Friday, March 08, 2013

The Reason for All that Red

One of the striking features of the Atlantic Canadian landscape is the abundance of red buildings, especially barns, outbuildings and sheds, in the vernacular architecture. There's an excellent reason for this, deeply rooted in the heritage of the region: because of the huge deposits of iron in the area, the iron oxides used for this handsome range of colours occur naturally here. It's ochre (or ocher), which has been used as a pigment for thousands of years.

 Technically, ochre is defined as "any of various natural earths containing ferric oxide, silica, and alumina: used as yellow or red pigments" and the yellow shades show up, too, but it's definitely the reds that dominate. Place-names all over the region reflect this; it's easy to find places called Ochre Pit Cove or Ochre Hill, and there are also place-names that refer to red, signalling the rusty tones that oxidizing iron can give the soil. The naturally-occurring pigment, sometimes treated by burning, was mixed with linseed oil in many places, but here in Atlantic Canada it was almost universally mixed with ingredients that were much more readily available locally: seal oil or fish liver oil. Oral tradition has it that the brighter reds were obtained with seal oil, while fish oils gave a darker, reddish-brown tone.

Use of red ochre in Newfoundland, though, goes back to a time long before the first Europeans arrived; the island's native population, the Beothuks, gathered ochre and used it to paint canoes and other artifacts and even their bodies. The Beothuk culture, ancestrally related to the Mi'kmaq, emerged around AD 1500, ending in 1829 with the death of the last surviving Beothuk, Shanawdithit.

Today, the red paint used often comes from commercial pigments, but the resulting look is very much a part of local tradition and culture.

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