“Thou canst not stir a flower, without troubling of a star.” – Francis Thompson
The most common pigment on earth is red ochre. It is also the oldest known natural pigment. We see it along with carbon from charcoal in the cave paintings of the late stone age, like those at Lascaux. Unlike colors made from animal or vegetable sources that would have faded over time, red ochre remains in the cave drawings done by our prehistoric relatives. This sedimentary color, rich in iron and taken from the earth serves to remind us of our interconnectedness with the stars.
|Supernova photographed by NASA.|
When we paint with sedimentary ochres, we can say that we are painting with stardust. The element of iron in our soils is the result of the lives and deaths of many stars. Stars run on nuclear fusion – fusing heavier and heavier elements together as they burn through each element formed. Each time they exhaust an element, such as hydrogen or helium, they contract, driving up the gravity pressure to form a new, heavier element and new source of fuel.
Eventually, after billions of years and under terrific gravitational pressure, a star may exhaust its nuclear fuel as it contracts, leaving only iron, with an atomic weight of 56. When that happens, the star can contract violently, creating a massive shock wave as it heads for a cataclysmic supernova explosion. The resulting pressures may form the valuable elements of aluminum, gold, zinc, silver, copper. Finally, as the star dies in a spectacular supernova, the explosion scatters the elements across the universe, some of which get captured in the gravity wells of planets and wind up in the planetary crust.
When the iron in the soil combines with the oxygen in our atmosphere, it can form iron oxides (red ochre). It is that red ochre that primitive man mined for the earliest known forms of art. Synthetic red iron oxide pigments began being manufactured in laboratories in the 18th century and are called Mars Red. However, whenever we visit the little Provencal town of Roussillon, where ochre was mined, we stop to buy bags of the raw ochres from a shop there. Back in our studios we can mix them with either oil, acrylic or watercolor binders to make our own “cave paints”. In doing so, we are reminded that we aren’t just using an abstract material called “paint” – we are painting with the light of a thousand stars.
(Victoria Finlay’s wonderful new book, The Brilliant History of Color in Art, offers many fascinating stories about the origins of color.)
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–John and Ann