Thursday, June 19, 2014

Cochineal and Carmine

One of the really interesting parts of the Making Colour Exhibition at the National Gallery is a wall of clear boxes which contain the raw resources for the Lake colours used in painting.

If you've ever wondered what the raw materials look like this is very definitely an exhibition worth visiting!

Which brings me to Cochineal. This is an insect that produces a brilliant crimson red dye and was introduced into Europe in 1520. However it has been used in Mexico and South America as a deep red dye since the 2nd century BC. By 1550 tons of the dye was being brought over to Seville (the only port allowed to import it) to make the valued red dye. The insects were flattened and transported as dried insect 'cakes'. This trade continued until the late 18th century.

A very popular use of the dye was for textiles and tapestries in particular.

Cochineal was also often used as a glazing pigment in oil - e.g. in Carmine - because of its transparency until the late 19th century when the cochineal production industry went into steep decline. Many different shades could be produced from the cochineal lake dye depending on the additives added to the dye bath. Its use died out as artists realised it was fugitive as indeed were many of the dyes used to colour pink and crimson colours prior to the development of the stable pigment Quinacridone.

Today cochineal is widely used as a food colourant despite the fact that it provokes allergic reactions in a lot of people.

...and this is what Cochineal looks like.

Cochineal - insects, dried cochineal lake and dyed textile
National Gallery - Making Colour Exhibition
  • On the left are the little dead bodies of the cochineal bettle - a very small scale insect which feeds on cacti and is mainly found in Central America and Mexico. The insects are killed using boiling water and then dried in the sun.
  • in the middle is the powdered version of the pigment
  • on the right is what looks like a piece of silk which has been died using the cochineal dye. 

More resources about Cochineal

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