Do you know what makes the colour in your paint?
When we are thinking about what art supplies we use, most of us don’t really think about where things like pigments come from. In this modern age it is easy to assume that most pigments are manufactured in laboratories and that there is very little that synthetic production cannot do. However you might be surprised by what gives your favourite colours, or pallet staples their distinct hue. Understanding more about how your paint is made and where it comes from adds another dimension to your creative process, and it can also help when we are trying to understand why some materials cost so much, or are so hard to obtain. We’ve put together a little article to give you some facts you may not have know before!
Tyrian purple is a dye produced from sea snails which can be traced back as far ass the 13thCentury BC. It is the dye often associated with Roman robes of state; the cost involved in the production meaning only the rich could wear it. The production of this purple declined after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and was totally replaced in the late 19th Century by synthetic equivalents.
Perhaps the most famous of these dyes/pigments is that produced from the Cochineal beetle, a small parasitic insect which lives on and off the prickly pear cactus. Cochineal dyes are used in makeup and as food dyes as well as in paint. The colour comes from the Carminic acid which the beetles produce to protect themselves from predators. The beetles are harvested and then dried and crushed to produce a powder. The use of these beetles is believed to have been developed by the Maya and Aztec and was then brought to Europe by the Spanish after Columbus landed in the Americas. In the 19th century its use declined as synthetic dyes became more widely available offering an easier and cheaper alternative. However as with some natural dyes cochineal has experienced a re-emergence as concern over toxicity of synthetic dyes has grown. Cochineal is proved to be non-toxic and non- carcinogenic. Today there are major production sites in Mexico, Guatemala and the Canary Islands. The colour produced is considered to be stable, and it is one of the most resistant natural colours to time, light, oxidation and heat, even more so than many synthetic dyes. If cochineal has been used in paint, carmine will be listed as one of the pigments.
The Kermes insect which is found in oak scrub in the Mediterranean was an earlier equivalent for Europeans of the Cochineal beetle. They also produce a brilliant red dye when treated in the same way as the Cochineal bugs (but based in the kermesic acid which they produce). After the importation of the Cochineal from the Americas the use of the Kermes insect declined because although the colour produced is similar in intensity cochineal dye is 10 or 12 times more effective and stable than kermes dyes.
Lac insects also produce a red dye which can be manipulated with mordents to produce a range of colour from violet to brown. The dye is used in natural fabric dye for wool, silk and sometimes leather. However it is the glassy resin which the insects coat themselves in whilst they mature from larvae which is their principal product. Once processed this resin is made into shellac, the only commercial natural lacquer. Shellac is used in varnishes, paint, printing ink and sealing wax amongst other non- art products. The principal producers are India, Thailand and China, with smaller production lines in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
So next time you reach for a product you might know a bit more about how it’s made! Whilst some people are put off by the concept of these production methods it is worth bearing in mind that many of these natural dyes are actually safer for you than the things p