Monday, December 26, 2011


Ute pictographs, Shield Cave, Glenwood Canyon, Eagle
County, Colorado. Photograph: Peter Faris, 1991.

Humans have been using naturally occurring ochre as a pigment almost as long as we can trace the human lineage. Ochre has been found in Neandertal burials, and even earlier in hominid contexts.

In its use in rock art ochre is found in a range of colors from yellow to brownish red. Yellow ochre (Fe2O3H2O) is a hydrated iron oxide, and red ochre (Fe2O3) is the anhydrate of yellow ochre, which turns red when heated because heat drives off the water. This was described by Paul Bahn (1998): “the colour of ochre is modified by heat, and Palaeolithic people very clearly knew this, since even in the Chatelperronian of Arcy there were fragments at different stages of oxidation still in the hearths. Yellow ochre, when heated beyond 250° C, passes through different shades of red as it oxidizes into haematite.” (Bahn 1998:100)

Ute hearth with fragments of red and yellow ochre.
Shield Cave, Glenwood Canyon, Eagle County,
Colorado. Photograph: Peter Faris, 1991.

An excellent example of this can be found at Shield Cave, in Glenwood Canyon, Colorado. In the back of shield cave is a vein of yellow ochre which gives every indication of having been extensively mined. In roughly the middle of the floor of the cave is a stone hearth which includes samples of not only the original yellow ochre, but deep red colored ochre apparently produced by roasting the mined yellow ochre in the fire. At the mouth of the cave are painted a number of red pictographs of shields, as well as figures on horseback produced by Ute artists. (see my 1991 photograph above of samples of ochre on one of the rocks around the fire place).

All of the natural materials for producing pictographs is present at this site. Inside the cave is the pigment and the fire pit for preparing it. At the mouth of the cave the vertical cave walls provide the surface for painting upon, and outside the cave on the slopes can be found not only the wood for the fire pit, but yucca plants to provide yucca juice for the vehicle and binder of a paint, and yucca leaves for brushes.

Fremont/Barrier Canyon style pictograph, Westwater Canyon,
Grand County, UT. Photograph: Peter Faris, Oct. 2001.

Ochre nodule in cliff face. Westwater Canyon, Grand
County, UT. Photograph: Peter Faris, Oct. 2001.

In other locations I have noticed the presence of ochre naturally in the vicinity of painted images that may have been done with the local pigment. In Westwater Canyon, Grand County, Utah, captivating painted figures can be found on the canyon walls. Ochre nodules may also be discovered in areas of the cliff face with careful search and the talus at the bottom of the cliffs might have been mined for ochre nodules already weathered from the rock.

Probable Fremont pictographs in Wild Horse Draw,
 Canyon Pintado, Rio Blanco County, CO.
 Photograph: Peter Faris, July 2005

Ochre nodule in cliff face. Wild Horse Draw,
Canyon Pintado, Rio Blanco County, CO.
Photograph: Peter Faris, July 2005.

This is also the case in Wild Horse Draw off of Canyon Pintado, in Rio Blanco County, northwestern Colorado, where painted images may be found on cliff faces that also contain ochre nodules which would serve as the pigment. They also may have been prehistorically recovered by searching the talus at the cliff bottoms for nodules which had weathered out of the rock.

In both these instances the other materials for creating the paintings are available locally as well with yucca cactus readily procured. Yucca sap or juice would make an excellent paint vehicle and binder as it contains natural latexes which would polymerize upon drying, and the leaves of the yucca can be made into effective brushes.


Bahn, Paul G., and Jean Vertut
1998    Images of the Ice Age, Facts on File, New York., p. 100

1 comment:

  1. I appreciated this post so much! I have wondered at how these crisp and everlasting images were produced! Very informative! Thank you!