Local Colour

Local Colour” is the term I settled upon during my graduate work to explore the potential relationship between the land and colour in mankind’s experience. While most of the posts here reveal local colour within my own experience of going on pilgrimages to collect earth pigments from places across Canada, it also intersects with the history and stories of peoples living in a place over centuries (or even millennia) in the importance of place in forming our identity. My own artistic practice is based on exploring local colour as a source of creativity in the art and icons I make. I can honestly say that it is in such local colour pigments that I’ve found my best source of inspiration.



White is the most delicate of colours, quickly becoming dominated by any other. Take a pound of white pigment and add only a ¼ ounce of any other colour, and white will have yielded to reflect the tint of that other (In fact, most tubes of paint on the art store’s shelf have more white pigment in them than their labelled colour—using it as a filler and further demonstrating white’s deferential nature).

Despite its delicacy—or perhaps because of it—it is with white that we most clearly see the passing of time; as it yellows with age, or blackens under urban pollution, or reddens in the light of the setting sun. But, in its heart, white is rarely so effected by time: Strip the varnish, or apply soap to the grim, or come again in the morning, and white will once again demonstrate her original bright beauty.

When grinding a white pigment, it isn’t enough to just wipe the mulling-glass down, it’s necessary to grind it clean with sand. Only after this ritual is performed, will white contentedly rest by herself on glass. White is the most difficult pigment to have a long conversation with—always more interested in conversing with other colours than with the artist. And, while my instinct is to try to preserve her purity, this also reflects her most lovely quality: The ease in which she gives herself to others.

White is childlike, and I love seeing the earnest outpouring of herself towards her friends—even if in my heart I know I can’t truly be one of them.



Just between you and me, I don’t think yellow has it all together …

Yellow is the colour-equivalent of gold among pigments, but the traditional colour of lunatic asylums, and also of dandies. So, upon just a cursory glance, yellow could be described as rich, cowardly, crazy, extroverted, and a fop. How can one colour present itself in so many different ways?

Maybe its indecisiveness is the reason why yellow doesn’t historically enter into the artist’s palette until much later. Although there are entire hills made out of ochre in Europe (while here in Canada glaciers scored yellow from the earth during the last ice age …) its cave-art doesn’t make use of yellow amid their red and black silhouettes. Maybe cave-painting is so decisive in it’s nature that there wasn’t room for such a unstable voice on the cave walls …

Yellow will focus though—if you manipulate him. Carefully heat a yellow iron-ochre and he’ll become decidedly red. Offer him just a little black, and he’ll become a beautiful green. Simply throw yellow into an open fire, and he’ll settle down into a solid, “burnt” brown. But, while getting yellow to present himself in one way can be useful as an artist, it isn’t really that I want to change who he is—it’s just that his inconsistent nature gives me a headache: Which tale am I ready to believe from yellow?

But this is a a typical problem for me: In my own travels, I’ve found many good siennas, and an assortment of other bright browns, but very rarely a bright yellow ochre on the Canadian landscape …



Red is a very strong colour. It is the colour of the earth itself.

The initial impression of something, ‘earthy’ might be the calm, undulating hills of Wales on a sunny day. But, while red can be that immovably tranquil, it does so by it’s deep strength which can equally be expressed in an erupting molten mass from a volcano.

Removed from the outdoors, red continues to exercise his strength in the studio: His tenaciously pigmented fingerprints will not wash off a person’s skin for a week; his yell will cause your ears to crackle while grinding; and his stubborn refusal to sink in water once finely ground—as all rocks do—further demonstrates his tenacity.

These attributes are in keeping with red’s origins. Red ochre could be thought of as simply rusty, decomposed iron but, according to Plutarch, it is the substantive bones of dead gods—there needs be that such remains possess an echo of their origins, I think.

Red also connects us with the earth. The same ochre that pigments the earth gives colour to our blood. In our age of virtual self-aggrandizement and unnatural-actions, red connects us back to our reality—as the modelled clay of our earth. And, while mankind’s history attests to our own strength to create and destroy, we never do so divorced from the earth, but rather as an extension of it and ultimately, upon ourselves.

My very first pigment-hunt was searching for red from Hell’s Gate on the Mattawa River. It was a mystical adventure, and one that connected me with an artistic process going back 30,000 years. My ‘red’ experiences remain my most powerful, and my most fun.



Green is such a flirty colour! It will offer just a hint of itself in natural pigments; really just enough to get the desperate artist feeling excited. But, when that same artist tries to share the tantalizing bit of terre-verte pigment with another, it seems that green quickly covers herself up—rather than be publicly observed—and leaves only an unexciting shade of grey (leaving the artist to wonder if his fantasies simply ran away with him!).

If forced to reveal more of herself, green moves from flirt to fatal-attraction. No colour has killed more people than green: Bright green pigments tend to have a truly toxic personality. A bright sexy green killed Napoleon in his prison cell on Saint Helena’s island, and in the Victorian era the same colour killed hundreds of children in their newly wallpapered, emerald nurseries. Even moving beyond the realm of pigments, in alcoholic form it was the green-fairy which drove an entire generation of artists, writers and actors to insanity.

I think green is therefore both the most lively and deadly of colours, maybe because it’s nature is to always amplify itself. The lively green of spring leaves freshly greets both the eye and nose—the more you draw in the more alive you’ll feel—but if you intensify a dead rock’s green, it will toxically repay the attention.

A few years ago I fell in love with a bright green, but the encounter left me very ill. Today I satisfy myself with the tease of earth greens; abandoning any vamper temptation.



Is there any more beautiful—and otherworldly—colour than blue? No other colour in my experience appears and disappears with such unpredictability! Blue surrounds us in our daily lives and it is as vast as the sky and the ocean itself. But, try to take hold of it and all you’ll be left with is a handful of air or water.

Natural blue pigments are equally ephemeral and seem transient between this world and the other: Grind a bit of azurite a little to long and the colour will disappear, or don’t offer your prayer fervently enough when mixing a kettle of woad and all you’ll create is green sludge. And then there are black minerals, like vivianite, which disclose their blueness only once their rocky physicality is removed and a shapeless powder is all that remains.

It always takes a little bit of magic and luck to create blue pigments.



Black is the most primitive of colours.

Actually, I think it is a precolour (like prehistory)—the colour that existed before we understood colour. This notion is supported by its presence in prehistoric cave-paintings. And, echoing back to those ancient roots, comes it’s most common source: Bones. Even today when we paint with black, we are still smearing an opaque layer of animal—imbedded with all these memories—cross our canvas …

It is also inseparable from burning. Even when I’m handling it as a finished pigment, I can still smell its sooty aroma as I grind it and feel the echo of its experienced heat on my hand. And, like the fire from which it originates, black is a tenacious colour; one that is impossible to hide once it touches the gesso (or a hand).

These dark pigments are incredibly rich—anyone who thinks of them as the absence of something hasn’t looked closely at black! This group of pigments represent a wide tonal variety of warmth and coolness, and they share other hues within their nigrescent colouring; all of which is only seen as if through different depths of deep smoke …

Black is the very first pigment I ever made myself, and an origin I am continually returning to in my art.