Last Updated on September 28, 2023
The world has no shortage of colors. Most pigments occur naturally while some are synthetically produced.
Colors can differ considerably in terms of age and history. For instance, YInMn Blue is considered one of the most recent pigments. Also known as Oregon Blue or Mas Blue, this shade of blue was discovered in 2009 by Oregon State University chemist Mas Subramanian and his team of students.
Meanwhile, some hues trace their origin in prehistoric times. One such pigment is ochre.
Although it doesn’t frequently come up in everyday discussions, ochre is a fairly popular color whose applications spread far and wide. Here’s a definitive guide to this pigment, including how to make and use it.
What Color Is Ochre?
Ochre (also spelled in North America as Ocher) isn’t one distinct color. Rather, it’s a family of colors produced by clay pigments which contain hydrated ferric oxide (commonly known as rust).
It mostly occurs as a yellowish-brown color. But the shades can range from pale yellow to deep red, deep orange, brown, and even deep violet. Various shades of ochre have been used since prehistoric times. Like today, the color is especially popular with painters and interior designers.
Which Individual Colors Are In Ochre?
Since ochre isn’t a distinct color but a collection of different pigments, it’s often difficult to pinpoint the exact colors in ochre. In most cases, you’ll need to assess the shades on individual bases.
However, yellow and red are the dominant hues in ochre. Orange is also fairly vivid in ochre. But as you may already know, orange is basically a mixture of red and yellow.
Is Ochre A Natural Or Synthetic Pigment?
Ochre is a natural clay earth pigment. It’s one of the most abundant colors in nature, especially on the earth’s surface.
However, even natural colors can be artificially produced. So, while you’ll readily find ochre in ferric clay soil, the pigment can also be prepared from synthetic materials.
In fact, even the process of obtaining ochre from its natural ores isn’t entirely organic. Manufacturers usually incorporate certain solutions and practices that render the ochre obtained more semi-synthetic than purely natural.
What Are The Main Types Of Ochre?
There are two main kinds of naturally-occurring ochre. The first has a clayey basis while the other is more chalky. Clayey ochre is generally considered the richer and purer form of the color. It’s also more abundant in nature than the chalky ochre.
However, both clayey and chalky ochre tend to occur side by side. The pigments are fairly distributed in stratified rocks and rubble, where they may occur in beds or pockets.
What Are The Different Shades Of Ochre?
As already indicated, ochre is a family of colors encompassing several pigments. Here are the most common shades of ochre;
1. Yellow Ochre
Yellow ochre is a deep-yellow color that results from the formation of hydrated iron hydroxide (FeHO₂). It’s the most dominant shade in ochre and occurs in nearly all limonite rocks.
Yellow ochre enjoys a long history of human use. This shade of ochre has been used for centuries both as a pigment and dye. Today, it’s also an ingredient in cement additives and as a catalyst in various chemical processes.
2. Red Ochre
Red ochre is so named for its reddish color. It mainly results from anhydrous iron oxide, chemically known as hematite (Fe2O).
Naturally-occurring red ochre is common in warmer and tropical climates. That explains why the pigment is widely distributed along ocean coastlines.
Like yellow ochre, red ochre has had diverse applications through centuries. One of the pigment’s most notable uses is protecting the skin from the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. So, artists working with red ochre outdoors don’t have to worry about developing melanomas. What’s more, the pigment is an effective insect repellent.
3. Purple Ochre
Purple ochre isn’t as common as its yellow and red cousins. But that scarcity only makes it more charming to use in art and design projects. This pigment is chemically identical to red ochre. Which means that it’s a result of anhydrous iron oxide.
The difference between the two shades of ochre is due to light diffraction properties exhibited by the different rocks on which hematite occurs.
4. Brown Ochre
Brown ochre is partly hydrated iron oxide with a chemical formula of FeO(OH). The brown color is due to the partial hydration of iron oxide and the fact that this natural ochre pigment tends to contain decent amounts of manganese oxide.
The name Sienna resonates with both a specific shade of ochre and the region where the pigment was initially mined on a large scale.
Sienna is named after the eponymous city in Italy. Chemically speaking, the pigment contains both limonite and traces of manganese oxide (usually less than 5%). These properties make it appear darker than regular ochre.
Like Sienna, Umber is named after a region (also in Italy) where the pigment was once mined in large quantities. Umber ochre contains a larger proportion of manganese (between 5% and 20%) than Sienna, which makes it appear darker than brown ochre.
7. Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber
Burnt sienna and burnt umber are the result of heating natural sienna and umber pigments, respectively. The heating process dehydrates natural ferric ores, consequently transforming some of the limonite in them into hematite. The result is a more reddish shade of ochre.
NOTE: Sienna and Umber may be considered distinct colors depending on the context in which they’re used. The same goes for burnt sienna and burnt umber.
How Does Ochre Occur Naturally?
The hue occurs naturally where there’s a relatively large quantity of iron in the ground. But the mere occurrence of the element iron isn’t responsible for the formation of ochre deposits.
First, the mineral must react with oxygen to form iron oxide (also known as limonite). The iron oxide further reacts with water to form hydrated iron oxide. It’s this final product that constitutes rust.
It’s worth noting that the dominant hues in ochre will depend on the concentration of oxygen and water molecules in the rust. It will also depend on the nature and amount of other chemical compounds that occur alongside iron oxide.
For instance, ochre that results from the combination of iron oxide and manganese oxide will typically look browner.
Where Did The Name Ochre Come From?
The word ochre derives from the Greek word “Ochros,” which translates to ‘pale yellow.’
However, some critics might easily dismiss the Greek translation of ‘Ochre’ as a misnomer. That’s especially considering that the color occurs in multiple shades besides yellow.
Besides, there’s nothing pale about ochre when you consider its symbolism in color psychology. On the contrary, most shades of this color resonate with warmer feelings and emotions.
What Is The Origin And History Of Ochre?
Ochre is one of the oldest hues known to humankind. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of red ochre manufacturing and usage dating back to over 300,000 years ago.
Most reports indicate that the climax of red ochre usage coincided with the emergence of Homo sapiens. This implies that the pigment played an instrumental role in the evolution of mankind.
Among the most prominent pieces of evidence of ochre usage in Africa dates back to around 75,000 years ago. These findings were uncovered in the Blombos Cave in South Africa.
Besides Africa, there’s significant evidence of ochre usage in virtually all other human-inhabited continents. Archaeological findings point to widespread ochre use in Australia and Asia as far back as 50,000 and 40,000 years ago, respectively.
Europe also has a history with ochre. A Paleolithic burial site in Wales called the Red Lady of Paviland is so named for its red ochre coating. Historians believe that this site is at least 33,000 years old.
There have also been discoveries of animal paintings made with yellow and red ochre in Paleolithic sites located at Pech Merle in France as well as in the Cave of Altamira in Spain, dating back to 25,000 and 17,000 years ago, respectively.
What Are The Common Uses Of Ochre?
It is undeniably one of the most versatile colors. That’s mainly because it’s a family of many different shades, each of which has its meaning and symbolism. As you might expect, the psychological symbolism of ochre depends on the dominant hue in the color.
Collectively, ochre resonates with earth. Thus, it’s a common pigment found in artwork with landscape or countryside themes. It would particularly suit paintings that focus on the earth’s surface as opposed to those that highlight vegetation, atmosphere, or the firmament.
Ochre can also convey a sense of the afterlife or life’s continuity. That’s due to its association with the earth and soil. You could splash it as the theme for occasions like burials and funerals to lend more meaning to the phrase ‘returning to dust.’
In fact, there have been numerous discoveries of red ochre in Neolithic burial sites. That’s a clear indication that the color may have been used by the ancient civilizations to connote life’s continuity beyond the grave.
Like most shades of yellow (bearing in mind that yellow is the most dominant hue in ochre), ochre may convey happiness, optimism, and youthfulness. The color’s association with positive vibes make it an excellent choice by painters, apparel manufacturers, and interior designers.
How to Create Ochre
Ochre can be made from naturally-occurring ferric compounds. It’s also possible to produce the color synthetically using available supplies. Needless to mention, the procedure for creating ochre may differ slightly depending on the hues you intend to create.
How to Make Yellow Ochre
i. Add a base yellow color to a color mixing bowl.
ii. Carefully add red to the bowl and stir to darken the base yellow.
iii. Add a touch of blue to the mixture to darken and desaturate it.
iv. Adjust the final outcome as desired.
How to Make Brown Ochre
i. Mix orange with blue to make brown.
ii. Add equal amounts of the three primary colors – red, yellow, and blue – to a separate bowl.
iii. Combine the two separate mixtures into the third bowl and stir gently until uniformly combined.
iv. Add more blue or more yellow to darken or lighten your brown ochre as required.
Ochre is one of the most abundant colors on the earth’s surface. Although the pigment has been used from time immemorial, it remains one of the most charming colors and can add a touch of elegance on whichever setting it’s used. Besides, there are multiple options to experiment with.