Yellow Ochre

(Gelber Ock, ocre jaune, ocra gialla)

yellow ochre pigment

Origin, History and Characteristics

Yellow ocher is a natural earth pigment which consists mostly of clay colored by iron oxides. Ocher comes in a great variety of shades depending on their origin. Lighter shades of a pale yellow may be burned to produce darker red shades. The purest ochers come from France and Cyprus. Under moderate heat, yellowish-red colors are produced; however, the stronger the heat, the more rich and saturated the color produced. Used throughout history, yellow ochre can be safely mixed with other pigments.

Ochers are among the most widely used pigments dating back to prehistoric times. Ochers vary widely in transparency; some are quite opaque, while others are valued for their use as glazes. Ocher was not strong enough to color key parts of a compositions, but mixed with other colors it produces a great variety of useful natural tones. Mixed with lead white the broken tone of yellow of yellow ocher approximates very closely the color of subtle tones of illuminated flesh tones. Vermilion or madder lake are added when a warmer tone was needed.

Yellow Ocher in Vermeer's Painting

Woman with a Pearl Necklace (detail), Johannes Vermeer
Woman with a Pearl Necklace
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas, 55 x 45 cm.
Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Much like most every European painter, Vermeer made extensive use of yellow ocher. He made abundant use of it in of his flesh tones, "interestingly, no red pigment can be discerned in the surface paint layer of the flesh tones of the Woman with a Pearl Necklace; there are various mixtures of yellow ocher, white lead and even black very well blended into one another."1 Vermeer's flesh tones appear at times rather dull when compared to those of his contemporaries. The brilliant rosy cheeks and lips of the young women so beloved by genre painters, are almost entirely absent in Vermeer's faces. This may be due to an artistic choice or to the fact that he may have used only minimal quantities some red pigment which faded.

Vermeer used yellow ocher unmixed to portray objects of similar local color such as the floor tiles in The Girl with a Wine Glass. Yellow ocher has been detected in the map on the background wall in the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and yellow parts of the Turkish carpets that are frequently seen in Vermeer's interiors.

Yellow ocher lightened with lead white was used to render the foreground bank of the View of Delft.

  1. Nicola Costaras, "A Study of the Materials and Techniques of Johannes Vermeer," in Vermeer Studies, eds. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker, National Gallery of Art Washington D.C., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, 159.