Crimson + Carmine

The color of blood and fire, illustrative of vitality, heat and erotic love, red is one of the oldest and most emotive colors in our short history of language and representation. While colors have held symbolic meaning in many cultures, none have had the breadth and complexion of the color red. 

Red represents events and emotions at the very core of the human condition, danger and courage, heat and passion, revolution and war, evil, violence, sin and shame, wealth and royalty, death, and of course, life itself. For artists, finding a fierce red today is as easy as going to your local art supply store (we're open seven days a week for all of your crimson desires), but for thousands of years the best red pigment was the ochre of the first early human, which was a muddied and dull attempt at the blistering, vivid, seductive reds of mother nature herself. 

Red changed the world a bit during the 16th century. In 1519 Spanish Conquistadors discovered the rich, saturated, luminous South American red that Europeans had been yearning for since Roman times, Dactylopius coccus's cochineal crimson.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes , 1530 Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, Kronach 1472–1553 Weimar) Oil on linden

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1530
Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, Kronach 1472–1553 Weimar)
Oil on linden


Carmine is a natural organic dyestuff made from the dried and pulverized bodies of the female cochineal insect, Dactylopius coccus, of Mexico and in Central and South America. Because carmine is a dye (a thin, water-soluble staining material with no “body” of it’s own), it must be chemically bonded to clay, salt, or some other insoluble material to be used as a paint pigment through a process known as laking, technology pioneered by the early Egyptians. There are several paint colors originally produced through the laking process, the most famous of which are carmine, madder, and indigo.

Cochineal is an ancient Inca & Aztec scale insect, ovoid shaped and no larger than a child's pinky fingernail (if that) and is still cultivated today. The cochineal thrive on the juicy flesh of prickly pear cacti, literally eating them alive. Female cochineal are full of carminic acid which is a really handy repellent, their own special chemical weapon against predators and a really lovely crimson dye (Source 1).

There are a few other notable dye producing critters in the same super-family as the cochineal, in particular lac & kermes. Examples of dye from lac and kermes date back to at least 714 B.C.E. in the Middle East (Source 2). In the first century AD Pliny the Elder of Rome listed "the red, that of the kermes" to be among the first "fabrics which rival the color of flowers," (Natural History 22), but cochineal came onto the scene with the juiciest crimson yet, it yielded the most colorant and had a stronger tinctorial strength—domestication and breeding further improved the cochineal extraction process (Source 3).


The cochineal farmer's job is a delicate balance, keeping the cacti alive, but allowing the cochineal to feast happily upon their flesh, because if left to their own devices, cochineal will eat an entire cacti to its death. The farmer has to time the cochineal harvest just right, striking harmony between life and death.

North of Chile, on a modern cochineal plantation, about 45,000 prickly pear plants per hectare are in nice neat rows. Male cochineal bugs fly around rows and rows of cacti in a fertilizing frenzy, living for only a few days. Meanwhile, the ladies are literally holding all the fun. That magical, deep crimson comes from within. The female bugs hang out on the pads of the cacti, become pregnant, they fatten up off of the cactus' flesh & moisture, and then at just the right time, about 14 human workers begin the harvest. Utilizing an air compressor, the farm workers collect the cochineal, shoot them into buckets, and dry them in ovens before pulverizing them into dreamy crimson sludge (Source 1).

"The nopal plant that is grown in America and produces grana [insect dye]."  Reports on the History, Organization, and Status of Various Catholic Dioceses of New Spain and Peru (1620-49) fol. 85.

"The nopal plant that is grown in America and produces grana [insect dye]." Reports on the History, Organization, and Status of Various Catholic Dioceses of New Spain and Peru (1620-49) fol. 85.


Dried cochineal bugs came from the New World to Europe in the mid 1500s. After gold & silver, cochineal was the third most valuable import. The first shipment of 60 metric tons of brown dried bodies arrived in Spain in 1557 in what came to be known as the “cochineal fleet.” Over the next the next quarter century South American exported around 4,000 metric tons of dried cochineal, that’s trillions of those lil’ buggas annually.

Cochineal was used as a dye, paint, cosmetic and medicine. When Philip II of Spain was sick he used a concoction of ground up cochineal bugs and vinegar served up in a silver spoon to cure his ails (Source 1). New widespread availability of cochineal made it accessible for people to color the town red. Textiles for the wealthy, royal and papal, military uniforms, cosmetics, paints, and medicine all utilized this new world red. Cochineal was brought into the powder rooms of young Spanish and French women as well as the pallets of artists.

Today it is one of the world's safest colorants. Cochineal, natural red 4, is still used as a dye in cosmetics and food. If you've ever worn a red-hued lipstick, ordered a (pre 2012) strawberry frappuccino from Starbucks (since 2012 they have ditched our lovely bug-based dye friends), had a can of soup for lunch, or enjoyed a processed ham sandwich, you’ve likely consumed that tiny bug, cochineal. 


According to most contemporary artists, carmine is only legitimate as a food coloring, as exposure to the sunlight for three months, bleaches the pigment completely. In Cranach's Judith with the Head of Holofernes, "the crimson glaze on the bloody stub of Holofernes’s neck is somewhat abraded and has probably faded" (Source 5).

Cochineal, kermes, madder and other lake pigments are still employed today in cosmetics such as lipstick and nail varnish, but the red pigment is no longer used in painting because of its poor light fastness, as lakes can be fugitive.

Madder is a lake derived from the extract of the madder plant's root (rubia tintorum) which the principle coloring substance is alizarin. It is one of the most stable natural pigments & was most widely used in the 18th and 19th century, though never as extensively as the ruby-like lakes made from cochineal (Source 6).

Chemists began to investigate natural organic products with the aim of producing a synthetic and more permanent madder. Two Parisian chemists, Colin and Robiquet, isolated a red substance from madder & named it alizarin (Source 7). A German team of scientists, Adolf Bayer (1835-1917), Carl Graebe (1841-1927) and Carl Lieberman (1842-1914) patented a method for alizarin's synthesis in December 1868. Industrial production of the synthetic madder alizarin began in Germany soon afterwards and caused the total collapse of the natural madder industry throughout Europe (Source 7).

At the Depo have have a few options for a true lightfast replacement for Alizarin Crimson in oils. Williamsburg and Gamblin make an excellent lightfastness rated Permanent Crimson made from the synthetic pigment, Anthraquinone. Williamburg's Permanent Crimson is an absolutely permanent, lightfast substitute for Alizarin Crimson. Not at all electric or synthetic looking - more down to earth than quinacridones. Exquisitely clean in mixing. Gamblin's Alizarin Permanent is a cool, slightly bluish red with smoky glaze. 

Golden Acrylic's modern version of historical Alizarin Crimson is a mix of quinacridone and phthalo to make an exceptionally lightfast and strong tinting paint, with a deep reddish brown undertone like the historical color.

Reference List

  1. Victoria Finlay, Color: A Natural History of the Palette, 2002
  3. Lana Phipps, Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010
  4. Amy Butler Greenfield, A Perfect Red Empire, Espionage, an d the Quest for the Color of Desire, 2009
  7. Originally titled "A Colour Chemist's History of Western Art", published in Review of Progress in Coloration, Millennium Issue, Vol. 29, 1999, pp 43-64, Society of Dyers and Colourists, Bradford, UK.