Into Colour - Red Ochre

Since the dawn of time, one pigment has been in constant use. From makeup to cave art, Red Ochre has allowed humanity to express itself for thousands of years. But what is Ochre, and why is it so popular?

In its natural form, Ochre is a yellow clay-like substance (yes, yellow, hold that thought!). So why was it used by artists to paint deep reds, from the lips of Johan Vermeer's 'The girl with the Pearl Earring' to The cloak of El Greco's 'Disrobing of Christ'?

Girl with the Pearl Earring

Two of its greatest strengths are its variety and its availability.

The pigment is very common and comes in a deep range of hues (depending on the presence of other materials). Indeed, one particularly earthy shade of red takes its name from the soil around Siena. The colour Sienna will be familiar to anyone who has visited that Tuscan cultural jewel.

So how do we get from yellow earth to red brilliance? The secret is iron oxide. As the yellow Ochre gets hot (by nature or man) the iron oxidises and the pigment turns a deep red.

From prehistoric cavemen to artists today, this colour remains a firm favourite!

Cave art

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