• Lynn Grant

Color From Down Under

December 27, 2018


I’ve always been fascinated by color and the role it plays in our lives. As a artist and designer, I frequently choose bold, saturated colors for my work. It was no surprise, then, that I was drawn to this interesting book title Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay. On the cover, a paint palette displays an array of paint pigments. Clearly, this book was for me.



The first chapter titled “Ochre” tells the story of the world's first paint color. Finlay traveled around the world seeking stories of color’s origins. She writes that ochre has been “used on every inhabited continent since painting began, and it has been around ever since, on the palettes of almost every artist in history.”


Found in central Australia, ochre was considered sacred by Aboriginal tribes for over forty thousand years. Until relatively recently, it was still used in tribal rituals as body art and painted on cave walls. Ochres contain a lot of metal properties so that, when heated, they change from deep yellow-orange, to red, and then to black. Most of the ancient paintings found in the desert region use only these colors with the addition of white.

In its natural form, certain types of ochre had hints of mercury which gave the color a luminous quality. Since it was used in ritualized body painting, Finlay writes, the pigment gave native Australians that “much-coveted shiny appearance that filled them with delight and admiration when contemplating their noble selves." It also made them "the envy of many tribes.”


Finlay goes on to write that humans’ age-old love for glittery objects points to a belief that, ’light is the manifestation of the glory of the sacred”. This seems valid, as shiny ochres appear in religious art from many cultures around the world. Apparently, It isn’t only magpies who covet things that bling.