Paint Rock Pictographs

On a bluff along the banks of the Concho River in west-central Texas lies the most remarkable rock art site on the Edwards Plateau. The Paint Rock pictographs number over 1,500 and cover nearly a half-mile of a limestone cliff face a short distance upstream from the town of Paint Rock. In tones of red, orange, yellow, white, and black, native artists painted animals, such as buffalo and deer, human figures, some appearing to be clasping hands in a dance or ritual, and a kaleidoscope of geometric designs on the high bluff. Some left their handprints, perhaps as a way of signing their work or merely indicating that they had been there.

The Paint Rock site is unusual in that it is one of only a handful of sites in central and northwest Texas. Rock art is much more prevalent, more ancient as a rule, and better preserved in the Lower Pecos and Trans-Pecos areas. While it is impossible to know the date of the earliest pictographs at Paint Rock, archeological investigations at the site have recovered arrow points and sherds of earthenware pottery. These artifacts indicate that the site was used at least as early as the Toyah period (ca. A.D. 1300 – 1650), and are reflected in drawings of hunters carrying bows and arrows. Paintings of horses and a church demonstrate that use of the site by native groups continued after contact with the Spanish.

The Paint Rock pictographs (41CC1) were first documented in the 1930s by A.T. Jackson, one of the earliest Texas archeologists. Rock art illustrator Forrest Kirkland visited the site in 1935 to document the paintings. After his visit, he estimated that at least a quarter of the pictographs had been destroyed by vandals and the forces of nature. Fortunately, the owners of the land on which the site is located have been particularly vigilant in protecting the site from further vandalizing.

A painting of a rectangular structure with two crosses atop it (see plate 7, No.6) is believed by many to represent the San Saba Mission, the remains of which have been uncovered near present-day Menard some 50 miles to the south. Established by the Spanish in 1757 for the Lipan Apache, some of these images, including a devil figure (Plate 107,No.9) may be attributable to that tribe. The Paint Rock area was a hotbed of conflict between the Lipan and Comanche, the latter of whom also may have left their signs on the bluff, along with any number of other Indians who traveled through the valley in historic times.

A few researchers have interpreted some of the paintings of human figures (perhaps holding scalps) to represent abductions of early Anglo settlers in the area. Though there is no shortage of interpretations of these and other pictographs at Paint Rock, there is no way to know the true meaning the pictographs held for those who painted them.

The images shown here are watercolor copies of the rock art, painstakingly recorded by Kirkland. As he put it, “Here was a veritable gallery of primitive art at the mercy of the elements and handful of destructive people.” His watercolors, along with the hundreds he made of rock art in the western regions of the state, have preserved native paintings which, in many cases, would have been lost forever.

For more information on Kirkland and his renderings of Lower Pecos art, see the Artistic Expressions exhibit. Kirkland’s work is featured also in The Rock Art of Texas Indians, University of Texas Press, 1967,written by UT-Austin anthropologist W. W. Newcomb.) Additional photographs of rock art of native peoples is featured in the Lower Pecos exhibit.


Paint Rock
Rising roughly 70 feet above the Concho River valley, the cliff at Paint Rock provided an odd “canvas”—a series of shelf-like limestone ledges—for native artists as well as contemporary graffiti painters to express themselves and record their presence at the site. Walls and ceilings underneath the ledges also were painted in a variety of designs. TARL records.

Watercolor painting by Kirkland
Detail ofForrest Kirkland watercolor of Paint Rock designs, including a figure with bow and arrow. Depictions of that weaponry system indicate at least a post-Archaic time period (circa 1000 years ago) and may even be more recent, when coupled with horses, mission-like structures, and figures wearing European dress. Click to see full panel. (TARL collections)
Photo of Kirkland looking at pictographs as he reproduces them in watercolor
Forrest Kirkland, copying native designs on a ledge. After seeing the graffiti and natural destruction at Paint Rock, the artist and his wife, Lula, made a commitment to preserve the paintings for posterity by making watercolor renderings of each panel. Their determination also led them to the Lower Pecos, where hundreds of bluffs and shelters adorned with native art awaited them. TARL archives.
Kirkland watercolor painting
Handprints and a mission-like structure, perhaps depicting nearby Mission San Saba established by the Spanish for Lipan Apaches in 1757. Handprints, shown above, were achieved by dipping the hand in paint and then pressing it against the rock. A less common method, shown in other panels, entailed placing the hand on the wall and spattering paint over and over around it, leaving a “negative” handprint. (Forrest Kirkland rendering, TARL collections). Forrest Kirkland watercolor painting
Human figures and animals, particularly horses, dominate these panels. The horse in No. 9 is drawn over another, perhaps much older design. Click to enlarge.
Detail of rock art
Detail of a geometric design at Paint Rock. Click to see full panel. Photo, TARL archives.
Watercolor by Forrest Kirkland
Horses, here shown in an apparent caravan, are recognizable figures amid myriad abstract designs. Click to enlarge and see full page. (Forrest Kirkland rendering, TARL collections).
Watercolor by Forrest Kirkland
Figures of people with arms upstretched appear with apparent sun symbols. The linear designs in Nos. 4 and 5 have been interpreted to represent tabulations of people. (Forrest Kirkland rendering, TARL collections).
Kirkland's watercolor painting
Several types of animals, including a bird (turkey?) and possible canine are visible in this panel, along with a warlike figure painted on the ceiling (No.6). (Forrest Kirkland rendering, TARL collections).
Forrest Kirkland watercolor painting
A mix of geometric and more recognizable designs are seen on this plate, including the figure in panel 9 interpreted by Kirkland and anthropologist W.W.Newcomb, Jr., as a devil, perhaps inspired by the Christian teachings of Spanish missionaries.