Is this a berry, a seed or something else altogether?
It is, in fact, a wingless scale insect that lives on the Scarlet Oak tree of southern and eastern Europe.
Historically, it was a very important crimson dye. The Ancient Egyptians imported it from Mesopotamia, but trade routes covered the known world, from Europe to China. When it was ruled by Ancient Rome, half of Spain’s taxes to the capital were in the form of kermes.
The insect was harvested by scraping carefully from the branches with the fingernails. The red colour is extracted by crushing the resin-encrusted insects and boiling them in lye.
With the discovery of the New World in the 15th C, Kermes was superseded by the stronger red of Cochineal, to which it is related. By the 1870s Kermes had all but completely disappeared from use.
In the Middle Ages a red lake was made not just from the kermes insect but also from a resin called lac, lak or lack. It is produced by the scale insect Laccifer lacca which secretes a resin to protect itself between hatching and maturing into an adult and encrusts the branches of trees indigenous to India and South-East Asia.
Thousands of lac insects colonize the branches of the host trees. After the lac beetle has hatched, the coated branches are cut and harvested as sticklac. Crushed, sieved and then repeatedly washed, to become seedlac (‘seed’ refers to its pellet shape).
Lac was imported to Europe in large quantities from the early thirteenth century, and as a result it became a blanket term for all red dye-based pigments. Known also as Indian Lake, it was a cheap but widely used pigment, that, through careful alteration of the pH level, could be made into a range of reds from orange through to violet hues. Still in use as a colourant for food and cosmetics, its poor lightfastness has seen its use by artists disappear.
This red really is made of blood.
Used in the Americas for dyeing textiles as early as 700 B.C, it was later the treasure of the Incas and the Aztecs. After the invasion of 1492, it became a highly important export for the Spanish, who guarded its secret crop jealously and became the third greatest traded product from the ‘New World’ (after gold and silver). Even today the only crop in Latin America that can compete with cochineal in price is cocaine. Around 14,000 of the insects are needed to make just a hundred grams of carmine pigment!
For centuries, kings and popes wore crimson robes dyed with cochineal and it was used as a cosmetic to colour lips and cheeks of the wealthy. Used as a pigment from the 17th Century, this deep crimson colour was invaluable to painters but is now rarely used by artists because it fades in sunlight.
After synthetic dyes were invented in the late 19th century, cochineal production almost vanished. However in recent times, due to health fears over arti cial food additives, a renewed interest has lead to a return in its popularity and it is now used in sweets, fruit juices, cosmetics and liquors like Campari.
In the 17th Century a beautiful new red was introduced: Madder Lake.
It is an extract made by boiling the roots of the Madder plant (rubia tintorium) which was cultivated in Europe from at least the 13th Century.
It was used as a textile dye in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, being the most permanent of the natural ruby-red dyes. It is said to have been introduced to Italy by the Crusaders returning from the Holy Lands.
Stil de Grain
Another lake pigment was Stil de Grain: made from the berries of the Buckthorn bush.
Colour-makers in the Middle Ages and later became very skilled in producing a wide range of colours from this one berry. The final colour could be controlled by the time of harvesting, the addition of tin, copper or iron salts and the temperature of the dye solution in the manufacture process.
It is a fugitive pigment but medieval manuscript books have protected it from light and moisture much better than in easel painting. In the Middle Ages the colour was sold in bladder sacks as a dense syrup, instead of being dried and sold as powder. During the 18th century it was used extensively in France and England as an oil colour.
Weld is a natural dyestuff obtained from the plant Dyer’s Rocket. It is the oldest European dye plant and was commercially cultivated well into the twentieth century; it is particularly valued for the clear and intense yellow it produced when dyeing silk.
The pigment made from Weld is known as Arzica. To manufacture, the whole plant, owers, stems and all, are dried, broken up and stewed in weak solution of alum. This extracts the colour. Then a solution of Potash (Potassium Carbonate) is added and the insoluble lake pigment is formed. This is allowed to settle, washed, then nally ltered and dried.
Since Arzica is very transparent, it is an ideal pigment for glazing. Medieval color-makers considered weld lakes with high esteem but were often used in a more unobtrusive manner than being used straight. They would be mixed with a range of blues to give greens and duller yellow pigments, such as a yellow ochre, to add life.
Sometimes in the making of Arzica chalk, egg-shells or white lead were included to add opacity. This bright, solid yellow provided a good (and harmless) substitute for poisonous orpiment.
Unfortuntaely, Arzica, like most vegetable-based lakes, is fugitive and fades under direct sunlight.
For centuries the greatest source of red lake was a kind of wood called brazil. Many people wonder how a wood can have been called brazil hundreds of years before Brazil was discovered. In fact the country is named after the wood. The word comes from the same root as the word ‘brazier’ and refers to the glowing red colour of the dye and not to the geographical source of the dyewood.
It cannot be underestimated how important brazil lakes were in the Middle Ages as the main source of reds. Important as the insect dyes were, brazil was vastly more common, because it was cheaper and easier to use. It was the source of the vast majority of rose colours in manuscript and panel painting aswell as a large proportion of the dark transparent reds.
Like kermes and grain it was largely repl;aced after the discovery of the New World by the more brilliant and powerful cochineal and ultimately by the more permanet madder.
Used as writing ink from Ancient Roman onwards, it remained in common use as an artist’s drawing material until the 19th century.
Sepia is obtained from the ink sacs of cuttle fish. The sacs are extracted from the bodies and are dried to prevent putrefaction. The sacs are then dissolved in dilute alkali, and the resulting solution is filtered. The pigment is precipitated with dilute hydrochloric acid and then washed, filtered, and dried.
Only from Renaissance times onward, however, did sepia become popular as a drawing medium. In the late 18th and 19th centuries it was particularly popular and generally replaced bistre as a medium for making wash drawings.