Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Story of Red Ochre

Alan Friedman's stunning sun photography

There's an alchemy that happens in painting, but it's the exact opposite of what you might think. Accept for one moment that the vast majority of paintings in the world are absolute shite. There are exceptions, but I know I've yet to paint one. Every time I load up my brush with pigments forged in the belly of dying stars a bazillion light years away from Earth, and then go on to paint some stupid pet portrait, I wake up screaming and think of Dryden's "all this is monstrous; 'tis out of nature, 'tis an excrescence."

Sometimes the night sky is just a bunch of dots to me, but if for a moment I forget that I'm a cynical old bastard and remember gazing up as a kid, I think of Hamlet. His old chestnut about the sky being a "brave o'erhanging firmament," a "majestical roof fretted with golden fire" starts making sense and reminds me that as a painter I'm making something mundane from something magical, and not the other way around. 

Mars way back when [source]
The Story of Red Earth: Echoes from Outer Space

Take red oxide, or ocher, (or ochre as I grew up spelling it) for example. A pretty common pigment if ever there was one. Yes, I know it was sacred to primitive peoples, but these days it's as common as dirt. The thing is: there wouldn't be a single iron molecule on this earth if it wasn't shot here billenia ago on some cosmic dust storm. Mars is riddled with the stuff, and shoots a kilo of it to us every single day. The likes of the Willamette meteorite deposited 15 tons in one go. The hearts of dying stars are the only furnaces hot enough to create heavy elements like iron. "During a supernova, when a massive star explodes at the end of its life, the resulting high energy environment enables the creation of some of the heaviest elements including iron." [source]

Mining red oxide [source]

Those elements got blasted all the way across interstellar space and helped form Earth. Every heavy element did, past about Number 26 on the Periodic table (you remember chemistry don't you?). There are carbon molecules in your breath that were breathed in by dinosaurs, and some of those same molecules as you exhale will be breathed back in by your great, great, great grandchildren. All of them came from stars. 

Flinders Petrie living the dream. If your dream is to live in a tomb, that is.

In Siberia, falling meteorites were tracked across the sky by locals who followed them and mined them for their black shiny space rock. They weren't the first ones to do it though [paint grinding equipment has been found up to 400,000 years old]. 5,000 years ago, Egyptians wore jewelry made out of lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, and iron beads from meteoric rock most likely from Mars. 

Flinders Petrie was an Egyptologist of the Indiana Jones mold, who enjoyed sleeping in rock tombs on cliff faces whilst surveying pyramids. Despite ridicule by old guard archeologists for his unconventional ways, his discovery of these extra-terrestrial iron artefacts whilst excavating Egyptian tombs a hundred years ago is his lasting legacy. Poor old Petrie met an ignominious end however, his severed head stuffed in a jar and left on a shelf, like so many of his museum specimens. Believing in his own genius [he once "built a camera out of biscuit tins and in order to save time drew his findings with both hands at the same time, wielding a pencil in each"], he bequeathed his head to future generations for study, but sadly it ended up being forgotten in a college basement where the label eventually fell off the jar. I guess they stored it next to the Octabong.

The Octabong. god help us all
A friend of Petrie's, asked to identify his head, said, "I arrived armed with photographs of him. A laboratory technician brought me the head, took it out of the jar and put it on a plate in front of me. I was a bit embarrassed. I think [the technician] was a little strange because he asked me if I wanted to see the cut. We archaeologists love to see [such things] but not this type exactly. He showed it to me and opened Petrie's eyes. They were bright blue." But now I'm getting sidetracked...

'Burns Cliff' on Mars, showing groundwater-carved features
“The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements - the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution - weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.” Lawrence M. Krauss

[Roman fresco, Boscoreale]

Dating Frescos Using Red Oxide

Waxing poetic for a moment, iron oxide communicates its cosmic origin to us quite clearly. According to Victoria Finlay, "scientists in Italy have found a new technique for dating frescos almost to the year they were painted, simply by examining the red paint.

"'Red ochre contains iron, and the iron molecules act like compass needles explained Professor Giaconio Chiari of the Department of Minerological and Petrological Sciences at the University of Turin.

"He said that in the few minutes between daubing red ochre on to wet clay, and the time it dries, the molecules realign themselves towards the direction of magnetic north.

"'And if you don't move the walls then that is how they stay/ Professor Chiari said. Magnetic north changes every year - it can fluctuate over a range of 18 degrees, so you can learn when the fresco was painted from the direction in which the red ochre is pointing. This can lead to curious artistic discoveries: at the Vatican Library, for example, there were three frescos which were believed to have been painted in 1585, 1621 and 1660. The scientists took tiny samples from the borders to see whether they could test their theory. 'We couldn't understand the results. All the ochre was pointing the same way and it wasn't in any of the ways we were expecting,' Professor Chiari said.

"And then they did more tests and realised the truth: the frescos were original, but all the borders had been repainted in 1870. Magnetic north is very erratic, though, Professor Chiari added. (So we can do it both ways: we sometimes use frescos - if we know when they were painted - to tell us where magnetic north was that year.' "

Himba women, Tony McNicol photographer
"He was not aware of the technique being used to date bodies that had been painted in red ochre - as has been a funerary custom in Australia, Africa, America and Europe for thousands of years. Partly because nobody could be sure whether the body had been moved after the ochre had dried and partly because the burials had happened too far in the past. 'You can't go too far back because we don't know so much about magnetic north thousands of years ago.'"

Vulcanologists have even reported iron-rich rocks twisting to line up their poles with our magnetic field. I love the idea of them lining up as if answering some sort of intergalactic call, facing north at the aurora that signal the portal for interstellar winds carrying plasma and particles from exploding supernovae.

Regarding the whole 'painter as alchemist' thing: Considering the galactic origins of the artist's materials and the subsequent and often excruciating "art" that comes of it, the only question is: Is it still considered alchemy if you turn gold into crap?


  1. EGGSCELLENTO! larfed like a drain re pet my other life!

  2. hilarious & fascinating! thanks for another great blog entry

  3. "We are stardust, we are golden"

    Then there's that black velvet Elvis I just painted, hanging in the garden!



  4. Great post Alan; funny and fascinating. Cheers,

  5. Wonderful, funny and informational as heck. Thanks Alan - I will use the amazing stuff that is red ochre with deep respect from now on. Painting with stars....stardust painting with extraordinary (even if most of it is crap).


  6. This is only a hexabong, but hey, it'll probably do in a pinch:



    1. Ha! "New and Used from $42"

      Anyone in the market for a used hexabong?