The Paint under our Feet

 RED

Ochre Point Soth Australia, where land meets the ocean

Standing on reds, yellows, whites, and purple by simply taking a walk, effectively walking on pigments, is a strange experience for someone like me; I was raised in Holland, a rather colourless country below sea-level, dominated by the greys of clay and clouds.
Other countries offer quite a different palette, full of flamboyant oxides in a range of hues from deep red to brilliant yellow.
Colours which are the Cradle of Art.

The colours of the earth were the first pigments handled by humans to recreate and create. Recreating the game they hunted and creating symbols which still hold their hidden meanings from us. The impressive wisents, wild horses and sheep, lions, rhinos and even elephants in the prehistoric European paintings we know today, were painted with the effective limited palette based on earth-pigments. It is a palette uniting mankind. 

http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2014/10/09/4102672.htm

http://archeologie.culture.fr/chauvet/frThe hand stencils depicted here were found on three different continents: Europe, America and Asia. The oldest have been created around 40.000 years ago. They are evidence of the creative drive of the oldest of what we call humankind. Some may even have been made by Neanderthals, as more scientists are now willing to conclude. 
These images were all made using the same technique: by spitting a mouthful of a watery mix with red earth over the hand. The oldest form of spray-painting. 

The dominant role of red in all of them is no coincidence, and is not connected to an abundance of the pigment in the surroundings of the caves. Red was, and still is in some ways, synonymous to blood, to life. A sacred colour connecting man with ancestors and the after-life.

Blood varies in colour. Fresh blood coming directly  from the body, is a light red, bubbling with energy. Dead blood is dark, almost black, and in thin layers brown. 
Red ochres come in a richer variety of hues: from a light pink, to a full tomato red, a shy brown, and modest violet. 
The pigment-box below is a collection of ochres  (and at the right some charcoal) which I gathered on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia, complemented with one warm Outback ochre (centre).

 Paint, the Story of Art

Despite this range of hues, the reds commonly used in prehistoric painting are of a similar tone, a strong, often bright, red earth.
Research on the reds in various caves showed they were rarely locally found, but brought in from specific, often distant deposits. Hues which must therefore have had a special, symbolic function in the palette used to decorate the caves and sacred objects. 

The tradition of selecting  pigments for their specific colour and attributing a symbolic meaning to them, is universal. In this case of red earth, the seemingly archaic tradition has survived unchanged into 21st-century Australia. 
For more then 40.000 years the Australian Aborigines have been mining ochre deposits such as those of Wilga Mia, ochres of a particularly high quality. High quality meaning a strong, brilliant red, distinctly different from the red earth covering most of the continent.  
Ochres, red and yellow, were and are a vital ingredient in Aboriginal religious practices. The higher the quality of the red earth, the greater the distance it was traded. The mining of the quarries was restricted to a small group of experts of the tribe on whose land the ochres were found.
Red earth was traded with other clans and transported over distances of more then a 1500 kilometres to serve in rituals and to be transformed into paint.
 

Ochre Cliffs, SA. an ancient and deserted aboriginal ochre quarry

Unfortunately the aggressive attitude of modern man’s mining companies has little respect for ancient traditions. During the last two centuries many of these prehistoric quarries have been mutilated to extract the ochres and accompanying minerals like copper and gold in large quantities for commercial and industrial purposes. 
The majority of historical pigments used by humans, share a similar history of mining and long-distance transports. With a growing demand, and loss of ancient symbolic values, the impact of mining on the environment has become, and remains, enormous. 
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Author: monicaRotgans-Colour, Pigments & Art

Artist, Author & Colour Expert, Iniator of the 7Colours Project Fascinated by the tools of the visual artist, the Face of Art, Paint & Colour. Their origins, use and symbolic meaning through the ages, worldwide.

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