Ochre is a natural clay earth pigment which is a mixture of ferric oxide and varying amounts of clay and sand. It ranges in colour from yellow to deep orange or brown and I use it a lot in my studio. It goes by different names: Yellow Ochre, Gold Ochre, Brown Ochre, Naples Ochre, or Burnt ochre, to name a few.
Ochre is an important find for archaeologists too. In prehistoric times this pigment had a variety of functions: as soap, paint, grave goods, and for embalming the dead. It may even have been sunblock 50+ for as long as it did not flake off.
Otjize is a mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment used by Himba people of Namibia to protect themselves from the harsh desert climate. And for prehistoric people ochre was perhaps what Clorox and make-up is to us now. People perhaps used it as body paint, ideal for hygienic purposes too due to water scarcity. When it flakes off it removes skin and dirt.
Prehistoric hand stencils have been made with red and yellow ochre. Did red hands symbolize the living and white the dead? I wrote a short essay on this on my website.
Yellow Pale Ochre is part of my favourite standard colour palette. It is a much-used pigment in whatever painting I make using water paints, gouache paints, or oils.
Ochre is many things. It has many colours, it has many functions. Archaeologists link it to our way of thinking. When prehistoric peoples started colour processing they were showing colour preferences. As one thing represents something else, we are in the business of symbolic thinking. Red for ‘blood’, yellow ochre for ‘sun’, brownish ochre for ‘earth’. We do not know because we can’t ask our long dead ancestors. But what we know for sure is that many colours of ochre were important to them.
Ochre is a constant companion in my studio because I work with paints all the time. And when I take a break from painting, I love to read books on prehistory. Interestingly, the more I use it and the more I learn about it, the more fascinating this pigment becomes.