Painting with insect blood

Carmine has been used for more than 2000 years in fabrics and cosmetics. In the 18th century pigments in lacquered form derived from scale insects make their entrance onto the art scene. The colour, however, was known for its poor lightfastness. These days the characteristic dark red is therefore made from a stable, synthetic pigment.

The name Carmine probably comes from the Arabic word 'Chamra', which means red and from which the word crimson also derives. The dark red was known for its poor lightfastness and it was only as recently as the 18th century that it began to be used as a lacquered pigment in painting. This does not detract from the fact that Carmine had been used since ancient times by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans in order to dye fabrics. They extracted the dye from the scale insect Cochineal that lived on Kermes Oak trees. In the Middle Ages the term scarlet was introduced. Due to the high price, only rich people - church leaders, sovereigns and other dignitaries - could permit themselves a Carmine red gown or cloak.


Spanish Red

When the Spanish conquistadores began their conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century they were struck by the fabrics and face paint of the Aztecs that had a redder hue than they had ever seen before. The dye turned out to be derived from Cochineal insects that lived as parasites on nopal cactuses. Spain saw a gap in the market and so the 'Spanish Red' began to be shipped in large quantities to Europe. As some 150,000 insects were needed to produce just 1 kg of dye, extensive nopal cactus plantations were laid. This however did not lead to Carmine becoming cheaper. On the contrary, the Spanish kept the origins of the dye a secret and drove up the price so high that it even equalled that of gold. For a long time the rival powers could only guess the origins. But with the arrival of ever new colonists the origins of the dye came to light. By the 19th century the Spanish monopoly was broken after it was discovered that nopal cactuses could also grow well in various South American countries, Indonesia and the Canary Islands.

Cornelis Drebbel

In the 18th century the Dutch inventor Cornelis Drebbel discovered how to fixate the dye on an insoluble substance by means of a chemical reaction. This resulted in a 'lacquered' pigment.  From then on Carmine started to be also used in art painting albeit it to a limited degree, as the lightfastness still left a lot to be desired. Well-known masters such as William Turner, George Braque and Cezanne used Carmine, but we can only now guess what these paintings looked like originally. The lacquered pigment was then very different from the stable alternative pigment that is available now. The Carmine from the Rembrandt range is for example manufactured on the basis of a synthetic pigment with the highest possible lightfastness, making this wonderful dark red now an essential part of an artist's palette of colours.

Did you know that…

The natural dye that is derived from cochineal insects, and named after these insects, is still frequently used for dying cosmetic products such as lipstick, nail varnish and eye shadow? What's more the dye, with the number E120, is processed in numerous foodstuffs, including fruit squash, yoghurt, ice cream and sweets.


Carmine is a transparent dark red colour that tends towards violet. This makes the colour highly suitable for applying transparent layers, glazing, and for mixing violets in combination with Ultramarine or Phthalo blue.

Royal Talens has the colour Carmine in the following product ranges:

  • Rembrandt oil colours, colour numbers: 318 and 323
  • Rembrandt acrylic colours, colour number: 318
  • Rembrandt water colours, colour number: 318 
  • Rembrandt soft pastels, colour number: 318
  • Van Gogh oil colours, colour number: 318
  • Van Gogh acrylic colours, colour numbers: 318 and 322
  • Van Gogh oil pastels, colour number: 318
  • Cobra water mixable oil colours, colour number: 318
  • Amsterdam acrylic colours Standard Series, colour numbers: 318
  • Amsterdam acrylic colours Expert Series, colour numbers: 318 and 323
  • Talens Gouache Extra Fine quality, colour number: 318