Carmine: Painting with Insect Blood

What do all of these products have in common?

  • 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


They all contain carmine, a natural red pigment derived from cochineal insects. In fact, carmine is more common than you’d think, and to this day is used in popular cosmetic products such as lipstick, nail polish, and eyeshadow. Sometimes, you’ll even find carmine dye (known as E120) in common food items like fruit, yoghurt, ice cream, and candy.

Carmine is a transparent dark red colour that tends towards violet. When used in artist’s products, the colour is highly suitable for applying transparent layers, glazing, and for mixing violets in combination with Ultramarine or Phthalo blue.


Carmine continues to withstand the test of time- it has been used for over 2000 years! Known as a valuable dye for textiles and cosmetics, the Ancient Romans extracted the dye from the scaled Cochineal insect that makes its home in Kermes Oak trees. In the Middle Ages, the term scarlet was introduced. Due to the high value, only the wealthy – church leaders, sovereigns and other dignitaries – could permit themselves a red gown or cloak dyed with carmine.

Carmine slowly made its way into the art scene in the 18th century, when lacquered pigments derived from scaled insects first entered the scene. The colour was known for its poor lightfastness. These days, the characteristic dark red is fortified, made from a stable, synthetic pigment.



When the Spanish conquistadors began their conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century they were struck by the fabrics and rich face paint of the Aztecs. These possessed a redder hue than they had ever seen before! They learned that the Aztecs derived the highly-saturated pigment from Cochineal insects living as parasites on nopal cactuses, native to Mexico. The Spanish saw the profitability of this rich red dye, and began to ship ‘Spanish Red’ pigment and dye in large quantities to Europe.

There was just one problem: to produce 1 kg of dye, 150,000 insects were needed. So, the Spanish laid extensive nopal cactus plantations. Despite the increase in supply, this did not lower the market value of Carmine. On the contrary, the Spanish kept the origins of the dye a secret, driving the price up so high that it began to equal that of gold.

For years, the rival powers could only guess the origins of the valuable pigment. But with the arrival of new colonists, the origins of the dye came to light. By the 19th century, the cat was out of the bag, and the Spanish monopoly on Carmine was broken. At this point, it was well known that nopal cactuses could also grow well in various South American countries, Indonesia and the Canary Islands.


In the 18th century, Dutch inventor Cornelis Drebbel discovered how to use a chemical reaction to fixate the dye on an insoluble substance, resulting in a ‘lacquered’ pigment.  From then on, Carmine made its way into 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 back then was very different from the stable alternative pigment that is available now.

The Carmine from the Rembrandt range, for example, is manufactured as a synthetic pigment with the highest possible lightfastness, making this wonderful dark red now an essential part of an artist’s palette of colours.

Feeling inspired? A number of our products are made with Carmine, and are available for purchase today!



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