Red Earth

There’s an awful lot of backstory here when all I really want to talk about is how I came to discover making my own paint from red earth. But first, let me set the scene and I’ll get round to it.

At the beginning of the month, I went on a trip to Mallorca.

The idea was like this:

1.Swim in the sea. Dive, snorkel, frolic in waves, lie on my back in the water. Repeat with extreme frequency.

2.Explore the local area, visit markets, museums, places of interest, local vegan grub, hike the mountain trails.

Our finca was truly a haven of peace and tranquility nestled in the mountains of Serra de Tramuntana with various little v-shaped glimpses of the sea. And it’s a perfect, pastel Prussian Blue sea.

But our finca was also remote and tricky to get to. The drive up the mountains was a white knuckle ride of steep hairpin bends. More often than not you need to reverse and give it some welly to get round the corners.  Very narrow with sheer, vertical drops, and suddenly sheep appear out of nowhere, scarper up the lane while you shout out the window at them to eff off into the side. The lane is gravelly causing the car to slide all over the place. God help you if you meet anything coming in the other direction. Luckily we never did. First drive up there and my husband pranged the hire car on an olive tree. He really needed that beer once we made it.

As we arrived a couple of Swiss women were leaving, with tales of mosquitoes the size of bats, stony beaches you can’t really swim in because of the jellyfish and rough waves, and they’d both got chest infections while there.  In future we’ll just holiday in Switzerland, they say. Pfft, call these mountains? We go mountaineering for 16 straight hours and wee into our clothes just for light entertainment. And the place was filthy; they’d clearly not washed up or emptied a bin for a week. Our hearts were heavy as we climbed into bed, deciding to move to another location the next day.

Bright, sunny, warm morning comes, and my eyes are opened to the beauty all around me. We’re completely alone here for a while now and is this place not everything I say I want? Everything I dream of? It’s almost the exact picture where I see Future Suzie living (minus horses in a meadow by a river just over yonder) Let’s troubleshoot the problems we can solve and ride this adventure. I rummage around for bicarb, white vinegar and my trusty tea tree oil that goes everywhere with me. A good clean and some homemade mozzie spray, it’s all good.

Anyway, how could we leave here when there are so many sheep? Or ships as the helpful note above bucket in the kitchen says (“put your food scraps in here for the ships”). They are delightful. My favourite I’ve called Dolly and she gets very excited when she knows the ships-bucket is coming. There’s also Debbie and her little boys who are never too far away. A whole flock hang around the terraces and the sound of their tinkly bells, their bleating, their cute little mouths and the way they lean on the dry stone walls for the heat or drink from the pool resting on their elbows. Oh, my heart. Future Suzie will have rescue sheep/ships too.

So our days are spent like this instead of the plan:

1.exploring the terraces, hillsides and olive groves around the finca

2.drinking a lot of rosemary tea – still in flower, straight off the bush, steeped for 10 mins and sipped while looking at the sea, sunrises and sunsets

3.making friends and playing with sheep/ships and feeding stray cats; hanging by the natural pool; lots of yoga and cooking

4.only very scant trips down the mountain. #1 on the previous list barely got a look in – we did get one sea dip and snorkel with nary a jellyfish to be seen, and #2 involved us going once to a local museum/art gallery.

On the way back to our finca afterwards, walking up the stony path I notice the earth at my feet, like really notice it. Of course, as I sit out gazing over this landscape I’m struck by how red the earth is, the grey-green olive trees, the pinky-beige sheep and the aforementioned blue sea. I’d noticed how stained the sheep/ships are close-up, wool matted into coral dreadlocks. The black and white stray cat has red stained paws, and my flipflopped toenails too. The cogs start heaving into motion. This is raw pigment, the real thing.

I collect a little up and grind it to a powder between two teaspoons. Some boiling water and I’ve made something that’s like a clay slip. I’m loving this, mark-making in such a primitive, natural and immediate way. My marks are simple, inspired by the curves and lines of the olive trees. I collect more earth and pop it in a 35mm film pot to bring home. Side note: I should write a post entitled 1001 uses for empty film pots. And yes, there will be some film photos soon on here.

sketchbook image of olive wood in Mallorca painted with local pigment

Now I’m back home. The slip-paint wasn’t a perfect solution as it crumbles and smudges on the paper. After some research I discover all I need is a binder to add to the mixture. So I have mixed the pigment with distilled water, added gum arabic as the binder, and because I’m a vegan I switch out the honey for a drop of vegetable glycerin. The first attempt was pretty good – a tad gritty probably due to insufficient sieving, grinding and blending. So I found an old pyrex plate and a glass bottle stopper and really set to work, getting the powder as fine as possible. The second try I made a perfect paint, even if I do say so myself. The colour is so rich, and unchanged from how I remember the red hills.

Of course I’ve had to also read up on the geology of the land. I’ve discovered this sort of earth is known as Terra Rossa, an ochre found in the Mediterranean basin. It’s coloured by the wind and rain carrying red sand from the Sahara over millennia. And we’ve been painting with this stuff since the dawn of (wo)man.

This is all so exciting and inspiring, and I’m really enjoying working with the pigment. It feels like such a lovely way to literally and directly abstract from the landscape, adding new layers to the visual information and the feelings evoked by the memory of my stay. It’s all too easy to rely on photographs to serve as reminders, but I prefer a less tangible, more emotional way to reflect.

There’s a strong pull to develop this exploration into a series of work on paper.  It will take patience and a lot of play. But it feels so good to know I’m tapping into something ancient, natural and it’s completely enchanting. The hills themselves created the magic and I’m just a vessel to carry and hold it. 

red earth pigment