Blazing Yellow – PART 1



Warm and sunny thoughts are visualised when we think of the colour yellow.The colour yellow is associated with the earth’s most valuable energy provider, the sun. In doing so it has been worshiped as God in many cultures. In Greek mythology, the sun-god Helios wore a yellow robe and rode in a golden chariot drawn by four fiery horses across the heavenly plain. The radiant yellow light of the sun personified divine wisdom.

It’s journey has not always been a bright one. Yellow has been with us in sickness and in health. It can be a beacon of light or act as a cautionary sign. It has evolved from the beginning of time, travelled many a poisonous path and used as a symbol of solidarity and stardom. 

BLAZING YELLOW is a 4 part series taking you down the yellow brick road that tracks the adventures of yellow.

In PART 1 we start right back at the beginning with the oldest found pigment, learn about its deadly history in Asia and discover why our eyes won’t ever let us ignore the colour yellow.


Yellow Ochre

Ochre can come in a variety of colours ranging from yellow to deep purple.
Pic Credit: Philippe Psaila/Science Source

The use of Ochre as a colour has been with us from the very start. Evidence now reveals this to be as long as 350,000 years ago. But it is only in recent years that we understand how ochre contributed toward the evolution of human cognitive development.

The word ochre is derived from the Greek ‘Ochros’, which means ‘yellowish’. 

Ochre is a naturally occurring earth pigment derived where large amounts of iron in the ground. When the iron oxidizes it transforms the pigment into rusty red colours. While it often starts off as a golden yellow, it will change hue depending on the other elements present in the earth, varing from red and brown hues through to some slightly violet and blue variantions.  In volcanic regions this occurs naturally but heating the pigment will result in the same alchemy.

The name given to a certain shade of the colour usually refers to the place where the pigment was extracted. Sienna and umber are named after the city of Sienna and the Umbria region in Italy, as well as Spanish Red and Naples Yellow. The latter in its original form contains toxic lead and so is not used anymore. The other shades of natural ochre, on the are completely harmless both for man and environment.

Ochre Origins

Ochre is commonly found om many archaeological sites worldwide. Upper Paleolithic cave art in Europe and Australia contain the generous use of the mineral. The earliest possible use of ochre discovered so far is from a Homo erectus site about 285,000 years old. At the site called GnJh-03 in the Kapthurin formation of Kenya, a total of five kilograms (11 pounds) of ochre in more than 70 pieces was discovered.

By 250,000-200,000 years ago, Neanderthals were using ochre, at the Maastricht Belvédère site in The Netherlands (Roebroeks) and the Benzu rock shelter in Spain.

In ancient times the best ochre came from Sinopia, a city on the Black Sea. Its exceptional quality made this ochre valuable and led to it being transported carrying a quality seal. The name Sinopia or Sinoper was even used instead of the name ochre.



Image of a horse coloured with yellow ochre from Lascaux cave.

The artwork of the Lascaux Caves  in France is a prominent example of prehistoric use of ochre pigments for drawing and imagery, but it has been used throughout our history for drawings, to decorate pottery, and for tattoos — and potentially as a medicine and glue additive.

Estimated at around 17,000 years (early Magdalenian). Lascaux was inducted into the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 1979, as element of the Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley.

Today you can take your own Ochre trail. Le Sentier des Ocres lies in Roussillon, France. Two circular trails, taking 30 or 50 minutes to complete, twist you through mini-desert landscapes of ochre. Information panels highlight 26 types of flora to spot, the history of local ochre production, and so on. Wear walking shoes and avoid white!

The Sentier des Ocres is an ochre mine in France opened for the tourists. Check out the video >>



In Ancient Egypt, yellow was associated with gold, which was considered to be imperishable, eternal and indestructible. The skin and bones of the gods were believed to be made of gold. The Egyptians used yellow extensively in tomb paintings; they usually used either yellow ochre or the brilliant orpiment.


