Color Close Up: Red Ochre

What nuclear fusion, marriage eligibility, and a thousand mile journey have to do with the oldest known natural pigment in the world

Left to right:   Bridge   by Laura Litten,   Spring Unbound   by Katherine Kronick, &   Untitled #6   by Suzanne Yurdin.

Left to right: Bridge by Laura Litten, Spring Unbound by Katherine Kronick, & Untitled #6 by Suzanne Yurdin.

Up until the 1800s, young men from the Indigenous Australian Diyari tribe would undertake a lengthy journey, traveling for two months and over one thousand miles. They brought with them axes, boomerangs, and even bush tobacco. The purpose of their trip: to trade their goods and obtain red ochre. The pigment was used as body paint for the men of the tribe, who decorated themselves for sacred rituals. It was also used by other groups; the Tiwi islanders, a small, closed off group, marked their children with the pigment to make sure that no one from the group married someone too closely related. The Australian Aborignial painting tradition goes back about 40,000 years, and yet, even they were not the first to utilize this pigment. In fact, according to Discover Magazine, Prehistoric use of ochre is revealing new insights about the evolution of humans’ cognitive development.

“Smeared on shells, piled in graves, stamped and stenciled on cave walls from South Africa to Australia, Germany to Peru, ochre has been a part of the human story since our very start — and perhaps even earlier.

For decades, researchers believed the iron-rich rocks used as pigment at prehistoric sites had symbolic value. But as archaeologists turn up evidence of functional uses for the material, they’re realizing early humans’ relationship with ochre is more complex.”

-Gemma Tarlach

“People may say ochre is the earliest form of art and symbolism, but there’s more to it. Ochre shows how our brains were developing, and that we were using our environment. It bridges the divide between art and science.”

-Tammy Hodgskiss

Monument Valley by Gordon Binder.

Discover Magazine writes that not only did this red pigment help our ancient ancestors identify what could be eaten, it was also probably painted on the body to send a visual message about whether you were a friend or foe while entering someone else’s territory. “Some languages have only two words for color: red and not-red. A language may not have a word for green or blue, but there is always a word for red,” says Allison Brooks, a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University.

Exciting discoveries are made about this pigment all the time. In 2008, archaeologists working in South Africa discovered the earliest painting kit every discovered - complete with palette bowls, red and yellow ochre residue, pigment-grinding tools, and even two blocks of red ochre - dating back to about 80,000 years ago!

Urban Landscape   by Gordon Binder.

Urban Landscape by Gordon Binder.

Why is red ochre the most common red pigment on Earth? When a star goes supernova, it produces that fourth-most-common element in the Earth’s crust: iron. The most common element on Earth is oxygen. Oxygen + iron = iron oxide. Red ochre contains iron oxide. Chemistry, history, outer space - this color has it all!

With its earthy, natural feel, red ochre is a color that inspires thoughts of warmth, heat, a connection with the land. When you take in a piece of artwork with red ochre worked in, you’re gazing upon a color that was forged in the stars, drawn from the Earth, spread on the skin of our ancestors, and is today spread across canvas by those artists following in a tradition longer than we can imagine.

We’ll leave you with some words by Mary Oliver, who can describe that warm feeling better than anyone:

“Like a red flower, streaming upward on its heavenly oils, say, on a morning in early summer, at its perfect imperial distance - and have you ever felt for anything, such a wild love - do you think there is anywhere, in any language, a word billowing enough, for the pleasure that fills you, as the sun reaches out, as it warms you…”

Euphoria: Kangaroo Island   by Andrea Rowe Kraus.

Euphoria: Kangaroo Island by Andrea Rowe Kraus.


From Gallery Director Svetlana Shaindlin. Information for this piece drawn from Victoria Finlay’s lovely book The Brilliant History of Color in Art, and Discover Magazine’s article Pigment of Our Imagination.