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They call me Mellow Ochre

From an early age - whether we realise it or not - we learn the basics of colour theory.

Recap: Red, Blue, and Yellow are primary colours, that when mixed in different combinations, make the following secondary colours:

I mean EVERYONE knows that Blue and Yellow make Green....But ask yourself this:

"What makes Yellow???" *

*(And to that smart ass with their ' Matter of Fact' voice saying, "Well actually, according to the RGB colour model, yellow is made via combination of green and red"....Please....Give your head a shake....)

Now when you think of the colour yellow, what comes to mind?

  • Submarines (thank the Beetles for that!)

  • Bananas

  • Lemons

  • The Sun God Helios (okay...nobody was really thinking that....were they?)

Maybe we take it for granted that we can just walk into our local art supplies shop and pick up a tube of paint labelled 'Lemon Yellow', 'Cadmium Yellow', or 'Primary Yellow'. But where exactly does this 'Yellow' come from?

Well now that I have really piqued your interest, please let me tell you! The oldest yellow pigment used by humans is none other than...drum roll please...

Yellow Ochre

from Greek ōkhros meaning pale yellow

Now back in the day, before your Warhols and Dalis, you couldn't just go to your local paint shop (or now more conveniently and purchase your yellow ochre in bulk.

Instead, it was derived from coloured earth containing minerals such as goethite, akageneite, and lepidocrocite (don't worry as I don't know what these are or how to pronounce them either...), and bound with agents such as water and saliva.

Used since prehistoric times the yellow ochre pigment was transformed into paints and dyes. The earliest traces have been found in South Africa's Blombos Cave (estimated 75,000 years ago), France's Pech Merle and Lascaux Caves (estimated 29,000 and 17,300 years ago respectively), and of course Ancient Egypt's tomb paintings (1550 BC).

Maybe its the nerd in me, but I think I may be taking a trip to France early next year to visit some caves.....

Since then, some of the world's greatest artists (chosen by yours truly) have used yellow ochre in their paintings. Lets take a look:

Mark Rothko

Ochre on Red on Red

Known for his large scale colour field paintings, this is considered as one of Rothko's greatest pieces. The composition is harmonious and pure. The colours are masterfully blended. The scale is dramatic. The rich colours sing to the viewer, and draw them in close. The feeling of standing in front of a Rothko is a feeling like no other.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Mona Lisa

Originally known for his graffiti artwork, Basquiat's style evolved over the years, combining symbols, words, and both historical and modern images. Mona Lisa, framed by a warm ochre is Basquiat's ultimate fusion of old and new. Renaissance meets Modernism. Classical meets Rogue.

Barnett Newman

The Third

Newman can easily be recognised by his trademark, the 'zip'. Featured in the adjacent painting are two thin ochre vertical lines, know as the 'zip' that run down the length of the canvas as though separating the fields of colour. However, Newman noted that zip does not divide the canvas, but rather merges both sides.

All of the above paintings beautifully showcase yellow ochre. It's something that the eye fixates on. It's warm. Comforting. Energetic. Radiant. Yet soft.

Now that you have been exposed to a few compositions featuring yellow ochre, what do you think?

Could it very well be your new favourite colour?

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