Provence Feature

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Old as the Hills

Since the first cave paintings, man has extracted ocher from the earth, using its extraordinary palette of colors to make the most of nature’s play between earth and light. Grounded in these earth-based pigments, the frescoes of Giotto and Michelangelo glow from within, and the houses of Tuscany and Provence seem to draw color from the land itself—and to drink light from the sky. As Barbara Barrois of the Conservatoire des Ocres et Pigments Appliqués at Roussillon puts it, "Ça vibre à l’oeil!" (literally, "It vibrates to your eyes").

The rusty hues of iron hydroxide are the source of all this luminosity, intimately allied with the purest of clays. Extracted from the ground in chunks and washed to separate it from its quartz-sand base, it is ground to fine powder and mixed as a binder with chalk and sand. Applied to the stone walls of Provençal houses, this ancient blend gives the region its quintessential repertoire of warm yellows and golds, brick, sienna, and umber.

In answer to the acrylic imitations slathered on new constructions in garish shades of hot pink and canary yellow (following a Côte d’Azur trend), there is an ocher revival under way, thank goodness.

Updated: 2014-04-18

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