In bed with… Ochre

Ochre? Ocher? I’ll choose the first spelling…
No offense intended, ochre is simply more visually pleasing to me, in all probability only because it’s closet to the French spelling I have always been familiar with. Oddly in English (being the baffling thing it is) ochre and ocher are pronounced the same. Personal taste will make me chose again the more mineral sounding French ocre, in which that “cre” screeches like raw Earth crunched in a rough mortar. I can virtually hear in this cre the ochre pigment being separated from the sand and other earthy bits that held it together as a colourful mass. The patient and relentless grinding, that slightly annoying sound can be heard again in “cr-aie” (chalk… think of it on a blackboard) or in “cr-ayon” (pencil… being sharpened on sandpaper perhaps?) Strangely, I find it also a pleasing sound as that token of planet Earth holds the promise of tangible colour, brings a whiff of its potential in the hands of men.

Rech ochre crayon
An ochre crayon from the Blombos caves

As joked about it in another post: The oldest profession in the World, ochre might well be one of, if not the first thing, humans ever exchanged, offered or… possibly traded! The colour trails can be followed in many different cultures and on all continents but in the Blombos caves of Africa, evidence of Homo sapiens grinding ochre in shells with an unknown, as by now vanished, binder into a paste goes back some 70 000 years . That’s nearly as long as Sapiens has been around! There, men and/or women went as far as shaping and marking ochre crayons with hatches. Was it a primitive design or some kind of proprietor/provenance ‘logo’? Also, we can only wonder as to the precise use of these blocks of pure colour (or as we would later call them pigment sticks / soft pastels.) Certainly no attempt at interior cave decoration seem to date that far back. Educated guesses lean towards adornment, and presumably ritual too. Funeral rites apparently often came with a fine layer of ochre. In Australia, where the first evidence of a ceremonial burial was found, the “Mungo man” named after the near by lakes was buried in red ochre some 42,000 to 62,000 years ago. Elsewhere too, blood red ochre and bones seem to keep good company (and ochre has siccative properties which dries bodies faster.) Recently, when visiting the Musée de l’Homme du Quai Branly in Paris and admiring their extensive collection of artefacts from across history and every indigenous society in the world it seems, I could not help but notice they had ALL produced masks and that these had ALL been coloured with pigments, mainly ochres. And of course you don’t even need a mask as face painting can totally mask you, so imagine thousand upon thousand of centuries of initiations, story-telling, burials…

Cathedrale Rupestre de Lascaux
The Lascaux ‘cathedral’

I might not give an eye (too precious to me!) nor even a leg but if I could rewrite history, next time round I would not accept to stay in the car and play with my brother whilst my mother and a picture restorer friend of hers were given a private guided tour of Lascaux by Jacques Marsal, one of the boys who discovered the cave. By then it was already closed to the general public as degradation from human presence was becoming noticeable. (Today all you get to see is a life-size resin replica in the village below –if you’re into that sort of thing, apparently it’s very realistic.) Jacques must have done that visit a thousand times before but when Mum and Nelly recounted being led in darkness to a spot where he cracked a match in front of the so called “cave cathedral”, a curved ceiling, two meters off the ground covered with aurochs, horses, deers and even a unicorn! –seeing this awesome sweep of animals as the young boys, looking for caves/ hiding holes from the German enemy, saw it for the first time on the day they discovered it, I knew then and there from their starry eyes and broken voices I had missed the opportunity of a most unique communion with my far far away ancestors.

Cueva de las Manos
Women stenciled hands in the  Cueva de las Manos (Argentina)

Picasso apparently said after visiting Lascaux: “Whatever these people were, they were no beginners.” This praise from artist to artists is my red ochre thread… I too cannot believe a craftsmanship of this calibre would suddenly ‘appear’, just in this one spot furthermore. Other stunning testimonies exist of course, although they are pretty rare: Chauvet (the oldest painted cave predating Lascaux by at least 15 000 years), Altamira, Tassili, Pech Merl, the Bradshaw art of the Kimberleys, etc. And virtually all over the world stencil imprints of hands conveying this maybe urgent and certainly recurrent ochre message: “I was here.”

Omo 2
A wonderful photo of the Omo tribe who still paint and adorne themselves daily by the very talented photographer, Hans Silvester. (Hope he forgives me from borrowing it!)

