Roussillon’s True Colours

Ester Laushway, February 2008

We continue our series on “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”, with an updated reprint of an article first published in November 2006.

Perched on a hill between the Luberon towns of Gordes and Apt, the village of Roussillon is a splendid example of how you can really paint the town red. The tall ochre cliffs that surround it have provided the village with an astonishing palette of natural pigments, which have found their way into the mortar and plaster of the houses. Their complexions vary from a becoming blush to a sunburned red, from a golden glow to a burnished bronze – sixteen different shades in all.

Roussillon sits astride the largest deposit of ochre in the world; a geological marvel forged one hundred million years ago, sculpted by erosion and mining into a fantastic, primal landscape. The bands of ochre were first used by prehistoric man to create cave paintings that have survived to this day. Ochre started being mined by the Romans, but it was not until the late 18th century that a native of Roussillon, Jean-Etienne Astier, discovered how to extract the pure pigment from the ochre ore.

In its natural state, ochre is mixed with sand, from which it has to be separated by a “decantation” process: the raw ore is washed, the heavier sand grains settle to the bottom, the ochre suspended in the water is “decanted” into a basin and left to dry. Once the water has evaporated, the sediment left behind is nearly pure ochre, ready to be ground into powder and used in a variety of domains including construction, cosmetics, paper and rubber.

During the 19th century, Roussillon and its surrounding villages made a prosperous living from the coloured earth on which they were built. By the 1920’s, there were 20 factories in the region, producing 40,000 tonnes of ochre that was exported all over the world. Its primary use was as a pigment in the building trade, but it was also added to rubber to make linoleum, bicycle inner tubes, and the red rubber bands used to seal preserve jars. During World War II, it was even blended with cocoa powder to make a cup of hot chocolate that at least looked luscious even if it tasted a bit weak.

Then synthetic pigments were discovered and ochre production fell off dramatically. Today, only one factory is left in all of Europe, just outside the town of Apt. In 1995, another old factory on the outskirts of Roussillon was given a new lease on life as the Conservatory of Ochres and Applied Pigments. Owned by the community of Roussillon and run by a business-wise young couple, Mathieu and Barbara Barrois, the rehabilitated factory is dedicated to the survival of traditional uses of natural pigments. It gives guided tours that follow every step of the process which transforms ochre ore into pigment, holds workshops, which teach the secrets of using natural pigments and hosts fascinating exhibitions: the current one, on the theme of Parlons Couleur, explores the language of colours, with a presentation of drawings and collages from the artist Zaurel, lasting until May 31.

To experience ochre at its most splendid, it has to be seen in its natural state. A marked trail leads through the glowing cliffs of Roussillon and is an outing for the whole family, as long as everyone is dressed wash-and-wear for the occasion. Children can turn themselves into red Indians here, complete with full war make-up, in a matter of minutes.

Be warned: the flamboyance of ochre “in the wild” may leave an indelible mark, if not on your clothes, then on your consciousness. It now pervades my usually minimal dreams of home decorating, so that I have transformed our TV room with a red colour wash. Côté Sud has not rushed over for a photo shoot yet, but I know my ochre walls will last long enough for future archaeologists to puzzle over the painting techniques of the early 21st century.

Conservatoire des ocres et pigments appliqués: Tel-Fax: 04 90 05 66 69.
Opening hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 09:00 – 18:00. Guided tours available in English.
Workshops: Complete programme/prices available on web-site: www.okhra.com.

Copyright © 2008 Anglo-American Group of Provence