Creating visual art is one of the defining characteristics of the human species, but the paucity of archaeological evidence means that we have limited information on the origin and evolution of this aspect of human culture. The components of art include colour, pattern and the reproduction of visual likeness. The 2D and 3D art forms that were created by Upper Palaeolithic Europeans at least 30,000 years ago are conceptually equivalent to those created in recent centuries, indicating that human cognition and symbolling activity, as well as anatomy, were fully modern by that time. The origins of art are therefore much more ancient and lie within Africa, before worldwide human dispersal. The earliest known evidence of 'artistic behaviour' is of human body decoration, including skin colouring with ochre and the use of beads, although both may have had functional origins. Zig-zag and criss-cross patterns, nested curves and parallel lines are the earliest known patterns to have been created separately from the body; their similarity to entopic phenomena (involuntary products of the visual system) suggests a physiological origin. 3D art may have begun with human likeness recognition in natural objects, which were modified to enhance that likeness; some 2D art has also clearly been influenced by suggestive features of an uneven surface. The creation of images from the imagination, or 'the mind's eye', required a seminal evolutionary change in the neural structures underpinning perception; this change would have had a survival advantage in both tool-making and hunting. Analysis of early tool-making techniques suggests that creating 3D objects (sculptures and reliefs) involves their cognitive deconstruction into a series of surfaces, a principle that could have been applied to early sculpture. The cognitive ability to create art separate from the body must have originated in Africa but the practice may have begun at different times in genetically and culturally distinct groups both within Africa and during global dispersal, leading to the regional variety seen in both ancient and recent art. At all stages in the evolution of artistic creativity, stylistic change must have been due to rare, highly gifted individuals.