There was a point in my life at which I despised Yellow Ochre. Not simply disliked, or politely avoided, but I outright banned it from my palettes and turned away from its use. Ochre, it always seemed to me, was a step or two a way from being mud, or baby shit, or an unknown oily sludge leaking from a pipe. At its sexiest, I thought it could only achieve the vibrance of a Kraft envelope or a dried on mustard stain.
I can certainly say that my opinions of Yellow Ochre have softened considerably over the years – much like my opinions of all the earthy earth hues. Nothing affected my views more clearly and powerfully than spending a good deal of time looking and copying a few works of Francisco de Goya. Witness the ‘Witches Sabbath’ above – a compact and tangled weaving of ochres yellow and brown.
As I grow older and hopefully less un-wise, I more and more appreciate how much ochre connects us with the history of painting. Known by its contemporary color index of PY43, Yellow Ochre, hematite, is at its heart still simply mud, so exposed and willing to be available to humans for our image making.
Where other yellows, in their citrus and flowery pitches tend to excite and illuminate, in contrast Yellow Ochre opens itself and welcomes blues, greens, reds, violets with equal calm and measured breathes.
There is something very stable about Yellow Ochre that seems to substantiate its origins as an oxide of iron. It can hold things together and up like thick girders – especially when balanced between deep blacks and trebly whites. It holds up backgrounds so well for almost any other color adding a pleasant warmth and activeness just right for quick studies in cool ivory blacks.
Yellow Ochre’s muddiness is also more and more endearing to me. This is perhaps nowhere more distinct then in its use in the cartographic points and patterns of Aboriginal painting. Ochre’s rocky natural solidity forms intense pools of earth in those paintings. These always evoke in me thoughts of earth, of walking, and of the feel of the ground beneath my feet.
Learning to love Ochre is about learning to love the mud. The dirtiness of it, the squishy textures, the earth all over. It is easy to get caught up in slick colors, brightly lit neons and fierce fluorescents, but these kinds of colors are often used as distractions from what is in front of you, from the earth and the grime. Yet the dirtiness these colors can reflect are not in the substances themselves, they are very much, and very clearly in our psychology of the colors. Our mental state determines if we recoil or play, but the ochres, like the dirt around our towns is just a part of being here.