Cave Artists Better Than Da Vinci? Puppeteers Better Than Most Modern Artists


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Leonardo Da Vinci study for the statue of a horse

Artists today do not imitate life accurately, compared to cave artists millennia ago, according to a new study, but movie puppeteers are doing pretty well.

Artists over centuries have ignored the mechanics of movement when depicting four-legged animals walking.

This applies to painters and sculptors too, according to Gábor Horváth et al, but not so much to filmmakers.

Poor biomechanical representation of quadruped movement in fine arts continues in spite of the influence of studies published in the 1880s by Eadweard Muybridge, which had a noticeable positive effect on art teaching and production for a time.

Pre-Moybridgean artists presented quadruped animal walking incorrectly in 83.8% of examples scrutinized.

Leonardo Da Vinci Horse Drawings

Erroneous horse walking sculpted according to Leonardo da Vinci's sketches

Da Vinci horse statue in Milan, modelled in the 1990s by Nina Akamu. Image credit: goatling

Researchers trawled through 1000 images of cave art, drawings, paintings and sculptures of quadrupeds, including sketches by Leonardo Da Vinci circa 1497 for a horse statue he designed, but which was not sculpted until recently.

In spite of his high reputation for anatomical accuracy, Da Vinci did not depict horses’ gait correctly, and the twentieth century sculptors who finally brought Leonardo’s horse statue project to fruition in Milan and in Grand Rapids, Michigan, did not correct the artist’s mistakes.

Walking Illustration in the Fine Arts

Gábor Horváth of Eötvös University, Budapest, and his collaborators found that “The leg attitudes of walking quadrupeds, especially horses, are …  frequently erroneously illustrated in works of fine arts.” They suggest the reason for this failure. “These artistic representations of walking quadrupeds have not been systematically studied from a biomechanical point of view.”

Characteristic positions and attitudes of heads, manes, necks and tails of quadrupeds in motion are reasonably accurately depicted, the team suggests. It is the gait, the positions of the feet relative to one another as the creature moves, that is erroneously depicted. The foot-fall formula for walking quadrupeds is Left Hind, Left Front, Right Hind and Right Fore in that order, noted as LH, LF, RH, RF in diagrams. This lateral sequence walk serves to provide maximum stability and does not involve weight being distributed LH, RF as in the Da Vinci horse sculpture.

Cavemen Were Better at Drawing Animals

The report drew upon cave art images from France, India, Lybia, South Africa and Spain. Results suggest that prehistoric artists 10,000 to 30,000 years ago observed their animal subjects’ locomotion more closely and depicted it accurately, detecting error rates of only 46.2% in cave artists’ drawings of various quadrupeds,  including cattle, rhino, deer and horses.

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