ochre, from Old World to natural world

The first time I ever heard the word ochre was in the French countryside, as a teenager. In fact, I had never really seen the color until my host explained the stone walls we were seeing around the village would be described as ochre. The images above show my first views of it. I especially love it with the blue-grays of the Vieux Lyon street where I snapped the pic on the left.

Years later, in the beginning of my illustration adventures, I often began my paintings against an ochre base. I’d begin with a wash of Raw Sienna and glazing liquid to tone my paper. It gave a nice glow to skin tones, and an overall warmth the image.

I tend to have love affairs with certain colors. Ochre appeared often in my life for about a decade. I chose that color for carpeting, and painted the living room a beautiful camel. Other things just came to me already that color: my light wood kitchen floor, discovered under several layers of vinyl; my dog whose unusual mix of ancestors has given her a mango-blond coat.

But now, suddenly, I seem to be moving away from yellow-based colors. Colors have their moments in time, and then they too closely mark an era—we’re just plain tired of seeing them and crave novelty. (Exhibit A: Mauve was widely used in the 80’s. I think we may all need a generation to recover.)

This fall, while finishing up one house-painting project, and not really in need of another, I stopped and looked at my back door. It had originally been white, and I had many years ago painted it an ochre color the paint company had named Golden Retriever. The color had faded a bit with time, and looked grungy and dull. I just couldn’t stand another day of it being that color; it needed to be red, immediately.

(I imagine my kids will write a tell-all when they’re older: “I Couldn’t Stand Another Day of That Door Not Being Red”: Growing up in the Paint Fumes of Our Color-Obsessed Mother.)

So I painted the door red. It took many coats, given that red paints are extremely transparent. But it was worth it. An observer remarked, “Wow, that’s like, ‘Ba-BAM!'” Exactly what a door should say!

Every color has its place. Ochre isn’t right for my door or walls, not anymore. The color is gorgeous in paintings, prairie grasses, and honey. It may even have a place in my design work, for the right situation, though probably in small amounts surrounded by cool tones.