Colors from the Earth: Purple Ocher

Ochers are natural iron oxide earths found in many parts of the world. They are among the most lightfast and stable pigments used in the arts. Iron oxide pigments produce a wide range of colors, from black through shades of purple and red in the anhydrous oxides to yellow, orange, and brown in the oxide hydroxides. While iron oxide produces the colors in ochers, other minerals—such as quartz and clays, for example—are also present. Iron oxides have high tinting strength, and intensely colored earths that are suitable as pigments may contain a relatively low concentration of iron minerals compared to the concentration of the other minerals. The weight percentage of iron oxide in these earth pigments varies widely from as low as 10% to the upper amount of 97%, with clay and quartz accounting for the remainder.

Purple Ocher

Specimen of an augite-porphyry mineral from a quarry in the Lori province of Armenia that is the source of Rublev Colours Armenian Purple Ocher pigment and Purple Ocher Artists Oil

The first mention of purple ocher in English literature is found in John Hill’s Natural History (1748) in the section of red ochers: Friable, purple, alkaline Ochre, the Almagara of the Moderns, and Sil Atticum of the Ancients; Hard, heavy, purple Ochre; Fine, light, purple Ochre; and Fine, heavy, purple Ochre, called Rubrica Sinopica. He distinguishes the types of purple ochers by their color, mass, and texture. He associates several types with the ancient names of earth pigments, sil, sinopis and rubrica, described by ancient writers Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and Pliny. Although classed as purples in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these purple pigments are called red ochers today.

The nineteenth-century chemist and colorman George Field mentions purple ocher or mineral purple as an earth found in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. Today, this mineral deposit is still in existence. Field describes the pigment as a ‘murrey’ or chocolate color that ‘forms cool tints of a purple hue with white.’ (Field 1841) Murrey is a deep purplish red color like the ripened mulberry fruit. Field also differentiates purple ocher from a darker colored pigment, Indian red, which was also classed among purples. (Field 1869)

Purple ochers are dark red earth pigments with a cool or bluish bias and, when tinted with white, produce subtle shades of violet. Although most of their color strength comes from red iron oxide, they owe some of it to the presence of manganese compounds. Pure sources of dark red iron oxide pigments are near Málaga, Spain, and on the island of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, which remain industrially important today. Other historical sources of red earth pigments are Capadoccia in central Anatolia, Armenia, Verona, Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, and the Luberon mastiff in Provence.

Rublev Colours Purple Ocher Artists Oil

Rublev Colours Purple Ocher Artist Oil

Note: The scan of the “drawdown” (above) contains a pre-mixed paint film of 6 mils (0.006 inches) thickness applied to a standard test card to examine color consistency, opacity, and other qualities. The drawdowns show the full-color strength (mass tone) on the left and mixed in a 1:2 ratio with titanium white on the right. The bottom area of the drawdowns is scraped to show undertones.

Recently, we obtained a deep red earth pigment from the Lori province of Armenia. This pigment produces the most delicate tints of purple when mixed with white. The pigment works well in all mediums, but we were immediately stunned by the color it produces in oil. It harmonizes perfectly with other earth colors of Rublev Colours Artist Oils and is impossible to reproduce by mixing other colors. This month, we added Rublev Colours Purple Ocher Artist Oil, which has a deep red masstone and subdued purple tints. It is a workable paste color ground in linseed oil with moderate to low oil content and a long, slightly thixotropic body. Being an iron oxide, it is absolutely lightfast and is compatible with almost all other pigments on the palette.

Rublev Colours Purple Ocher mixed with black or blue furnishes grays and chocolates and is most invaluable in neutralizing greens. We believe it will make an excellent addition to any palette and become a principal color in creating cool tints in flesh tones and landscapes.

Where to Buy

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Cassell (1873) Cassell’s Household Guide. London: Cassell, Peter & Galpin, p. 320.

George Field (1841) Chromatography; Or, A Treatise on Colours and Pigments: And of Their Powers in Painting. London: Tilt and Bogue, p. 249.

George Field (1869) Field’s Chromatography; Or a Treatise on Colours and Pigments as Used by Artists. Thomas Salter, Editor, London: Winsor & Newton, p. 299.

Abraham Rees (1819) The Cyclopædia: Or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, Volume 32. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown. See SIL.

(1764) A New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences: Comprehending All the Branches of Useful Knowledge, with Accurate Descriptions as Well of the Various Machines, Instruments, Tools, Figures, and Schemes Necessary for Illustrating Them, as of the Classes, Kinds, Preparations, and Uses..., Volume 4, 2nd Edition. London: W. Owen, p. 2812–2813.

John Hill (1748) A General Natural History Or, New and Accurate Descriptions of the Animals, Vegetables, and Minerals, of the Different Parts of the World: With Their Virtues and Uses. London: Thomas Osborne, p. 57–58, 60–61.

Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1757) A Natural History Of Fossils, Volume 1. Davis and Reymers, p. 93–94.