But what if, like the Omo people of Ethiopia who still practice daily, these refined artifacts were simply the results of thousands of years of body painting, of wooden mask decorating, of soil map making, of sacred drawing on tools, weapons, amulets, jewellery. For nomad hunter gatherers (and, I postulate, artists!) these could be transported or repeated anywhere they went. But a regular gathering place with other tribes or a settlement in a bountiful country perhaps, once in a while, offered the possibility or demanded an expression of reverence on a grander scale. ‘Cathedrals’ created maybe when the need for praying to the Mystery in dark places, for when invoking the Mother of all living beings was most pressing or when a truly talented visual shaman woman or man was born. In remote spots across the globe, darkness and forgetfulness did the rest and miraculously preserved for us to admire that which everywhere else and on other supports, has returned to dust…

Footprints in the open ochre site of Roussillon

Because, of course, it is dust we are talking about. Rusted dust if you will, abundant on our planet where water prevailed until oxygen came about and where, in many places, the sea evaporated. As salted water does, in contact with air, it rusted what it touched, in this case the earth, leaving as an offering iron oxides aplenty which millennia later would become our beautiful and so colourful (but not rare) first pigments. Still the finest sites have traditionally been regarded as sacred. But some mines have been so exploited by indigenous people as well as more recently as to now be exhausted. Your Umbers will most likely come from Cyprus these days and your Siennas from Sardinia, Sicily or even France… if not from a lab (if you’re a purist after the true Earth pigments you can tell then apart by their ‘name’, for eg. PY-34 for a natural Sienna, whilst PR-102 is its natural burnt variation.)

My precious ochres from a sacred site in the Kimberleys

Ochres come in a range of hues from yellow to purple… Most common are the yellow goethite (yes named after Goethe who loved minerals!) and the red hematite (from hema, blood in Greek.) If you heat up goethite you obtain artificial hematite, this process already understood and used in pre-history (my apologies for this useful but awful term which feels to me so condescending with its ring of pre-, i.e. sub-, human!) Cave artists had also gained the knowledge that temperature would modify the result… Heating at 950ºC indeed gave them red, but 300ºC offered them orange! To lighten up these colours add kaolin, quartz, calcite. To darken them black manganese oxide. The earth in parts of Umbria and around Sienna for example has always been so useful for painters as it naturally has varying degrees of manganese oxide, with the result that the ‘raw’ pigments obtained there have darker tints, more on the dark orange to brown side. Both these pigments can also be heated to give us the even darker hues known as Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber. (Green earth, better known under its French name Terre Verte is not an ochre although its colour comes partly from its iron content too but here mixed with green clays.)

Generally I’m against defacing surfaces, but couldn’t help a smile in front of that original sin…

However, as much as I now know and love ochres and would like to believe we all come from an uninterrupted lineage of artists with pigments coursing in our DNA like blood in our veins, back in the day when I accepted this receptionist job for the summer, I had never given a thought to these colourful powders, had not a clue they were pigments or what that meant and no premonition the stuff could be… well, just about indestructible (or at the very least, not wanting to sound too dramatic, insoluble.) But if what follows does not help you remember forever the difference between a dye which is a soluble colorant used for textiles, etc. and a pigment which is an insoluble microparticle of colour… I give up!

The open air ochre site of Roussillon

OK, so forget all the other, mostly false (I’ll admit it just this once) promises I have made so far about being in bed with… this time it’s the real deal: bed, sheets and other intimate items of use to the body will be described in full detail here… Beware!
One summer then, I found myself behind the reception desk of a 4 star hotel. The place was a little beauty, just a few kilometres away from the historical village of Gordes in the Lubéron… The decision for such a dramatic parting from my pleasant enough Parisian life of 30 years came after receiving a divine order to do so (but that’s another story.) I was in the Eat/Pray part of my quest (yes Love would come too but not for a few years yet and that is definitely another story.) Leaving behind my comfortable life working for an art expert and my penthouse abode behind Notre Dame on the Ile Saint Louis, I had taken residence in a rundown house in a little village house in Provence with few commodities: some electricity sockets, a sink and shower but no hot water, the package taken on board with… total delight! Plus the hotel I was working for was throwing in the lodgings for free and F R E E was exactly how I was feeling.
My job at the reception was not challenging, the dynamics of a 4 star hotel with an absentee manager… a tad more! Nevertheless the summer months went by pleasantly enough, with time to explore the beautiful Lubéron. When the grapes turned blue-black and their leaves to astonishing splashes of orange and rust, clients became few and far between, and so I took over the job of tiding up the rooms in the evening (and leave there the little treats on the pillows that go with the four stars.) There are always benefits from going onto the other side of mirrors and what a very interesting occupation that one was! I would wish clients going to restaurants all dressed up and elegant a good evening then discover they had left behind the messiest of rooms… They probably didn’t think  I would get to see the scene know (or perhaps care) ing very well that they would return to a perfect room later.

