Red Ochre - The Oldest Colour In The World?

Pigments tell the story of our world. Our planet is approximately 4.5 billion years old. It formed from the residue of galactic collisions into the heavenly body we call Earth. As tectonic plates began to settle, planet Earth – as its name suggests – began to form a thin crust of earth, like a cosmic crème brûlée left to cool in a corner of the universe.

Because of its abundance in natural occurring minerals, our thin earth crust is rich in ‘earth pigments’ such as Ochre, Sienna and Umber, with Red Ochre at the beginning of our shared story of colours. Red Ochre is quite possibly the first colour to be used as paint. It can be found globally in the Americas, Africa, Europe, Japan and in particular in the Southern hemisphere.

The history of Red Ochre

Red Ochre in pigment form is known to have been used to decorate the body or bones in burial rituals during Palaeolithic times 350,000 BC, but in 2008 archaeologists found in Blombos Caves east of Cape Town in South Africa, what has been described as the first ever ‘painting kit’. Consisting simply of a shell and a stone, these tools were used to grind ochre and bones together, mixing this powder with a liquid in the large seashell, it would have produced what constitutes as the earliest Red Ochre in paint form. Brushes not yet in existence, the end of a small bone would have been used to apply or dab small amounts of this Red Ochre paint onto the skin, objects, or possibly the surrounding walls, presenting some of the earliest signs of humans attempting to express social belonging and identity, and the beginnings of not just visual language but language itself.

The recently discovered Red Ochre ‘paint kit’ still remains shrouded in some mystery and it is unclear what purpose it had. However, the longest continuous painting tradition in the world using Red Ochre belongs to Australia, where it is central to Indigenous Australian Art and a sacred connection to the land. It features in some of the most intriguing and powerful works in history describing this people’s relationship to the land and what they refer to as the ‘dreaming’; a body of stories passed on from one generation to the next through an oral tradition retelling ancestral beginnings of creation and expressed through body, songs, dance, drawn in sand or paintings on rock or bark.

In Ancient Egypt, Red Ochre was used in celebrations as a symbol of life and victory and was used as an early form of cosmetics by women. In classical antiquity Red Ochre was known as Pontus Euxinus (from the Pontine city of Sinope in a region that is now known as Turkey). Renowned for its high quality it was stamped with ‘sealed Sinope’ and ‘sinopia’ becoming synonymous with Red Ochre. Another important mineral source can be found in Siena, Tuscany which provided Duccio – from the Sienese School – Red Ochre for his egg tempera gilt altarpiece panels, during the early Renaissance, and later, famously, Michelangelo in his studies for the Sistine Chapel, and Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk during the high Renaissance.

Red Ochre in the art world

Following the invention of oil painting by van Eyck during the Dutch Golden Age or Flemish Renaissance, painters’ palettes was still limited to around 15 colours, but pigments began to be more widely available. By Rembrandt’s time in the 17th century, pigments were being ground in mills, where large stones, powered by windmills, would crush ochre and other minerals to be mixed with linseed oil which would provide Rembrandt colours for his palette; Rembrandt using Red Ochre to create the warm glowing scenes he is known for.

There are few colours whose provenance can be traced back to the beginning of time in such a way, and fewer still that are so ubiquitous and with so many uses in an artist palette. Today artists from the Contemporary School of Indigenous art continue to use Red Ochre, and it is no coincidence that the Australia Council for the Arts presents the ‘Red Ochre Award’ annually to an outstanding Indigenous Australian artist in recognition of lifetime achievement. It is one of two categories awarded at the National Indigenous Arts Awards, the other award being the ‘Dreaming Award’, in a painting tradition that has used Red Ochre for 60,000 years and continues today as archaeologists uncover more discoveries.


Source: (Winsor & Newton)
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