The colour of orpiment comes from a volcanic mineral found in sulphurous fumaroles that lie at the openings in the Earth’s crust. The highly toxic orpiment, is rich in lethal arsenic. It starts as a mellow yellow and transforms into a radiant orange when subjected to the heat of a fire. An important item of trade in the Roman Empire it was also used as a fly poison and to poison arrows. Alchemists searching for a way to make gold risked exposure to the noxious substance as did artists, captivated by its vibrancy. 

Orpiment is volcanic mineral found at the openings in the Earth’s crust.

The Ivory Palette of Merytaten and the Egyptain’s 6 colour palette

This painter’s palette was found in the Treasury between the paws of the jackal mounted on a shrine. This palette, being a gift from Princess Merytaten to Tutankhamen.

The use of colour in Egyptian paintings was highly symbolic and strictly regulated. Egyptian painters relied on six colours in their palette: red, green, blue, yellow, white and black. 

Red, the colour of power, indicated life and victory, plus anger and fire. Green symbolized new life, growth, and fertility, while blue represented creation and rebirth, and yellow stood for the eternal, such as the sun and gold. 

Yellow was the colour of Ra and of all the pharaohs, which is why their sarcophagi were constructed from gold to symbolize the everlasting and eternal pharaoh who was now a god. Women were always painted with yellow ochre or gold faces and men were given brown faces.

White hues represented purity, symbolized all things sacred, and were usually used in religious objects used by priests. Black was the colour of death and symbolized the underworld and the night.


Shell, stone and ochre artefacts from Blombos Cave.

Ochre was part of the first art of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) phase in Africa called Howiesons Poort. The early modern human assemblages of 100,000-year-old MSA sites including Blombos Cave and Klein Kliphuis in South Africa have been found to include examples of engraved ochre, slabs of ochre with carved patterns deliberately cut into the surface. More info on the Cave >>>

Silcrete flake retrieved from The Blombos Cave in South Africa reveals that the first evidence of human mark making was made with a yellow ochre crayon.

> Read more about it >

Excavations in South Africa’s Blombos Cave have found artifacts up to 100,000 years old.


Ochre pit in Yantruwanta country, South Australia. Photo: ©

The earliest confirmed example of ochre usage in Australia as both a form of ceremony and artistic expression is the ritual burial of a Koori warrior known as ‘Mungo man‘, at Lake Mungo in Mutti Mutti, Barkindji, and Ngiyampa country in south western New South Wales. Buried carefully in a sand dune between 40,000 and 42,000 years ago, Mungo man was laid to rest on his back, with his hands crossed in his lap and his body sprinkled with red ochre. The ochre had been obtained from a deposit in another locality, as it is not naturally found at Lake Mungo.


Who was the Mungo Man? 

The oldest skeleton ever found in Australia, Mungo Man, has been returned to his home 40,000 years after his death. He spent the past 40 of those years being studied by scientists. 

VIDEO: 3.36mins

Earth pigments are found in varying forms in all regions of Australia. However, there are a number of celebrated cultural sites found in different parts of the continent where ochre was traditionally mined, both as a local resource and as a commodity for trade with neighbouring Clans and Nations. These sites were important due to the high quality and range of the materials extracted from them. Such sites include the Ochre cliffs in Yantruwanta country, South Australia, and Wilgie Mia in Wajarri Yamatji country, Western Australia.

In the Aboriginal communities the best ochre was always a highly-valued and sought-after commodity. Only the men of certain tribes had access to the ochre sites. Once a year they would go on a pilgrimage lasting days that would lead them to the sacred ground sites.

Fixatives are often employed in the production of ochre based paints. These enable a pigment to adhere to a surface, and also act to further the longevity of the final artwork. Fixatives and binders have historically included plant resins and gums, orchid sap, honey, egg, blood, saliva, and animal fat. 

Yellow Ochre was often used to depict Dreamtime stories and maps in body painting, rock painting, and artefacts. Yellow in some aboriginal clans was associated with women’s ceremonies. Here’s  a stunning use of ochre by Makinti Napanangka  ‘Womens Hair String Ceremony.

Womens Hair String Ceremony by Makinti Napanangka.



Gamboge is a partially transparent deep saffron to mustard yellow pigment. It is used to dye Buddhist monks’ robes because the colour is a deep tone of saffron.

