Written by Paula Kuitenbrouwer
Ocher and ochre are different spellings of the same word, referring to (1) any of several earthy mineral oxides of iron occurring in brown, yellow, or red and used as pigments, and (2) a moderate orange yellow. The only difference is that ocher is the American spelling while ochre is preferred outside the U.S.
Ochre is a wonderful pigment
What is ochre? Ochre is a natural clay earth pigment which is a mixture of ferric oxide and varying amounts of clay and sand. It ranges in colour from yellow to deep orange or brown and I use it a lot in my studio. It goes by different names: Yellow Ochre, Gold Ochre, Brown Ochre, Naples Ochre or Burnt Ochre, to name a few. In Dutch its yellow colour is named ‘okergeel’.
Ochre is a very important find for archaeologists. In prehistoric times this pigment had a variety of functions: it was used as soap, paint, as grave goods, and for embalming the dead. It may even have been sunblock 50+ for as long as it lasted and did not flake off.
Ochre toolkits used by humans 100,000 years ago for making paints were found in the famous archaeological site of Blombos Cave in South Africa. This is such a long time ago, 100.000 years, we can hardly imagine peoples using colour pigments, but they did.
Otjize is a mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment used by Himba people of Namibia to protect themselves from the harsh desert climate.
For prehistoric people ochre was perhaps what Clorox and make-up is to us now. People perhaps used it as body paint, ideal for hygienic purposes too due to water scarcity. When it flakes off it removes skin and dirt.
A favourite colour!
Yellow Pale Ochre is part of my favourite standard colour palette. It is a much-used pigment in whatever painting I make using aquarelle, gouache, or oils. Ochre is fashionable this season too. When I walk into Dille & Kamille, a Dutch home and kitchen accessories shop, ochre coloured textiles and flower pots catch your eye.
Ochre has many colours, it has many functions. Archaeologists link it to our way of thinking. When prehistoric peoples started colour processing they were showing colour preferences. When one thing represents something else, we are in the business of symbolic thinking.
We can't ask our long dead ancestors. But what we know for sure is that many colours of ochre were important to them.
Ochre & Lifestyle
Ochre is a constant companion in my life because I work with paints all the time. And when I am not painting, I still love ochre colours especially during the autumn season. Ochre resonates deep with many of us. Some of us wear this colour, others prefer plant pots having ochre colours. And others use it for other artistic purposes. Interestingly, the more I use it and the more I learn about it, the more fascinating this pigment becomes.
Ochre & textiles
Regarding ochre coloured textiles one could say that ochre communicates nature to us. All variations of ochre, from brownish to yellow, we associate with nature, with living an organic lifestyle, with being aware of earth’s resources. No wonder that we see more ochre these days when fashion houses and designers foresee customers returning to organic fabrics and soft, natural textures.
Ochre tells a very old story, one of using earth’s pigments.
Neon seems to be over, it communicated something unnatural. Ochre, on the other hand, tells a very old story, one of using earth’s pigments. Now that we are increasingly aware of earth’s precious resources and the way we pollute our oceans with micro plastics that are shed every time we wash polyester fabrics, we prefer to return to natural fabrics, natural textile, and natural pigments too.