Serene, poised and softly exciting, this ancient natural colour was amongst the first pigments used by humans, not to mention the oldest shade of yellow. From the Red Indians to the Romans, to modern day trendsetters, Ochre has enduring appeal.
Let’s get the technical bits over with first. The major ingredient of all the ochres is iron(III) oxide-hydroxide, known as limonite, which gives it its yellow colour. The actual word is presumed to come from the Greek word ochros (pallid or pale yellow), but this is somewhat misleading when considering the incredible strength of the ochre colours, as well as the variety of shades. The hue belongs to a family of earth pigments, which also includes red ochre, purple ochre, sienna and umber.
In any case, it is a warm, earthy, sumptuous shade and its stability, range of colour and rage of translucency to opacity suited the Renaissance palette in particular, being favoured for panels and frescoes. It was also a firm favourite of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Bosch, Van Gogh, John Singer Sargent, Renoir and Delacroix to mention but a few.
Ochres have been used for all sorts of painting though, including body painting, textiles, entire buildings, floor tiles and pottery. It was used in the decorative palette of the Romans, as well as Medieval Church painters. The Aboriginals have painted with Ochres for over 40 000 years and the Red Indians took their name from the Red Ochre they painted themselves with.
So you see there is something quite powerful, if not mystical, about this pigment; the depth it offers and its ability to reflect light, combined with it congenial ability to mix with and complement all manner of other shades. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the yellow light wavelength is relatively long and essentially stimulating.
It hasn’t always just been sunshine and light when it comes to yellow. Still today it is often associated with crime and during the tenth century in France, the doors of traitors and criminals were painted yellow. Jewish people wore forced to wear yellow armbands in Nazi concentration camps.
However by and large yellow is associated with good things; it is supposed to stimulate our mental agility and perception, elevate and enlighten, offer joy, exuberance and optimism. What’s not to like?
Keen to read more on the history of colour? Keep an eye out for our regular feature, DECO Colour.
Currently completing her PhD, Annemi Conradie is an artist and writer who shares insight into the history of a colour in every issue of ELLE Decoration. Annemi feels that everyone should be reading more, be it books or blogs. ‘We need to broaden our minds. We also need to make more time for exploration and doing what we enjoy.’