Ochre Colour Palette

​Basing a palette around the colour ochre is not only easy, it’s been done since prehistory! Ochre – also known as ocher, or, when it contains a lot of hematite to create a reddish-yellow colour, ruddle, is a natural pigment derived from clay earth pigment. It is made from a combination of clay, sand, and other particles of earth, suspended in ferric oxide.

The name “ochre” comes from the Ancient Greek “okhros”, meaning “pale”. Yet, despite the misleading name, ochre is actually a wide variety of earth pigments used since time immemorial to paint with, and comes in a variety of colours, from as pale as a turmeric-like yellow to as dark as burnt sienna, and even a colour known as purple ochre.

Turmeric powder

All of these have been used to create art for a long as humans have been employing pigments as part of illustration, and make of a vital portion of the colours used in cave paintings. While ochre as a pigment can represent any combination of colours, each containing some level of yellow, we’ll be focusing on ochre a colour in its own right when it comes to creating a colour palette based on it, specifically by examining it as a rustic, brownish-yellow.

​If you’ve ever seen any paleolithic cave art, whether it be in a museum or looking at pictures of it online, you’ve almost certainly seen yellow ochre at play. Most famously, the famous paintings of round-bodied horses at the Lascaux caves in France are painted with yellow ochre, the pigment used to paint the top and sides of the animals on the cave wall.

Because these paints were made using natural pigments, likely suspended in fat or oil of some kind, they can even be regarded as the first use of oil paints! Unlike classical or modern oil painting, however, it is evident that these forms do not use as much layering, but instead rely on techniques of foreshortening and depth that are remarkable, considering just how ancient they are.

For our first example of the colours that can be paired alongside yellow ochre to great effect, we need not look further from these cave paintings: on the surface of these caves, we can see brownish reds and browns so dark they verge on black, used as outlines and shading, as well as creamy white chalk used to lighten areas of the painting. If you’d like to capture this prehistoric simplicity, as well as the storied history of the colour and all its implications have for the field of art and human development, incorporating these simple colours in tandem is a brilliant way to allude to the Lascaux caves, as well as the many times these paints have been used throughout time, by paleolithic and modern humans alike.

ochre colours
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lascaux

​This all being said, there are many more ways to use yellow ochre without it being an object of history books and painters thousands of years in the past. For example, being an earth pigment means that yellow ochre has a distinct personality to it, perfect for representing natural forms, like yellowing leaves, or the crest of mountains covered in pines, making it an ideal colour to have as a baseline when painting landscapes of all sorts. It can represent the yellow sand of a desert, the brambles of a scrubland, or even the yellow-green leaves of a Mediterranean olive grove, each with a kind of style and depth unique to natural pigments made from the earth itself.

mustard yellow
burnt orange

Having such a high sand and clay content means that the colour has great variety to it, and high quality ochre may even have speckling or imperfections within it, making it an altogether unique experience to paint with. For these experiences, consider pairing ochre with vibrant greens and brilliant blues, even searching for similarly unique paints, like blue oil paint made from lapis lazuli, copper, or cobalt oxide.

​Ochre, being a yellow colour, is considered a warm tone. Despite this, it is also a relatively neutral type of yellow, containing within it shades of orange and brown that, despite being warm tones in and of themselves, serve to make it a more mellow shade, one that can be used to great extent without it becoming overwhelming.

yellow dry maple
Photo by Kadri Vosumae

For these reasons, it’s a very unique colour that can actually be used to great effect in interior and exterior decorations. Throw pillows and indoor carpets, for example, go very well in ochre, as well as any other textile, so long as it has a distinct texture and feel to it. Heavy fabrics, brocades and wools of all kind can be used in all shades of ochre to create art pieces with plenty of character, which compliment neutrally-coloured walls and furniture.

sewing materials on gray textile
Photo by Caroline Feelgood

Ochre can also be implemented as paint for interior walls, so long as the walls have texture, just as is the case with textiles. The many colours within ochre, orange and brown being key among them, play off of texture very well, creating a palette distinct in and of itself all in one colour.

​All in all, ochre goes well with a variety of colours. it being such a key pigment used throughout time to create many different and distinct forms of art, from cave paintings to being used to dye cloth, but, in general, it goes particularly well with colours of high saturation.

Consider pairing it with cream tones, particularly ones with great depth, other high-saturation reds and jewel-toned blues and greens. Or even just by itself, in different situations that allow it and its many different interior colours to shine through.

Having been used for as long as human beings have been painting with pigments, you’ll find that there are few uses of ochre that aren’t tried and true as this point, including all combinations with other colours. So doing your research to see what’s out there and what people recommend using best is key. However, it is also vital to remember that, just because a colour has been around for as long as ochre has, doesn’t mean that it can’t be used to make a colour palette that is new, unique, and refreshing.