The Color of Collaboration: an essay on the history of pigment in southern France

Ochre began in its pure form, as drawing media in early ancient civilizations. This iron oxide mineral is an element of the rocky limestone landscape of Roussillon, the mountain town just above Apt in Provence, southern France. Its ancient use was referred to as “skin paint” and in present day is used to color “everything from soap to rugs” (South of France). In Roman times, ochre pigment played an important part in trade to neighboring cities and towns including Marseilles (Granier 100). After centuries of mining and sifting pigment powder, the landscape was sculpted into its current flowing caves and peaks (Facaros, Dana, and Pauls 356). Today Roussillon houses an active village while still practicing the production of organic pigments through advanced means and collaboration.Okhra, the Applied Pigment and Ochre Conservatory, involves a collaborative effort between employees, stakeholders, training center, customers, suppliers, local authorities, experts, businesses, associations and volunteers, who bond together to carry on the tradition of organic pigment ( The location began as the Mathieu Ochre factory in 1920. In a cooperative effort to preserve the traditional production of ochre, a partnership developed in 1994 between the Municipality of Roussillon in Provence and the founders of the project led by Mathieu Barrois ( The resulting transformation was Okhra, a project involving not only further pigment production, but historical preservation, education and involvement with local culture. The organization plays a key role in continuing a cultural and societal tradition by both preserving the history of pigment and pigment processing. The objectives of the conservatory include “preservation, promotion of knowledge and know-how related to the production of ocher and implementation of dyestuffs in various fields” ( Okhra is dedicated to reinvesting its profits in cultural activities involving the factory and workshops associated within.

Present day, visitors can walk through the fields of an ancient aquaduct system for pigment separation and examine rusted and deteriorated old machinery. Understanding the process behind the gathering and processing of pigment brings a new view to the already prepared and packaged paint sold in art stores. The Ochre Conservatory also houses a collection of practically every natural binder, solvent, and medium involved in the process of making paints. As if the samples weren’t enough, Okhra also works with artists, students, locals, and visitors through workshops and classes to teach about traditional processes for extracting natural pigments and making different types of paint. Other activities include natural ceramic tile making and traditional Buon fresco. Despite recent developments of inorganic and chemically made pigments, Okhra continues its tradition of developing natural pigment from the ever-shifting landscape of color and teaching others to that same appreciation.

Works Cited

Facaros, Dana and Michael Pauls. South of France. London: Network House, 2001. Print

Granier, Jacky. Provence. Monaco: Ajax Monaco “C.E.E.”, 2008. Print

Okhra: Cooperative society of collective interest. Okhra. CICS SA variable capital. Web.      2012.

By klcloonan

Los Angeles Interdisciplinary Artist

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