The name Gamboge is derived from the Garcinia tree, which is indigenous to South-East Asia. It’s a particular kind of tree sap, from the border area between Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. When the trees are ten years old and about fifteen metres high, the yellow milky sap is tapped from the wood in one of two ways, via an incision in the bark or by breaking off the branches. The oozing sap created by the break is collected in hollow bamboo canes, after which it begins to congeal. To evaporate as much moisture as possible, the canes are then rotated over a fire. What remains are the so-called ‘Gamboge rods’ or lumps that resemble a brown resinous substance of a pure quality. The hardened pigment can be ground it into a fine yellow dust, water can be applied directly in order to obtain the rich golden yellow paint.

Devils revealed

Collecting the sap could often be a dangerous business. An employee of Winsor & Newton found bullets lodged in a piece of hardened gamboge while he was breaking up chunks of the material to sell. It proved that this particular batch of pigments had been harvested from a Khmer Rouge killing ground.

Bullets found in Gamboge pigments. Photo courtesy of Ian Garrett, Winsor & Newton.

This golden yellow pigment was used in the Middle Ages to colour in ornamental letters and illustrations. The sap is poisonous and has a poor lightfastness. because of this it is difficult for art historians to locate examples the original Gamboge. It has been found in traditional Chinese painting, and though the hue has long since faded from most pieces, it was a favourite of Flemish painters such as Rembrandt.

Gamboge is used in Flora by Rembrandt van Rijn (1641).

Yellow is often associated with sickness in the western societies and the history of Gamborge is no exception.

Famous charlatan James Morison created pills known as Morison’s Vegetable Pills. Promoted to health practicioners as a miraculous cure-all. The chief ingredient was gamboge. This was also a powerful laxative and diuretic and would have deadly consequences for those who took them.  In 1836, a British “hygeist,” as some practitioners of pill-based medicine were called, was found guilty of manslaughter after he advised a patient to ingest 35 of the pills. Like many other yellow dyes created from organic sources, such as gourds, unripe pineapple, yellow dock root and yellow flag irises, gamborge too has a violently purgative effect on the body. The poor patient died after vertually ‘shitting himself to death’.

Despite the dangers and poor longevity of the colour, art supply shops continued selling gamboge into the 1980s. It has now been replaced with harmless pigments that do not fade under the influence of light.



How ochre reveals how the first social networks happened

Found evidence has allowed us to trace back the very first uses of ochre as a pigment found smeared on shells, piled in graves and stenciled on cave walls from South Africa to Australia, Germany to Peru.

Researchers agreed that the the iron-rich rocks used as pigment at prehistoric sites had symbolic value. But it it is only in recent years that they are understanding that the eraly human relationship with ochre was far more complex.

Archaeologist, Tammy Hodgskiss explains “Ochre shows how our brains were developing, and that we were using our environment. It bridges the divide between art and science.” Ochre is, in fact, one of the most important proxies researchers have for charting the evolution of human cognition. Hodgskiss adds, “We look at the action sequences to see what cognitive abilities were needed: Did it have to be heated? Did it need to be buried in the hearth?”

Recent finds in Africa have pushed back the start date for our species’ connection with the material, hinting that modern human cognition may have developed much earlier than we thought. A handful of researchers now suspect ochre may have actually fueled both brain development and our species’ expansion around the globe.

Some archaeologists have begun to challenge the idea that ochre was primarily symbolic for early humans. They believe ochre had a number of functional applications, some of which traditional societies, particularly in Africa and Australia, still employ.

In the arid environment of southern Ethiopia, the Hamar people use ochre to clean their hair. In South Africa, ochre is widely used as sunscreen. Found on tools and weapons, other archaeological records suggests that ochre was used for other practical uses. Experiments replicating the ancient processes involved, concluded that ochre was mixed with other substances to create a type of adhesive suitable to attach, a stone arrow point to its wooden shaft.

In addition to its use as a stand-in for charting human evolution, ochre also serves as a proxy for human movement. In 2017, a Nature study pushed back the earliest human presence in Australia to at least 65,000 years ago, nearly 20,000 years earlier than previously thought. The new date is based on thousands of artifacts from the Northern Australia site of Madjedbebe, including numerous examples of ochre in ground, slab and “crayon” forms.

