Colors have universal associations, for example, blue evokes the calming sense of the vast expanse of sky and waters. Green gives us a sense of vitality and harmony. At the same time, different cultures imbue colors with particular meanings. In the Northwest specific culture groups have associated deep meanings with particular colors for thousands of years. This is evident in the consistent palettes that have persisted throughout a culture’s history. Contemporary Northern Northwest Coast and Coast Salish artists are still painting with colors used by their ancestors more than three thousand years ago as evidenced by pigment grinding stones bearing red ochre and celadonite which are dated at 3500 to 4000 years old by the archeology department of Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia2.
Among the Northern tribes, Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian, the palette was and still is narrow, consisting of only three colors: black, red, and blue or green. In the north color schemes are based on a long tradition of designs consisting of primary, secondary, tertiary and negative space. Primary spaces are usually black and occasionally red. Secondary space is usually red. Sometimes black and red are reversed as primary and secondary colors. Only in the tertiary spaces are blue or green used. Among the Tlingit, prior to trade with Europeans, blue was apparently most often reserved for shamans and ritual work. The Haida used a pale green in tertiary fields. In the north there are long-standing rules about the design elements and about color use.
The Coast Salish have always displayed more freedom in their carving style and in their use of color. They have used a wider palette of yellows, blues, greens, black, reds, and white.
Yellows, reds, blues, and greens are earth pigments found as clays or stone. These pigments were ground and mixed with the proteins and oils from salmon eggs and a little human spit, which provides an enzyme to help bind the oils and pigments together. Black pigments were made from a variety of materials including charred woods, soot, and burnt calciferous materials such as bone. The minerals magnetite and graphite were also used for black.
White was made from calcium carbonate (chalk), gypsum, and a soft white clay called Kaolin which has been used by Europeans and Chinese for making porcelain and china and is one of the most common minerals in the world. White was also obtained from roasting a particular species of clam shell. Greens were made from the mineral
Celadonite. Celadonite is an iron silicate found all over the world; it is often called Green Earth. For many years it was believed that greens and blues came from copper compounds, but research done by the Canadian Conservation Institute has shown that there is no copper in these pigments, that the beautiful greens we see are celadonite. Celadonite has the interesting characteristic of being able to be used with or without a binder like fish egg oil. It can be applied simply with water and is surprisingly durable. I have seen well-used objects painted with celadonite and water that are in excess of 400 years old and the paint is still intact. When water is used, the color tends to be powdery and pale but gives a good range of transparency (functioning more as a stain and letting the wood show through) to opacity (coating the wood so it is not visible). When mixed with oil, Celadonite darkens, has a harder finish and has a satin patina. Fish egg oils are not the only oils that can cause this alteration; spindle whorls painted with water-based Celadonite have changed color and patina from contact with lanolin (oil) in the sheep wool spun on them.
The mineral vivianite provides a wide range of blue to dark blue-green hues depending on its state of oxidation and photochemical process. Vivianite is an iron phosphate, another “earth” pigment known as Blue Earth, and is widely occurring along the NW Coast. Vivianite only requires three things to form: anoxic environment such as the bottom of a pond, bog, etc., and iron and decomposing organic matter. The phosphates from the decomposing material binds with the iron and vivianite rapidly begins to form.
It can be found as friable (easily broken up, usually dry) clay, heavy wet clay, as a medium hard stone. Vivianite can also be found in areas of heavy thermal activity; here it presents as crystals. The crystals make a very poor quality paint so weren't used.
Among the Northern tribes, vivianite appears to have been used almost exclusively by Tlingit shamans and warriors, but the Coast Salish, and nuuchahnult on the west coast of Vancouver Island, used it freely on all variety of objects. Like celadonite, it can be used with a water base or an oil base, with similar results.
Yellow paint came from yellow ochres (a general term for clays used to make what are known as earth colors) and is now known as Mars yellow. Yellow ochre is hydrated ferric (iron) oxide. Red ochre is a variant of yellow ochre which can range in hue (hue meaning actual color, identified by a common name such as red or bluish green) from a golden yellow to a brown.
Red ochre today is frequently called red iron oxide. There are many oxides and the Earth’s crust is made up primarily of solid oxides (and sulfides which are another chemical compound not addressed here) which occur when an element such as iron is exposed to oxygen in the air. Red ochre can be obtained from yellow ochre by roasting the yellow to drive out the hydrogen, darkening the mineral to red in the process. Red ochre also occurs naturally as a loose earth, a clay or stone. Hematite, although black or dark gray as a solid stone, was also used as red; ground hematite oxidizes and offers a variety of reds during the oxidizing process. Hematite is also found in a soft form. These ochres and hematite have a very similar chemical makeup, requiring only some manipulation, such as roasting or grinding (which exposes the molecules to oxygen), to achieve particular hues.
Ochre and other mineral pigments are found and mined all over the world. Red and yellow ochre have been and still are used by virtually every culture in the world for a variety of purposes. Celadonite (Green Earth) is an iron silicate found the world over and has also been used since prehistory. Celadonite paint has been found at rock painting sites in Argentina3 and on a Mayan temple in Honduras4. This pigment was used frequently by the Renaissance Masters to tint (adding a small amount of another color to modify the base color) flesh colors as well as adding depth to greens in landscapes. For hundreds of years, Celadonite has been prized for use as a facial mask beauty treatment. I can walk into my local food co-op and buy it ground to a fine powder by the ounce or pound. These pigments have been used since prehistoric times by innumerable cultures and are still in use today among indigenous cultures and are also used by high tech cultures for a wide variety of applications, not just as pigments.
Native people of the Northwest Coast have a long oral history that passed down the knowledge of how to find resources in their environment which allowed them to find these mineral pigments in the landscape. Over time they became masters at making paints, sometimes by trial and error, sometimes by process of deduction, sometimes by intuition and ingeniousness, and maybe, sometimes by happy accident. They also became masters of paint technology; learning which types of furs or bristles (almost every brush I have examined which number in the hundreds, used porcupine hair) to use for brushes. They used an ingenious method of laying the long bristles along the length of the brush then wrapping it, sometimes in elaborate patterns, with spruce root. As the bristles wore out, they loosened the wrapping and extended the bristles, re-wrapped and went back to work. The majority of brushes I’ve examined all bear these same characteristics, and all have bristles worn down. Of all the brushes I have seen, less than half a dozen were not beautifully ornamented with carved, often highly detailed, designs.
We can only make educated guesses at how they learned to obtain the minerals and what to use as binders, how to process them using methods such as roasting, determining which ones needed an oil medium, which ones were durable with just water as a medium, and how to manipulate the range of a color to achieve a desired shade (a full, definite degree of difference between two colors.5) How they chose the colors and color schemes demonstrates they clearly understood how to manipulate the interplay of light and shadow with color to evoke particular effects. The methods by which Native Northwest artists developed their science of pigments are lost in history, but Native artists have carried the use of traditional mineral pigments on from generation to generation through millenia.