Red ochre

Red ochre

Red ochre and yellow ochre (pronounced /'əʊk.ə/, from the Greek ὄχρος, yellow) are pigments made from naturally tinted clay. It has been used worldwide since prehistoric times. Chemically, it is hydrated iron (III) oxide.

Ochres are non-toxic, and can be used to make an oil paint that dries quickly and covers surfaces thoroughly. Many people believe that the best ochre comes from the area of Roussillon, France.

To manufacture ground ochre, ochre clay is first mined from the ground. It is then washed in order to separate sand from ochre, which can be done by hand. The remaining ochre is then dried in the sun and sometimes burned to enhance the natural colour.

Prehistoric and Early Historic Period

Ochre was one of the first pigments to be used by human beings. Pieces of haematite, worn down as though they had been used as crayons, have been found at 300,000 year old Homo heidelbergensis sites in France and Czechoslovakia. Neanderthal burial sites sometimes include ochre as a grave good. The oldest evidence of mining activity, at the "Lion Cave" in Swaziland, is a 43,000 year old ochre mine. In Germanic rune lore, red ochre was often used in place of blood to redden, or tint, the runes and thereby instilling the spirit of life into the rune, enabling it to be used for magical purposes.

The clay used to produce red ochre is thought to be the "red earth" from which the Hebrew's God created Adam in the Book of Genesis. In fact, the name "Adam," meaning "man," is related to the Hebrew word for "red" Red ochre can be found in great quantities in the mountains rimming the river basin where archaeologists place the biblical Garden of Eden, now in modern day Iraq. For the early writers of the Christian Bible, one can imagine the vibrant red colour of this natural clay evoking the colour of human blood.

Ochre was commonly used as a pigment by many a number of native peoples. In Newfoundland its use is most often associated with the Beothuk whereby they were referred to as the Red Indians by the first Europeans to Newfoundland. It was also used by the Maritime Archaic as evidenced by its discovery in the graves of over 100 individuals during an archaeological excavation at Port au Choix. California Native Americans such as the Chumash were known to use red ochre as body paint.

Historic Period

Ochre was a popular colouring in France during the time of the French Empire, and many French citizens living in foreign colonies would import a great deal of ochre clay from France to make their new lands feel like home. As a result, after the period of French colonization ended ochre became associated with repression and fell out of favour. With the advent of synthetic dyes, ochre mining nearly stopped altogether. Recently, however, natural ochre paint has seen something of a comeback as an upscale house paint option.

In ancient Egypt red Ochre was used as a rouge, or lip gloss for women.

In Newfoundland, red ochre was the pigment of choice for use in vernacular outbuildings and work buildings associated with the cod fishery. Deposits of ochre are found throughout Newfoundland, notably near Fortune Harbor and at Ocher Pit Cove. While earliest settlers may have used locally collected ochre, people were later able to purchase pre-ground ochre through local merchants, largely imported from England. The dry ingredient, ochre, was mixed with some type of liquid raw material to create a rough paint. The liquid material was usually seal oil or cod liver oil in Newfoundland and Labrador, while Scandinavian recipes sometimes called for linseed oil. Red ochre paint was sometimes prepared months in advance and allowed to sit, and the smell of ochre paint being prepared is still remembered by many today.

Variations in local recipes, shades of ore, and type of oil used resulted in regional variations in colour. Because of this, it is difficult to pinpoint an exact shade or hue or red that would be considered the traditional “fishing stage red.” Oral tradition in the Bonavista Bay area maintains that seal oil would give a purer red colour, while cod liver oil would give a “foxy” colour, browner in hue.

Tincture in heraldry

Red ochre makes an innovative appearance in heraldry in the new national arms of South Africa.

See also

Further reading

  • Red Ochre and Yellow ochre, from Pigments through the ages.
  • A recipe for red ochre paint from Finland.
  • Fuller, Carl; Natural Colored Iron Oxide Pigments, pp. 281-6. In: Pigment Handbook, 2nd Edition. Lewis, P. (ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1988.
  • Thomas, Anne Wall. Colors From the Earth, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1980.

Line notes

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