Dear Pigment, (a love letter)

This was my final presentation on Red Ochre/Pigments in Term 1 at City Guilds… I would have loved to say so much more about my beloved P. but only had 10 minutes (did my best!)

As I needed a link so that readers of the wonderful Institute of Making‘ s newsletter could read the full version… there it is!

Dear Pigment,

I thought I would give you an update of where I’m at right now.

As you might have understood from all my probing, I’ve been researching you for quite some years now and, knowing already so many things about you, I was even reluctant to choose you as my
material of choice for the year. (Not that I don’t love you.)

Yet, after doing so, something quite interesting happened. It’s simple really, but quite revolutionary (to me) and it took perhaps the better part of the first term at City Guilds to really understand that knowing about pigments vs keeping company with pigments and thinking about them with concern as you would, perhaps, think of a loved one, are quite different things. Complementary and overlapping for sure but processes of a different nature. Also the shift from a study of you (sorry about that!) towards me, or rather my exploration of you is bringing an engagement and happiness I am quite sure Aristotle would have approved of and, hopefully, so can you.

It has been an intellectual research for sure choosing the 88 pigments I wanted for my timeline. All of you had to be not only historically the most relevant ones but also to have been used as art pigments. 

Then it turned into detective work as I tried to source you and make sure I had the genuine YOU
I wanted in my collection. You have to admit working at Cornelissen and helping them sort out a hundred years of archived pigments has proven a most fortuitous source… as some of you, are now so rare or even obsolete.

In their store and here in the studio, while I indulge in opening jar upon jar containing you, I take the time to admire, to smell the pink and write down my feelings…

Sometimes you are so airy that a little twirl of evanescence seems to come out of the package or the jar as I twist the cap, I feel then I’m releasing some sort of magical spirit but even when that doesn’t happen, always the pure colour that you are takes my breath away.
I know some of you are more costly ‘commodities’ than others, resulting in more expensive series in paints, but all of you are, in my eyes… equally captivating and valuable.

Different grinds of Smalt

My fingers learn from you too and enjoy the varied caresses I receive. Some in your tribe are so silky, ever so fine that I am reminded of rice powder (which brings up memories of some of my grand-mothers’ friends I didn’t enjoy kissing at all) while some of you are really coarse, glassy or gritty and more evocative of barefoot walks on English beaches. Heavy, virtually weightless and, rarely I must admit, even… smelly! Most certainly, each one of you has attitude…

Then I put you to the binder test and, whilst I’m mulling you on the slab to turn you into paint, some of you seem totally reluctant (not pointing the finger, but Dragon’s blood and charcoal are truly difficult) while others are simply bending over double to please me (top marks given to lead white… and, whilst I knew painters were devastated to give it up, I now understand why)

Later as you well know, our conversation continues while I paint in your company. You still talk Colour to me then but also opacity, transparency, granulation, dispersion, texture and, while circles and strips come to life under my brush, I hear you but also daydream of the foreign lands where you come from, of civilisations long gone, of artworks and artists I know have used you.

Cueva de las Manos — Argentina— c.5000 BC

Thinking of you, as opposed to knowing things about you, also means that, most of the time, you are still on my mind.
As I sit in the lavender patch at Vauxhall gardens I let myself dream that all those creation myths of man made out of clay, red ochre, be true for example. And so, on that whim, I search and find that quite a few respectable scientists are proposing very serious models for the origin of life using clay as a plausible mechanism. And, IF so, could these molecules at the origin of Life have somehow transmitted a DNA memory of their origins to the first humans… so so far down the chain? Is that even possible?

I know “the Lord God who formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” often gets the credit for it and, of course, don’t know who should receive the accolade but certainly think that if it was Her, She chose a good name for that first one who would walk Adama — the Earth in Hebrew… as, Adam is a generic noun in Hebrew meaning in fact “mankind” and synonymous with “to be red.”

(Dragon’s Blood)

Perhaps humans are offsprings of hematite, the beautiful bloodstone, with which they share iron, oxygen and the colour red inside. The same red of ochres, the same red as the stick of pure pigment found in a South African cave, incised some 70 000 years ago by a shaman or a midwife perhaps, a fellow colour worshipper for sure, the same red found on ceremonial masks, in initiation circles, on the ground, on the walls of caves, on our skins and, all the way into burial grounds, on our bones.

Do you know, ancient one, the answer to these esoteric questions?

Actually I am happy you keep that secret… if you want.

As for your name, dear ochre, in my native tongue from which, in English, you came
we prononce you Ochre… and I like it better as I can virtually hear in this cre the ochre pigment being separated from the sand and other earthy bits that holds it together as a colourful mass. The Old French, came from the latin ocra… okhra in Greek… from okhros meaning “pale yellow”.

