman in Babylonia. The technique used short clay pipes to blow into the glass. Within decades of its discovery, there were many new techniques for blowing glass.

In the common era, early fifteenth century, Italian painter, Filippo Brunelleschi, demonstrated the

perspective painting by Raphael

A perspective painting by Raphael

geometrical method of perspective drawing. Before the invention of perspective drawing, distance was a problem for artists. The sizing of people and objects in the distance was uneven and followed no mathematical patterns. Brunelleschi discovered the perspective method when he attempted to paint some building in a mirror. He noticed that all the lines of the buildings converged in the distance on the horizon. Not long after this discovery every painter in Florence was using perspective in their art.

Only two centuries ago, photography was first invented using paper coated with silver oxide and fixed with nitric acid. Artistic technology always evolved rapidly and 50 years after the black and white photograph was invented, James Clerk Maxwell invented the color photograph in 1851. And by 1903 the Lumiere brothers had created the first film.

It is worth noting that James Clerk Maxwell and Louis Lumiere were physicists not artists. And so it is that the birth of modern scientists and artists was married together. The technological artistic advancements since the early 20th century have seen such exponential growth that they are too numerous to name. The rest of this blog is devoted to exploring this strange marriage of modern technology, computers, science and art. Our tools have evolved but our need to create art and express ourselves has remained constant through the ages.

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