The open air ochre site of Roussillon

My hotel was only a few kilometres from Roussillon, one of the most stunning open air ochre sites in France. Visits there were highly encouraged by my good self (not after doing this job I can tell you) as one of the highlights of the area. Guests would return enchanted and… orange! The sole of their shoes filled with ochre, their feet, their clothes, their hair too it seemed. Bathtubs would be ringed with colour, towels with indelible patterns too. As much as I tried to consign them to oblivion, drown them down the drains, there seemed to always be that one little particle left that would turn the whole effort into yet another puddle of pumpkin soup… which is exactly how you make paint of course! Pigment and water will do. Might not stick too much to the support though but paper will drink it up (and bath towels too!) Add a little binder –soap or face cream which probably will not stand the test of time but are on hand at this stage– and it’s a very acceptable art material you’ll get… and a very distressed handmaiden to boot.

The open air ochre site of Roussillon

That story goes back 25 years and today you cannot simply go and trek in the colourful open air ochre site… You need a ticket and there are opening hours and there are pretty little wooden paths so your shoes don’t get too dirty (payed for presumably by the local hotels!) and these take you where they want you to go –which to be fair are the most beautiful vistas. Previously there was hardly anyone there and no one to stop you believing yourself a lone ranger entering this dangerous gorge between two menacing mesas while the Indians (i.e. the kids) giggled behind the pink and purple pinnacles waiting to jump on you and shower you with coloured soil. Everyone would return from these walks as from the Holi festival, happy and exhausted.
Times have changed, still it’s easy to believe even now that you are walking in the tracks of ancient fellow colourmen, in awe as you are about our stunning painted Earth.
Of course nothing beats the beauty of the natural site and yet, and yet… I would probably put the ochre mines of Bruoux in nearby Gargas virtually on par for interest and wahooness! Colour cathedral indeed..

Two of the openings at the stunning entrance to the Mines de Bruoux

There, for over two centuries, ochre has been exploited (apparently today, not far behind this site, is one guy on an engine and this ‘power’ has replaced a little industry that once occupied many a strong men in the area.) The mines were dug from the ground down, if you are wondering. The first metres were no good, too much sand, but when it was deemed worthwhile then the men with the very specific job of tracing the rounded arches with a sort of scythe and long sweeping gestures would enter the earth horizontally. Lesser paid men would then dig the sides. Together, they eventually opened up 40 kilometres of galleries that now burrow the ground in that place. Not too close to one another so that the ‘pillars’ can support the natural roof.

Ochre was and is still used for painting houses of course and for other purposes (strangely enough until recently as an inert stabiliser for natural latex which would allow it to be moulded into a variety of useful things like baby soothers or sealer rings for your jam jars… Remember these were orange once upon a time?) However, although profitable enough, mining ochre has built no one’s colossal fortune. Today a kilo of it is worth 4.90 euros whilst other pigments like the Cadmiums around 100 to 150 depending on colour, Dioxaxine 256 euros and Lapis Lazuli 2300! I sourced these figures from the Kramer catalogue that supplies many a paint maker and now you know why there are series in all respectable paints and such a difference in price between them…

Still mining was not the last step in producing a high quality ochre and there is still one more place, which has opened a few miles from the village of Roussillon proper, you might enjoy visiting –if nothing else for its ochre supplies and extensive bookshop. L’usine Mathieu, now turned into The Conservatoire des ochres et de la couleur, is a place where you can learn about ochres but also see the old factory where the raw clay was washed to separate the grains of (+/-80%) sand from the particles of ochre*, then decanted in large basins, from which the water was drained and the ochre left to dry. Later, cut into bricks, crushed and sifted, it would be classified by color and quality with the finest set aside for artists’ pigments… As ever a small market.


As one of the signs along the walk optimistically declares: “Roussillon is converting its mineral inheritance into a universal melting pot of know-how concerning colour” and, as you seem to share this passion with me, I hope one day you’ll make it there! Here are the details…
Natural site: The Sentier des ochres de Roussillon, in the village proper, is opened from mid February till 31st December and I would leave it as late in the day to visit it as sunset is stunning there. All information available at the Office of Tourism. Phone: 04 90 05 60 25,
The mine are fresh at all times (around 10ºC) so bring a jumper: Mines de Bruoux, 1434 route de Croagnes, 84400 Gargas. They are opened from April till October. Phone: 04 90 06 22 59 or go to In summer they also have concerts and plays there in the evenings which would be quite lovely in that dramatic setting.
The factory Usine d’ochre Mathieu/Conservatoire des ocres et de la couleur, D104, 84220 Roussillon, is open every day from February 1st till 31st December. Phone 04 90 05 66 69, for more details.

img_5294.jpg(*The industrial process was developed by the French scientist Jean-Étienne Astier in the 1780s who was from, you guessed it, Roussillon!)

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on miriam louisa simons and commented:
    Another share-worthy post from Sabine (‘Still at the Centre,’ Byron Bay.) This time she has written a fascinating overview of the ancient earth pigment OCHRE, enlivened by anecdotal musings about her relationship with this primal pigment. Enjoy!

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