Amusingly enough, but in accordance with its origins, most people would probably think colour too rather than pigment, material I mean, when they hear ochre… That hue is not well defined though, from perhaps not a pale yellow but a rather muted dull mid-tone one to even some dark mustardy tones.

Yet all of these colours below were produced by… ochres.

All the ochres in my paintbox!

At first pigments were not not manufactured of course, but gathered… today’s term would be mined but I find it hard to apply to Neolithic men and women!

Ochres are abundant on planet Earth, and yet, much rarer are those places that contain quality pigment, ie a high ratio of colour to sand. As a result, these were always considered very sacred… often kept secret and used only for women’s business ceremonies, men’s initiation practices and the like.

Many moons ago however, early alchemists understood how to rival with nature and dehydrate yellow ochre, the most common one, in order to obtain what always had our preference, the red one.

Heidi Gustafson © Kyle Johnson for The New York Times 

Artists who forage and use natural pigments today are very aware that this practice is in line with land custodians of oArtists who forage and use natural pigments today are very aware that this practice is in line with that of the land custodians of old. Doing this responsibly, they are also revering the unique place where these ochres are found. For many, they share that this process grounds their works and gives them a potent sense of belonging. I, who come from perhaps too many lands, envy them.


As time went on, we moved away from these austere pigments as Pliny called them, favouring those in his other classification, the florid ones.

These adjectives might make us smile today and yet, most recently, I began thinking about one of our most established pigment classification, wondering if it was time to revisit it too, rethink the distinction between natural vs artificial. Because, why is it that an ochre which has been mined, ground, sieved, washed, levigated, pulverised, roasted, packaged and shipped to the other side of the world be considered more ‘natural’ than a combination of mercury and sulfur creating a black form of mercury sulfide which, once pulverised and sublimated by intense heating, turns into a divine vermillion… a pigment most certainly regarded as artificial while both its elements are natural too, if toxic, and the pigment produced with a quite similar process.


Now, of course I’m beginning to wonder if the term “natural” would not be best suited for those untouched pigments, still part of landscape or buried deep in the belly of Mother earth and if artificial perhaps not but “refined or processed by men” would not better suit all the others in fact… I’m still mulling over this one, yet think the next frontier I might need to confront will, logically be, organic vs inorganic…

Have you noticed, dear one, that some paint companies label these days the resulting man-made product rather than your original nature, turning one of your tribe, Ivory black for example, from a natural organic into an inorganic synthetic pigment? Not that you probably care about our human classifications!
Yet, if one of these days, some scientist manages to prove that we indeed come from red ochre… now that would be enchanted materialism indeed!

Worker at the Hormuz island ochre plant

And, yes, we found increasingly sophisticated ways to produce you, dear friend and most of them pretty cruel, you must admit. Our ruthless quest for colours, we could possess and use, has even resulted in two huge famines, working slaves or cheap labour in arsenic, lead or cobalt mines, driving to extinction the murex, a sea snail with purple dye, feeding poor Indian cows nothing but mango leaves to collect their unhealthy acid urine -but then it turned into such a beautiful deep yellow-orange! In short, we stopped at nothing.

And all that to produce… what?

Information from the eye passes through a bottleneck before it gets to the brain’s visual cortex, which heavily processes the sparse signal. @DVDP

Because, and sorry if this comes as a surprise to you, but what are you?

Just a little rock, a pile of little rocks, tiny particles really who absorb most of the colour of light and bounce back to our retinas the wavelengths it cannot absorb. Our retinas compute this information, forwards it to our gray matter which, and this is something of a miracle, translates it for us into:

Whaou what a beautiful orange!

But you’re not orange… not really…. so who are you if you are not colour, nor give colour (which you do not possess) nor, strictly speaking, produce colour?

We experience you as such though, and go to extreme lengths in order to obtain the precious piles of dusty colourless particles you are but, in fact, you might be better defined as a sort of… ready-made portable surface?
A surface which has the capacity of creating other colourless surfaces… whose perceived colours are now predictable (which is helpful I suppose.)

But would you be happy to be defined as a passive place, a state in which you would be only the surface of any and everything?
Or would you be more content we think of you as an active participant on which a reaction happens?

Which would perhaps force us to change the initial question from

What are you dear pigment? to When are you?
 

I do hope that by now you have realised how much you have pigmented my life, and the extent of my adoration and gratitude, so I can only hope that you take no offence at this new status of yours.
Yes you’ve lost your colour (never had one really) but, personally, I don’t experience you like that of course, and so find you all the more dynamic and intriguing really for enacting this colour paradox. In fact, it expands for me the Possibles.
A geologist, chemist, archeologist or even an artist will see in you worlds and options I do not… but my intuition tells me the door, which is unique to me, is slowly materialising and so… I am holding my breath!

Wishing us a long life of discoveries together,
I remain,
Yours truly
Sabine

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