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I have always liked history, and I applaud television series like The Borgias, The Crown, Downton Abbey, etc., for the ways in which they employ art, music, story, and cinema to recreate history. I have recently completed the watching of all 3 seasons of The Borgias, and perhaps because I am also teaching a class about shading with colored pencil, I noticed the casual mentioning of Umbria.

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I found myself thinking that the color Umber must come from Umbria, which I discovered is in the Papal States, just beneath Siena [as in the color Burnt Sienna].

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I began reading about the mining of these two earth-like pigments and before long, I found myself considering again how men, since the period of their having lived in caves, have sought to devise means to express themselves visually through variations of color.

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Cave Art Above – From Lascaux – 16,000 Years Ago

The cave art at Lascaux, France, was discovered in 1940 by 4 teenage boys,

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“Red, Yellow, Black, White, Brown. These were the colors of the first known art in the world. You could say that this is what you’d expect; they are, after all, colors found easily in nature. Red and yellow ochre are found naturally where the ground is full of iron. Black can be made by burning a stick into charcoal or collecting soot from a fire. White comes from chalk. And browns is just the color of dirt. If these materials are pounded into powder and mixed with animal fat or some other binder to to make them stick, then, with the right atmospheric conditions, they can stay n limestone walls for thousands of years. But  that isn’t the full story of the colors of what became known as the Lascaux Caves.” Finlay, Victoria. The Brilliant History of Color in Art, p. 9.

Most of the figures on the walls of the Lascaux Cave are animals, but there are also abstract symbols and representations of humans at Lascaux:

“Of the animals, equines predominate [364]. There are 90 paintings of stags. Also represented are cattle, bison, felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human. Among the most famous images are four huge, black bulls or aurochs in the Hall of the Bulls. One of the bulls is 17 feet (5.2 m) long – the largest animal discovered so far in cave art.” See more Here

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“In the 2000s. French scientists took a tiny sample from the snout of the Great Bull. They found that some f the black was not just soot or charcoal but also contained a rare kind of manganese oxide called hausmannite.” Finlay, Victoria. The Brilliant History of Color in Art, p. 9.

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“The paint on the Great Bull was applied by mixing ground minerals with something liquid and then spraying it from th e mouth, either straight or with a blowpipe. It probably tasted horrible, but the same idea occurred to a a lot of people around the world in prehistoric times. You can see similar techniques in other caves, not just in Europe but also in Australia from 40,000 years ago, as well as in the Kalahari Desert in Africa, in the Patagonian Mountains in Agentina, and in Baja, California.” Finlay, Victoria. The Brilliant History of Color in Art, p. 10.

Map of Prehistoric Art from Metropolitan Museum

The Lascaux Caves were painted by 16,000 to 17,000 years ago, but there is evidence that men have been creating paint for at least 100,000 years.

“Apparently one of the earliest human instincts was to paint things, including bodies and cave walls. That’s the conclusion from scientists who have discovered something remarkable in a South African cave — a tool kit for making paint. It looks to be the oldest evidence of paint-making.

“Over in southern Africa 100,000 years ago, Homo sapiens was pretty new on the scene. A favorite hangout was a cave named Blombos near the Southern ocean.

“Archaeologists like Christopher Henshilwood have spent decades finding stuff there that our ancestors left behind. Recently, Henshilwood uncovered two abalone shells with ocher ground into the shell. ‘Above and below each shell and to the side of each shell was a complete kit that was used for producing a pigmented mixture,” he says.

“In addition to the shells were stone flakes, grinding stones and bits of bone with reddish ocher on them. Ocher is a kind of iron oxide dug from the ground that early humans used as a pigment and to thicken glue.” See More Here

“Red ochre has been used as a coloring agent in Africa for over 200,000 years.[22] Women of the Himba ethnic group in Namibia are famous for using a mix of ochre and animal fat for body decoration, to achieve a reddish skin color. The ochre mixture is also applied to their hair after braiding.[23]” Wikipedia

“The most common red pigment on Earth is red ocher, also known as iron earth. Barns in Scandinavia are painted with it; roads are sometimes surfaced with it; red bricks get their color from their iron content.” Finlay, Victoria. The Brilliant History of Color in Art, p. 15.

Traditional Swedish House Painted Falu Red, which Is Made from Red Ocher

Making Falu Red Paint

“Falu red or falun red (/ˈfɑːluː/ FAH-loo, in Swedish falu rödfärg (Swedish pronunciation: [ˈfɑːlɵ ˈrøːfærj])) is a dye[1] that is used in a deep red paint, well known for its use on wooden cottages and barns. The paint historically originated from various copper mines in Sweden. Most well known is the mine at Falun, in the province of Dalarna. In Finland, falu red is known as punamulta (“red earth”), after the pigment, which consists of finely divided hematite. Since the binder is starch, the paint is permeable to water. In Estonia, falu red is known as Rootsi punane (“Swedish red”) and is most common in Western Estonia in the former Coastal Swedish territory.

“The earliest evidence of the use of falu red dates from the 16th century. During the 17th century, falu red was commonly used on smaller wooden mansions, where it was intended to imitate buildings with brick facing. In Swedish cities and towns, wooden buildings were often painted with falu red, until the early 19th century, when authorities began to oppose use of the paint. Increasingly many wooden buildings in urban areas had by then begun to be either painted in lighter colors such as yellow or white, or to be sided with stucco. The number of buildings made of bricks had also increased.” Wikipedia

I have decided to research the history of the creation of paints and pigments further, and I found some books that you might also want to explore:

The Brilliant History of Color in Art by Victoria Finlay


There are several books that provide information about the historic evolution of color, but I especially like Finlay’s The Brilliant History of Color  in Art. Because of its outstanding photographs, this is the book that I myself will purchase.

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Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay

Finlay’s first book Color: A Natural History of the Palette has over 400 pages of text, and it have very  few photographs. I plan to read both of Finlay’s books.


Color: The Story of Dyes and Pigments by by Bernard Guineau and Francois Delemare

As I consider the inter-connection of the soil, pigments, color, and self-expression, I am reminded of the final pronouncement: from earth to earth and ashes to ashes, and I realize that we are the earth which has historically provided the pigment to create our art. Our spirits–our souls–are linked to the pigments that lie within the bedrock of our lives. Perhaps it is primarily because of mankind’s need for self-expression that the human can be distinguished from beasts.

“Drawing gives shape to all creatures, color gives them life, such is the divine breath that animates them” – Dennis Diderot – 1713-1784

I hope to read all of the books listed above, and afterwards, I hope to have more to say about this topic. But in closing, I want to congratulate yet again the way that film is able to bring history to life and the way that it lifts its viewers to a pinnacle from which they can experience meaning in a more dynamic way. I love the way that good cinematography fosters better thinking. For many years, it has been faddish to denounce television as the evil sponge that siphons the mind dry, but I disagree with that thought. I believe that good television and good movies can actually exceed the teaching value of mere reading; yet, I would not like to live in a culture that would force me to choose between the two.

©Jacki Kellum July 18, 2017