The extraordinary journey of colour…

The extraordinary journey of colour…

Colour is something we take for granted these days. So, we seldom pause to consider where colour came from. In Medieval Europe, each colour was a separate pigment, made from different physical materials. Whereas today we have, for example, BLUE and then different shades thereof, back then Ultramarine Blue and Indigo Blue were considered two different colours entirely. Interestingly, in those days, ultramarine was a very rare, imported pigment which was more expensive than gold. As a result, colours were rarely mixed, and the most expensive pigments were reserved to paint nobility, royalty or holy figures. Let’s start at the very beginning…

Ochre is an earthy pigment containing ferric oxide, typically with clay, varying from light yellow to brown or red. It occurs naturally in rocks and soil — essentially in any environment where iron minerals have pooled. The use of ochre goes back thousands of years, with the earliest possible use of ochre discovered so far at a Homo erectus site about 285,000 years old (at the site called GnJh-03 in the Kapthurin formation in Kenya). This was the first pigment ever used. It is contained in most of the rock art found around the world.

The Lyndhurst Ochre Quarry in Australia is a site of significance to Aboriginal People and is protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988.

The term red ochre or red earth describes various kinds of iron oxide pigments such as Venetian red, mars red, English red, Indian red. This anecdote below completely fascinated me – it is an extract taken from a fabulous book (detailed in info block) which piqued my interest on the story of colour and the way in which it travelled. According to Victoria Finlay, “scientists in Italy have found a new technique for dating frescos almost to the year they were painted, simply by examining the red paint. Red ochre contains iron, and the iron molecules act like compass needles explained Professor Giaconio Chiari of the Department of Minerological and Petrological Sciences at the University of Turin. He said that in the few minutes between daubing red ochre on to wet clay, and the time it dries, the molecules realign themselves towards the direction of magnetic north.  And if you don’t move the walls then that is how they stay. Magnetic north changes every year – it can fluctuate over a range of 18 degrees, so you can learn when the fresco was painted from the direction in which the red ochre is pointing. This can lead to curious artistic discoveries: at the Vatican Library, for example, there were three frescos which were believed to have been painted in 1585, 1621 and 1660. The scientists took tiny samples from the borders to see whether they could test their theory. They couldn’t understand the results. All the ochre was pointing the same way and it wasn’t in any of the ways they were expecting. Then they did more tests and realised the truth: the frescos were original, but all the borders had been repainted in 1870. Magnetic north is very erratic, though, Professor Chiari added. So, we can do it both ways: they sometimes use frescos – if they know when they were painted – to tell them where magnetic north was, that year.” Isn’t that fascinating?

Lapiz Lazuli embedded in rock.

Lapis lazuli, which was used to make ultramarine pigments, was highly valuable in medieval Europe. It was sourced exclusively from the mines of Afghanistan, and was as expensive as gold. This semi-precious stone was ground into an iridescent pigment, sometimes called ultramarine, that seemed to shine when applied to the canvas. It’s first use as a pigment dates back to 6th and 7th century BCE, on the wall paintings in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. It eventually became especially popular in Renaissance Europe – usually to accent the robe of the Virgin Mary. The material travelled long distances, following on the same routes as the spice trade. The 2018, the “Lapis Lazuli Route” opened (a modern international transit route), connecting Afghanistan via the shortest way to the European and Balkan markets via the Caspian and Black Sea ports.

To this day, cochineal is used in the cosmetics industry…

Mexico didn’t only give us tequila. In Europe, skilled Medieval dyers created many rich colours, but red was one that was extremely difficult to produce, or at least in a form that was durable. All the reds produced were either unstable, difficult to come by or extraordinarily expensive.

The explorations of the Spanish crown opened up a new worlds, with various riches unknown in Europe of the time. One of these was cochineal, the small insect that was to be found in abundance on certain types of cactus growing in Mexico (particularly in the Oaxaca region). Cochineal had a number of advantages over dyes in use at that time in Europe. Not only did it produce both a deeper and longer lasting red – it was easier to cultivate, albeit in Mexico. By the 1570s, the European textile industry had been converted and had become largely dependent upon the use of cochineal. These white bugs produced a potent red dye so sought-after by artists and patrons that it quickly became the third greatest import out of the “New World” (after gold and silver) – in the process providing much needed revenue to the Spanish throne. The cochineal bug is still used to colour lipsticks and blush today. 

The history of colour is an incredibly interesting one, worthy of further exploration if it is a subject that interests you… The book detailed below is highly recommended as a starting point.

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team


“Colour : Travels Through the Paintbox” by Victoria Finlay is a remarkable book, beautifully written with wonderful travel anecdotes. It is available on Amazon.

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