What does dirt have to do with it?

With earth-stained hands, humans make our mark.

Linda Ligon Jun 1, 2022 - 3 min read

What does dirt have to do with it?  Primary Image

Earth—our most enduring source of color. Photo by Esteban Castle via

I grew up in Oklahoma red dirt country, and back then I associated that earthy rusty stain with “oops.” Something to be avoided, bleached, removed. Of course, I have gotten over that.

Helping me along the path to a serious appreciation of dirt (or call it earth) has been working on Keith Recker’s two most recent books: True Colors: World Masters of Natural Dyes and Pigments and Deep Color: Shades that Shape Our Souls (due out in September 2022). In True Colors, I was blown away by Heidi Gustafson’s collection of ochres, a vast range of golds, rusts, reds, and even blues, greens, and purples, from all over the globe. They’re not just beautiful in their own right, but throughout history they’ve contributed to human artistic expression. You can marvel at ancient human handprints stenciled in the red earth of prehistoric Patagonia, or you can go to your local art supply store and find that same natural pigment fashioned into sticks of chalk or tubes of rich oil paint.

cave-art-hands-resPrehistoric residents of what is now Patagonia left their mark in the “Cuevas de las Manos.” Iron-rich earth provided a rich and enduring palette. A Bridgeman image from True Colors: World Masters of Natural Dyes and Pigment

Those warm earth tones are just the beginning, though. When Keith was working on the cover for Deep Color, he chose a series of earth and mineral pigments to express the dynamic presence of color in almost every aspect of our lives. Most of the color that surrounds us these days—ever since the mid-19th century, in fact— is derived from petrochemicals and various other non-natural sources. But before then? The manmade world was plenty colorful, and so much of its vibrancy came from, well, dirt.



Linda Ligon is a cofounder of Long Thread Media.