Trading in ochre

A new technique called elemental fingerprinting, shows us that the ochre can also provide information about a different kind of human movement: social and trade networks.

“Elemental fingerprinting involves collecting samples of different kinds of material from a number of sites. The samples are then analyzed to determine the unique geochemical signature of each site. 

By cross-checking the database for a geochemical signature match, archeologists can detect “How far material was transported indicating routes of trade or social networks.”

Elemental fingerprinting has proven particularly important for the Olorgesailie material. The worked pieces of ochre there, are the oldest ochre found in the region, and were discovered with pieces of obsidian that came from about 60 miles away.

This refects a radical shift in behaviour. of human activity. Modern hunter-gatherer societies typically have territories of 12 to 25 miles in diameter. The presence of exotic objects from well beyond that range implies different groups were interacting in some way. At more than 300,000 years old, Olorgesailie is significant because this kind of interaction is a hallmark of modern humans that researchers previously thought developed around 100,000 years ago.

It proves that the first evidence of a social networking happened 200 000 years earlier that previously documented.

Health benefits

Marine ecologist Carlos Duarte of Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah University reviewed the use of marine food by early humans and noticed the traces of shells, were often accompanied by ochre. He suggested the ingestion of red ochre, combined with consumption of seafood, boosted early humans’ supply of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and iodine as well as, potentially, iron and other nutrients essential for brain development.

This may have been particularly valuable for pregnant women: Fortifying a diet with iron from ochre might stave off anemia, a common problem in pregnancy. Combined with seafood, it might also result in a healthier baby. 



The human eye finds yellow (and the yellow family of colours) far easier to detect than any other colour.

Scientists have proven that your: “Lateral peripheral vision for detecting yellows is 1.24 times greater than for red.” That’s why you can see a yellow object more readily, even if it is viewed out of the corner of your eye. It might also explain why those crazy chickens never get hit crossing the road in the jokes!

This explains why many vehicles and safety equipment products are coloured yellow. When the item needs to be recognised immediately, yellow is the first choice. Vehicles such as trains, tractors, safety boats and taxis are often painted bright yellow. The colour helps identify the vehicles easily, especially in foggy weather or when things are moving at great speed.

School bus Yellow in America

School bus yellow was a colour specifically formulated for use on school buses in North America since 1939. Now officially known in Canada and the U.S. as National School Bus Glossy Yellow it was originally called National School Bus Chrome. The colour was chosen because it attracts attention and is noticed quickly in peripheral vision, faster than any other colour. An essential element that can help children identify the buses as well as alert surrounding drivers to take care.

Colourblind safe

Yellow is also colourblind-safe. About 8 percent of males can’t distinguish between signals from red cones and green cones, which means that they don’t have the red-green channel. To them, the color spectrum might looks like this:

Using purple/blue, and yellow/orange allows for easy recognition by all.

There’s a lot more exciting (and more pleasant), stories about the adventures of YELLOW to come in PART 2. I hope you’ll continue the journey down the yellow brick road with me…



Yellow takes a trip to Naples, and we travel to India to save some very skinny cows. Learn why those school pencils were always yellow and find out that yellow doesn’t always radiate a sunny disposition throughout the world.

Check out the 3 Part series on Blue

CHASING BLUE – PART 1 > Click here >

CHASING BLUE – PART 2 > Click here >

CHASING BLUE – PART 3 > Click here >


This blog focuses on one of my great passions … colour. I will bring you tall tales and tidbits about the origins and uses of  colour and how it impacts our world. Colour has held many great powers throughout the ages. It plays many a leading role throughout history. It has been a killer, a saviour and a revolution maker. I thank the pioneers of colour who continue to pursue inventive ways for how colour can improve our lives. It is because of them that we can all be Colour Warriors and stay bright beyond beige. Thanks for joining me on the amazing adventures of colour!

Colour Warriors is a monthly blog, written and produced by Visual Artist and Arts Educator, Kristine Ballard on
© Kristine Ballard 2019