2 Native Paint Revealed, Red ochre

Fig 5. Stone, clay, cake and powdered red ochre. Personal collection.

Fig 5 is a small sampler of the red ochres I have.  (I have more than a hundred  individual samples, all from different parts of the country, in varying states from stone to powder.) The chunk, which is the lightest one at far upper left produces yellow ochre. It is formed into a cake, which is a fairly common method of storing pigments. While there may appear to be little variation in hue among some of these samples, when seen up close and in white light the distinctions become very apparent. When they’re used as pigment there can be dramatic differences in hue between ones that may look almost identical. This hue variation is due to place of origin, depth of deposit, age and degree of oxidation. The hue and patina are also controlled by the medium used.  When used in water medium the paint is usually very close to original color and has a soft, gouache–like patina. When mixed with salmon eggs (which was the most common medium used by NW Coast natives) the color often deepens and has a satin finish.

Fig 6. Pigments mixed with water and brushed out.

Fig 6 is a sampler of red ochre my grandsons and I dug from a  hillside blazing red in the sunlight down by Washougal, WA. These pigments have been painted out on a piece of watercolor paper with water allowing us to see the variation in color saturation through the wash.

Each of these hues was dug within ten feet of each other. The redder the hue, the closer it was to the surface indicating upper layers were subject to more rapid or longer oxidation (oxidation is simply the process which occurs when a material is exposed to oxygen). One grandson and I were taking the top layers while my other grandson was digging holes. I had no idea until I got home, cleaned and graded the bags of ochre we’d gathered that we had such a variety of hues. At first I was puzzled, but then I remembered Owen up to his elbows in holes! The browner the hue, the deeper it came from the hole and reduced exposure to oxygen.

The drum below was painted using all the different hues we dug at Washougal except for the black. The black came from inside a log being carved for a canoe. While we were planking out the interior we discovered a ring which was coated with a thin layer of soot. The tree had been hit by lightning early in its life and the next growth ring sealed in the soot, preserving it just for me for several hundred more years. I carefully brushed all the soot off into a container and use it for black paint on very special pieces of work.

Fig 7. Drum painted with all the different hues of ochre from Washougal deposit. Private collection.

A personal note: The drum is titled, “nuu chah nulth boy goes courting up the Columbia” and has a traditional nuu chah nulth traveling canoe with sails (they commonly made sails from woven cedar bark, or in a pinch from thinly split sheets of red cedar that were lashed together). The people in the canoe have their oars up showing they are friendly and requesting permission to land. Onshore is a traditional Columbia River fisherman on a platform with a dip net, catching fish.  The fish in the water are alive, waiting to be caught, while the fish in the sky are skeletal indicating they are spirit fish making the journey back to life. This design was made for my son who is nuu chah nulth, and his new wife who is Cayuse, Walla Walla and Nez Perc and whose family has fished the Columbia for centuries.

Making the drum more symbolic is the fact that we dug those pigments the day of my son’s wedding. We were racing up a narrow, winding river road, back to the house to get changed into our wedding clothes when suddenly we came around a bend and there in front of me was this spectacular hillside of RED! I screeched to a halt on the nonexistent side of the road, jumped out hollering at the boys to get out and help me. The two younger ones (8 & 10) both jumped out, asking “what? what?” while the older (16) slumped down in the seat and continued playing his video game (he’d already spent way too much time with me and knew what I was up to. Even though we were almost 4oo miles from home he wasn’t going to take a chance someone who knows him might drive by and see him out there filling doggy poop bags-unused of course-with dirt). I quickly tore off about a half a dozen doggy bags and Austin and Owen and I got down and dirty. We made it to the wedding on time, neatly dressed, but our hands were a bit red because we hadn’t had time to thoroughly scrub and bleach all the red pigment off.

I finished the drum a couple months after the wedding and had the opportunity to show it to my younger grandsons who were both amazed and impressed by all the “colors we dug”. But what they both reminded me was that we dug all that ochre on our way to the wedding and they thought that made the drum all that much more special and important. I told them until we dug that ochre I had been struggling to come up with a design for the drum but as soon as I dug it I started dreaming the design. They agree with me that this is all, what we call, “Great Magic” at work.

But then, anytime you get to play with color, experience it, live with it, there is Great Magic happening. Just imagine our lives without color; would a  cob of ripe corn taste as good if it was gray?

One Response to “2 Native Paint Revealed, Red ochre”

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  1. Joan says:

    Hello, Melonie,

    I am trying to find out more information about the blue pigments used by the Nuxalk at Bella Coola, British Columbia. I would be most grateful if you would PM me.

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