In order to create a terracotta-based colour palette, you first need to know what exactly is terracotta. Terracotta, in terms of art, is an earthy red-brown colour, with a distinct toothsome texture unique to unglazed clay. The clay, when fired at least once, is porous, giving the surface a pockmarked quality that is entirely terracotta-esque, and is often represented in paints by using speckling or mottling materials.
“Terracotta” is an Italian term literally meaning “baked earth”, and comes from the Latin form of the same term, and in art history, it is used to describe any earthenware that has not been wheel-thrown, but rather sculpted by hand. Often having gone unglazed as part of the firing process, terracotta as a clay sculpting technique that comes in a variety of colours – from the Chinese terracotta, which has a much finer texture and chalkier colour, to vividly red terracotta sculptures using clay with much more red pigmentation.
The traditional idea of terracotta in the cultural mindset, however, is the Ancient Greek version of terracotta, which lands somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Being more red than brown, and with a distinct earthenware, open-pore texture, depicted in paints with speckling and an irregular, salmon-coloured profile. It can be dark red with orange undertones, or it can be a much brighter red, with distinct white and cream overtones – the fact that it is so varied and so textured is part of its appeal!
Because terracotta has such a strong association with earth, history, and archeology, the most commonplace use for it in painting or other forms of visual arts is through evocation of classical themes. Due to this reason, two of the most common pairings that go alongside terracotta red are solid, charcoal black, and an off-white, similar to eggshell or chalk. This is because two of the many methods of painting on clay in Ancient Greece was black slip (liquid clay) painted on a surface of red clay to create red images on black backgrounds, or a rudimentary white paint applied to red clay to create small details, like the eyes on figures. As a result, the combination of terracotta red, off-white, and solid black, creates a visible allusion to the ancient classical world, and lends, especially to two-dimensional art, a timeliness and simplicity that is too iconic to deny the appeal of.
That all being said, using red terracotta paint is by no means a thing of the past, and use of it can be just as fresh and modern as any other warm colour. Terracotta red is a deeply earthy colour, used to depict the ground, or the trunks of trees. Terracotta’s uneven nature, with darker and lighter speckles interwoven throughout, come to life as small, unseen pebbles embedded into the earth. Or the knots and whorls on the rough-hewn bark of a tree. For this reason, it may be just as handy to incorporate terracotta red paint with darker browns and lighter beiges, to use it in conjunction with thick layers of oil paint to create a visible texture on the surface of your canvas, crafting tree bark so textured that it invites the viewer to run their fingers across it and feel the grooves.
So far, we’ve discussed oil paints and clay, but what about some of the other mediums that the average artist has at their disposal?
Well, when it comes to bringing terracotta into the digital form, the profile of it as a colour changes completely. Whereas, with more physical paints, which have more texture and weight to represent the physical origins of the colour, digital painting can quickly transform it from an earth tone into something vibrant, vivacious, and full of vim and verve. But brushes are available that consist of various texture effects, which can help maintain the same natural feeling.
When used with different opacities, different layer styles, and various colours that have more saturation and glow, the fact that terracotta is firmly within the warm end of the colour wheel becomes starkly clear. While it will never be as bright as, say, a neon cyan, it can definitely be incorporated as the lower end of the spectrum, used to ground brighter blues and even light greens, which, in turn, work to give it more depth.
Because of this, terracotta, when used on the right background, can make for a great surface when it comes to papercraft, adding a lot of texture and life to a wedding invitation or a business card.
Lastly, we should talk about terracotta and interior decoration. Being a colour that is so rich and intense, it might not be your first thought when it comes to painting the walls of your home, but, especially when used in conjunction with cream shades and more grounded colours, it is a surprisingly neutral red, making your interior appear bigger and more soothing than more intense shades would.
It is also a very strong choice for textiles, giving them a chunky, blocky knit appearance and an old-fashioned flare, being a very functional choice for throw pillows, knitted afghans, or wall carpets. Going particularly well with other classical influences, like breezy white curtains or copper silverware, it is a very chique choice at the moment that you might very well like to experiment with.
With all of these potential uses in mind, it is needless to say that terracotta is a colour with classical origins that is far from stuck in the past. Used vibrantly in all kinds of designs, both traditional and digital, it goes well with both its more traditional pairings – black and white – as well as more saturated greens and cyans, and can be used in painting to great effect.
Considering how long it has been popular, and how long-lasting its popularity is, even to this day, it is no wonder that terracotta comes so naturally to use in many fields. And with the information we’ve gone over here, there’s no reason for you not to pick it up and try it yourself, whether it be using paint, textile, or even clay, as its name would imply.