Beer, Poop And Corpses

22 Nov


Hiya. Rosie Scribblah here with another ten minute podcast, so grab a cuppa tea and a biscuit and sit back. This one is about the colour Brown and most of it I read about in Victoria Finlay’s book “Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox” and also some bits and pieces from round and about.

First of all a joke from when I was a kid. What’s brown and sticky? A stick. Okay, I’ll get my coat.

Pink Floyd

Brown is a bit of an odd colour. It’s all around us in nature, but it’s not on the colour spectrum. If you think about the album cover of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon”, that’s a spectrum. No brown on there.

Now here’s a bit of colour theory. Most colours we see are either primary – red, blue and yellow, or secondary which are mixtures of two primaries. So, red and yellow give us the secondary colour orange; yellow and blue make the secondary colour green; and blue and red mix up the secondary colour purple. Browns are made by mixing two secondary colours, not two primary ones. So brown is a bit odd.

Yum Yum Chewing Gum

When I think of brown I remember a rhyme we kids used to chant in junior school, it goes “Yum Yum Chewing Gum, Stick It Up …..” I won’t go any further because it gets unpleasant. But brown IS a colour that’s associated with unpleasant things.

The other thing I remember about brown, is going to art galleries and wandering through room after room of 18th century British landscapes which were almost all brownish. Which isn’t realistic at all. The British landscape is full of greens and blues, whites and purples, yellows and hot pinks in Spring and Summer, moving into oranges and russets and reds in Autumn. And I never really liked these nasty looking brownish paintings, they looked a bit ychi but I could never put my finger on it. Then I found out that the brown paint they used back in those days was made from ground-up human corpses. That’s right. Dead people. Dead people smeared all over the walls of the major galleries in our country.

Ancient Egypt

How did that happen? When Europeans started digging up Ancient Egypt from the 1700s onward, they dug up huge amounts of mummies. And someone got this idea that if they ground up these mummified corpses and mixed the powdered cadavers with a bit of oil, it would make a rather smashing brown paint that would be loved by landscape painters for the next couple of centuries. They were selling “Mummy Brown” in Paris from as early as 1712.

Ychyfi!!!!!! That is so gross!!!!!

Now, the Egyptians mummified their dead because they thought their Ka or spirit double would return at some point. And go back into their bodies. So, if they returned now, they’d have a job finding their ground up bodies smeared on paintings right across Europe. 

As well as gross, it’s also immoral. Rich countries robbing the graves of poorer countries and stealing their ancestors is beyond the limits of decency. It’s disgusting.

It wasn’t nice to make or use either. It’s a thick bitumen-like gooey stuff and there’s a story about a delivery of Mummy Brown from the early 1800s. And I quote ….

 “It arrived in a mass, containing and permeating rib bone and so on – of a strong smell resembling Garlic and Ammonia – grinds easily – works rather pasty – unaffected by damp and foul air”.

But let’s get away from all that nastiness.

There are loads of shades of brown paint, from the palest beige to the deepest sepia.

But brown is also very common for dyes and inks as well, because there are loads of things in nature that make brown dye.


After the 18th century most brown ink was made from sepia which comes out of cuttlefish when they’re scared. Go BOO to a cuttlefish and there’s your ink.

There’s also walnut husk ink – I make my own and it’s gorgeous. That’s made form the fleshy fruit around the walnut, not the walnut itself. If you look at a walnut tree, it’s covered in smallish fruit looking like apples and that’s what you use to make the ink. And then there’s oak apples or oak galls, which are growths on oak trees caused by wasps and they get made into ink too.

So where else does brown come from?

Well, going back even further, brown was made from the earth, from coloured clay soils. There are loads of places to dig these up all over the world.

Umber and Ochre

There’s Umber. Which is a natural dark brown made up of an earthy pigment of iron oxide (rust) and manganese oxide. It’s named after Umbria, a mountainous region of Italy where it was historically produced. And has been used by humans since the neolithic period and it appears in cave drawings.

Then there’s Ochre, which comes from the Greek word meaning ‘pale yellow’ but it’s come to mean something browner, or earthier. And it’s probably the one people have heard about the most – it was the first colour paint. It is the colour of the oldest cave paintings. It has been used all over the world since painting began and it is still used today.

In classical times the best ochre came from the Black Sea city of Sinope, in what is now Turkey. It was so valuable it was stamped with a special seal and was known as Sealed Sinope. Later the words sinopia or sinoper became general terms for reddish brown ochre.

“Red Indians”

The first European settlers in North America called the indigenous native people “Red Indians” because they painted themselves with ochre. They believed that it protected against evil because it symbolised the good elements of the world. It also kept them warm in winter and insect free in the summer.

There are big ochre mines in the Luberon in southern France and even more famous deposits in Sienna in Tuscany.  Cennino Cennini wrote about finding ochre in Tuscany when he was a boy.  He found yellow, reddish brown, blue and white. “These colours showed up in the earth the way a wrinkle shows in the face of a man or a woman” he said.


The longest continuous painting tradition in the world is in Australia where cave painters were using ochre more than forty thousand years ago. Recently this ancient tradition has become one of the most exciting art movements in the world. It is also one of the most secretive and is protected very heavily.  

A bit closer to home, there’s plenty of ochre in Britain. A couple of months ago I went to Clearwell Caves in Gloucestershire, where ochre is still mined and ground up for pigment, that’s part of a tradition going back over 4,000 years.

And even closer to home there’s the Red Lady of Paviland.

Who is actually a bloke. Who is more of a brown than a true red. But there we are.

He is from the old Stone Age, the Upper Paleolithic, buried here in Wales around 35,000 years ago. The bones were discovered in 1823 by William Buckland in an archaeological dig at Goat’s Hole Cave (Paviland cave) — one of the limestone caves between Port Eynon and Rhossili on the Gower Peninsula. It was a very exciting find at the time and he’s now in a museum in Oxford, far from his original burial ground. Which is a pity. We’d like him back, please.

Bristol Stool Chart

And here are a few weird facts to end up with.

  1. The world’s first colorimeter, or a colour scale, was invented to distinguish different shades of brown by Joseph Lovibond. He designed it to tell the difference between grades of beer.
  2. The Bristol Stool Chart, that’s stool as in poop, is a diagnostic medical tool designed to classify the form of human poop into seven categories. It was developed at the Bristol Royal Infirmary in 1997.
  3. There’s a bit of a modern craze for making art from poop. Chris Ofili famously made paintings using elephant dung, an artist called Katsu made a portrait of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in poop and even Pablo Picasso painted with his young daughter’s poop, as it had a unique texture and ochre colour.

And that’s it from me. Thanks for listening to my podcast about the colour brown. Next time – oooh, I don’t know, what shall I do? Come and join me and find out. Bye. Hwyl Fawr.


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