Red Ochre

In the early dawn of time, humans started using charcoal and the various ochres and clays to paint designs on their bodies, clothing and the walls of caves. The first palette used was various shades of black, white, red and yellow.

Red, obtained from iron oxide, seemed to be the most important color. It was easily obtainable and also carried significant meaning. Around 30,000 BC in Europe, Southern Russia, Japan and the Great Lakes area of America, red ochre or iron oxide was used to paint the skulls and breasts of human corpses. In some areas that predate that time, whole corpses were painted red. Perhaps in red ochre early humans saw a mirror of life sustaining blood and thus used it in all scenes depicting life, as well as using it to accompany the deceased on their voyage to the heavens. It represented the iron rich blood that flow through our own veins.

Some of the earliest recorded textiles were colored red with iron oxide. Linen fragments found in Egyptian tombs from around 2323-2150 BC were dyed pink with iron oxide and in Egypt it was used as a colorant for cloth until around 1304 BC. In Mesopotamia, woven fabric dating from 2500 BC was dyed with a brilliant red ochre. In all civilizations around the world red ochre has been used and is still being used today as a dye and a paint.  It is also currently being used in cosmetics, your lipstick and blush may actually be colored with red ochre.

You cannot think of the beautiful red earth of Australia without thinking of red ochre. In my part of the world, there are the red clay hills of Georgia and the multicolored mesas of the Southwest. So, look around where you live, are there colorful soils and clays? Experiment with them!


The sources of my information come from various books. The ones used in this post are:

Madder Red, A history of luxury and trade by Robert Chenciner

The Art of Dyeing in the History of Mankind by Franco Brunello

Color, A natural history of the palette by Victoria Findley (one of my favorites)