Color surrounds us all the time in the natural world, the bright hues of flowers, the wings of butterflies, even the deep blue of a clear sky present us with an incredible display all the time. As humans began to develop a more complex, cooperative type of social structure that permitted more leisure time to follow pursuits that weren't survival related, visual art as we know it today began to take shape. However, the people of the stone age had no access to even the simplest manufacturing processes and everything that they created had to be made from media that was easily obtainable in the landscape around them.
It is likely that the very first pigments that were used by our artistic ancestors were black, made from the charred remnants of wood or bones (which would correspond to the modern colors carbon black and ivory black respectively), and possibly white from chalk if that were readily available in the immediate environment. Unfortunately, those materials are not particularly archival, so little or no record remains of their use.
The first colors that we can know for certain were used extensively in prehistoric times are the ones that we now call Earth Pigments. Earth Pigments are generally a variety of brownish yellows and reds that are found naturally occurring in clay throughout most of the world. The color comes from the iron content in the clay which has oxidized over time (rusted in effect) to produce a certain color based on environmental factors in the area where the clay is found.
Collecting the pigment is fairly simple, one just has to find a deposit, dig up the earth and sift out the non-ferrous material. The remainder will be an earthy pigment that can be surprisingly intense in color. The pigment would then be mixed with a binder, probably either spit or animal fat back in the stone age, which could then be painted onto a surface. Earth Pigments are among the most stable colors that we know—even today—so the appearance of the paintings created long ago would not have changed much over the years. The cave paintings at Lascaux and other Paleolithic sites are a testament to the longevity of artworks made with Earth Pigments alone and have survived for 30,000 years or more. The caves at Lascaux had to be closed to the public because the moisture brought in by all the tourists was causing a mold to grow underneath the paintings, potentially destroying them if left unchecked, but that was more a function of the weak binder than a problem with the pigments!
The most common type of naturally occurring iron oxide is the pigment we refer to as an ochre. Ochres come in many different color ranges, but the one we still use today is called Yellow Ochre, which is a brownish yellow with a green undertone. Yellow Ochre remains, after tens of thousands of years, one of the basic colors on every painter's palette! Ochres also come in a variety of other shades - reds, golds and even a violet hue - but deposits of those clays are much more rare. Red Ochre was a valued and sought after pigment in ancient times, possibly because of it's symbolic association with blood, and therefore life. Powdered Red Ochre pigment has been discovered in the burial sites of the Neanderthals in Europe, suggesting some sort of spiritual connection. Red Ochre and the other non-yellow shades of ochre have, in contemporary times, been largely replaced by synthetically manufactured iron oxides, usually given the names Red Oxide, Violet Oxide, etc., since the natural pigment is not that easy to come by and the oxidization process is relatively inexpensive. Naturally occurring Yellow Ochre, however, is still common enough to be found in just about every major brand of artist's paint.
The other types of Earth Pigment that are still in use today include the Siennas and the Umbers. Raw Sienna is a pigment that derives it's name from a type of iron oxide mined for many centuries near Siena, Italy. Similar to Yellow Ochre, but with greater transparency, Raw Sienna was an important part of the color palette for all of the Renaissance Masters and obtained a great reputation because of that. The reddish brown pigment, Burnt Sienna, is created by cooking Raw Sienna in an oven to produce the red mass tone and it is also a very important color in the palette of most painters even today. The veins of clay that produced the Raw Sienna pigments in Italy have been mostly used up at this point, but natural pigments with identical qualities have been found in nearby locations such as Sardinia and even in the Appalachian Mountains of the United States! Similarly, the pigment Raw Umber, a deep brown with greenish undertones that comes from a combination of iron and manganese oxides, became famous during the Renaissance when it was mined in the Italian region of Umbria, from which it derives it's name. Raw Umber can also be heated to create a variation with a reddish undertone, known as Burnt Umber, and both of these pigments also remain a standard in the palettes of contemporary painters.
So, the next time you dip your brush in an earthy color like Yellow Ochre or Raw Umber, you can feel the connection to artists back through the Renaissance and thousands of years more into the little known world of our prehistoric ancestors who used these exact same colors to give visual form to their imaginations just as you are doing today. A thought that is both humbling and uplifting all at once!
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