Tag Archives: ochre

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.  https://clearwellcaves.com/about-us/

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.


Yellow Stone Blue Sheep

23 Aug


August Tawe source

Husb and I had a couple of days away in mid-Wales and drove back along the old unnamed road between Trecastell and Tafarn-y-Garreg in the Brecon Beacons where we stopped near the source of the River Tawe. We only had time for a short walk so we followed a dry stream bed down the hill and came across patches of bright yellowy brown. There were two types, one a fairly hard stone and the other a softer, crumbly clay. I left a coin in exchange – just in case there’s one of the Gwragedd Annwn thereabouts – and brought them home to try and make usable pigments with them.

That’s my weekend sorted! I’ll link this with my work in the FIRE Lab at Swansea University.

blue sheep

And then we saw some bright blue sheep!





My Geographic Palette #5 – Australian Ochre

17 Aug

ochre 9

This Australian Ochre is the fifth pigment I’m trying out from my geographic palette – plants and minerals from different places that I’m converting into paint and/or ink. I’m using them to develop work that I’m doing with Swansea University’s FIRE Lab project, which brings together science and the arts to do research and engagement along Swansea’s River Tawe. The ochre is in the little bag at the bottom of the picture.


I was very moved to be gifted this Australian ochre which was collected by Aunty Anna Duncan, a Gomeroi/Kamilaroi artist. She gave the ochre to researcher Emily O’Gorman to bring to Swansea and collected it from a dry river bed near Terri Hei Hei (part of her Country) in north-western New South Wales, a special area that includes very old grinding grooves near a long-dry creek, a birthing tree, some grave sites, and a colonial-Aboriginal mission. Aunty Anna collected the ochre in the traditional way to ensure that it is spiritually safe. I am honoured to receive it and excited to use it.


I put a couple of the smaller fragments into a small pestle and mortar (bought in Pakistan and marble I think) and crushed them – they are much harder than I was expecting and there was a lot of grit in the powder at the end which I think was the marble not the ochre!!!



I looked up some tips for how to turn it into paint – traditionally it is ground up and mixed with spittle or blood, but I decided to adapt a recipe for printing ink from Shannon Yost and added some gin and water to the powder, mixing it well. Then I mixed in a dob of Japanese Nori paste, which is made from seaweed. Finally, I put some of the rather stiff mixture into a small pot and added more water to make it thin enough to use with a brush.


ochre 7

I did a quick brushwork sketch based on some sketchbook drawings inspired by culverts I had visited in the Brecon Beacons a few weeks ago with colleagues in the FIRE Lab team. It worked beautifully – the pigment is thin enough to flow but thick enough to hold the brushstrokes and give a wide variation of density and colour. Well chuffed. I used a Langdon watercolour paper, 300 gsm and quite heavily textured.


Here’s a link to one of the FIRE Lab blogs – this is about a regular Twitter game about Dams.



16 Aug


What am I going to do with this little lot then? Something to do with my geographic palette …….




My Geographic Palette #1 – Charcoal

21 Jul

charcoal 2


This is my first tryout with my geographic palette, a drawing based on a sketch I did en plein air on a field trip with colleagues from Swansea University’s FIRE Lab a couple of months ago when we went off exploring culverts up in the Brecon Beacons.


The charcoal I bought a few years back when I visited John Ruskin’s house, Brantwood, at Coniston Water in the Lake District. At the time they made charcoal from willow grown on the estate, using traditional methods. It’s quite crumbly and benefits from being used with a heavyweight textured paper. I’m using a 300gsm Bockingford here and I’m pleased with the results, lots of tonal variation depending on the pressure I’ve used. It’s only a small drawing, I’m using an A5 size sketchbook, spiral bound from Pink Pig in Barnsley, and I’m abstracting away from the original which is starting to excite me.





My Geographic Palette

20 Jul

Geographic Palette small

I’m thinking about how to develop from the sketches I’ve done on a couple of field trips with colleagues in the FIRE Lab team and, as the research project is about ecosystems and environment, I thought I’d try as much as possible to use natural earths, plants and minerals in my artworks, so I’m putting together a geographic palette. I’ve made a pretty good start already, with graphite, lapis lazuli, ochre, charcoal, Bideford Black, some red sandstone and my own home-made walnut ink.

Over the next few days I’ll be researching and writing about them so watch this space …. 🙂




Just In Case….

2 Jun


ochre 1

I have been out on field trips up along the course of the River Tawe recently, with colleagues from Swansea University’s FIRE Laboratory project. We spent some time examining culverts under the road that runs alongside the Tawe near its source up in the Brecon Beacons. There were differences between the culverts; different plants, different environments, different creatures. Most of the stream beds were made up of plain grey stones but I came across this one, towards the end, which glowed with speckles of a vivid terracotta orange.

ochre 2

I pulled out a few pieces and rubbed them against a dry grey rock and the soft pigment marked the surface easily. I collected a few to bring back, checking them for little creatures, and then a threw a few coins into the stream, as a token to appease any Gwragedd Annwn who might be hanging out in the crystal waters. Just in case …..

A Bit Of Vintage

29 Apr

18 Kathe vintage

And ….. back to my experiments with home-made printing ink. After disappointing results with a lightweight Japanese Hosho paper, I tried a lovely vintage British paper, J Green & Sons sold by the Vintage Paper Co. Above, I used the ink with a rubber stamp made from a design I did of the artist Käthe Kollwitz, applied with a roller (brayer) and stamped by hand. On the left is a slightly dampened paper, spritzed on the back with a water spray bottle. On the right is one onto dry paper. The damp one is the best.

17 Frida vintage

Then I tried the ink with a vinyl block based on a screenprint I did of artist Frida Kahlo, applied with a roller and the print taken using a traditional Japanese bamboo baren. Again, the print onto dampened paper (right) is better than the one on dry (left). Pretty good results but still one more paper to try. More tomorrow ……..



I have put my series of drawings en plein air of ancient Welsh monuments on Artfinder.  If you want to see more, please click on the image below or the Artfinder link at the top right of this page. This one is the legendary grave of Saint Elfys (Elvis) in Pembrokeshire, not for from the Presceli Mountains. Elfys? Presceli? Elvis Presley? Coincidence? hhhmmmm

St Elvis

Oily Scribbling

28 Mar

28 oilbar

I went out of my comfort zone again tonight at life drawing and used my new yellow ochre oil bar to lay a scribbled base on top of an A3 card I’d prepared with 2 coats of acrylic gesso. I’d normally work with very fine pens, doing lots of linear detail. I prefer oilbars to liquid paint because I can draw with them, but there’s no chance of doing fine work.  I worked over the ochre ground with a black carbon bar and some chalky pastels in red, green and blue. The oily ochre base made the pastels glide over the surface beautifully giving loads of texture. Finally, I scribbled some highlights with a white oilbar.

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