In Newfoundland and Labrador, red ochre has been used traditionally for three main purposes: as a pigment by indigenous groups; as a preservative for marine textiles (sails, ropes, nets); and as a pigment for the preparation of red ochre paint used extensively on outbuildings and vernacular fishing structures throughout the province. This article outlines the history of red ochre, compares the use of fish, seal, and linseed oil, and traces the development and the decline of red ochre paint.
A History of Red Ochre
The word “ochre” refers to both a natural clay earth pigment and the name of the colours produced by this pigment. In Newfoundland and Labrador, it has been spelled variously as ochre, oker, oaker, or ocher. In its mineral form, it is known as hematite, while ochre pigment is usually a mixture of clay and sand, with varying amounts of Iron(III) oxide (ferric oxide Fe2O3) ranging between 20% and 70%. Ochre pigment ranges in colour from yellow to deep orange or brown. Red ochre contains unhydrated hematite, whereas yellow ochre contains hydrated hematite. The reddish colour in ochre pigment can either be natural, or some yellow ochres can be transmuted into red ochres through various firing/heating processes, as described here:
Red ochre was mined directly from the earth, or it could be made by calcining yellow ochre. Much of the red ochre used during the late eighteenth century was probably made from yellow ochre rather than dug up as red ochre. Many painters probably burned or calcined their own pigments rather than buying it already processed because they could then be sure the ochre was pure and could also make it as “light or as dark” as they desired, depending on how long they kept it exposed to the heat (Penn 11).
Anthropologist Ernst E. Wreschner (631) has stated that “prehistory has produced evidence for two meaningful regularities in human evolution: tool making and the collection and use of ochre.” He has further argued that it “is possible that the transformation of a yellow stone into a red one was viewed as magic – a view perhaps reinforced by the fact that when rubbed and brought into contact with liquid it was the color of dried blood, meat, or fruit and berries” (632). Zilhão et al. have argued that the perforated and pigment-stained marine shells found at Neandertal-associated sites in Iberia, dated to as early as approximately 50,000 years ago, show evidence of being dyed with ochre for non-functional purposes, “and suggests instead the kind of inclusion ‘for effect’ that one would expect in a cosmetic preparation” (1027).
Early artists were adept at putting the many varieties of ochre to use. As an example, the great Paleolithic paintings of Lascaux Cave near the village of Montignac, France, were created using twelve different pigments. These ranged in hue from pale yellow to black and were mixed with naturally high calcium content cave water to ensure good adhesion and great durability (see Leroi-Gourhan). Similar ochre pigments were much prized in antiquity. Classical literature presents a wealth of information regarding the nature, properties, and wide range of applications for the prized and often hematite-based red pigment known as miltos, including its applications in shipbuilding, carpentry, and medicine (Photos-Jones 359). Greek philosopher Theophrastus noted the difference between artificial and natural miltos, writing:
The invention belongs to Cydias, who is said to have grasped it through noticing that, when a general stores was destroyed by fire, half-burnt ochre had turned crimson. New pots luted with clay are placed in a furnace. When the pots are thoroughly exposed to the fire, they cause the ochre to be baked, and the more they are burnt the darker and more glowing the ochre becomes (qtd in Photos-Jones 361).
Red ochre was used as a paint pigment or colourant in everything from Roman wall plasterwork (Bugini et al.), to early Irish Medieval wall-paintings (McGrath), to the 18th-century work-in-oils of English portrait artist Thomas Bardwell (Talley and Groen). As long as humans have been painting things, red ochre has been one of the ingredients in the artisan’s toolbox.