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Vermeer's Palette: Carmine


Origin, History and Characteristics

(cochineal, crimson lake)

Cochinal pigment Indian Collecting Cochineal with a Deer Tail’ from Memoria sobre la naturaleza, cultivo, y beneficio de la grana (. . .), 1777, by José Antonia de Alzate y Ramirez, Source: Newberry Library: Vault Ayer MS 1031.

Carmine is a natural organic dyestuff made from the dried bodies of the female cochineal insect, crocus cacti, which lives on various cactus plants in Mexico and in Central and South America. Carmine must be precipitated on clay, since it has no body of its own. It was brought to Europe shortly after the discovery of those countries, first described by Mathioli in 1549.

After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire (1519-21), which opened trade routes to the New World, cochineal was exported to Spain. From there, it was regularly sent to Antwerp. In the 17th century, cochineal was so valuable that its price was often quoted on the Amsterdam commodity exchange.

"The colour could be extracted from pieces of cloth that had already been dyed. To turn cochineal into a paint, the red dye has to be changed from a liquid into a solid by attaching it to a white powder, usually hydrated alumina. The resulting pigment is called red lake, which Vermeer mixed with oil and other pigments to make a paint. The finest quality, known as nacarat carmine, is non poisonous and quite beautiful with the peculiarity of being more permanent in transmitted light as a transparent color, than when under direct light."Abbie Vandivere, "11. Seeing red," Girl with a Blog, Mauritshuis, accessed [Augut 13, 2023], https://www.mauritshuis.nl/en/our-collection/restoration-and-research/closer-to-vermeer-and-the-girl/girl-with-a-blog/red-pigments-girl-with-a-pearl-earring-vermeer/. According to Maximillian Toch, it is only legitimate as a food coloring, as exposure to the sunlight for three months, bleaches the pigment completely.

Since carmine is very transparent, it is an excellent pigment for glazing.

As a note, carmine dye was a popular choice for fabric coloring in the Americas and emerged as a significant export during the 16th-century colonial era. However, with the invention of synthetic pigments and dyes like alizarin in the late 19th century, the reliance on natural dyes started to wane. Concerns about the safety of synthetic food additives in recent times have revived the demand for cochineal dyes. As a result, cultivating the insect has become economically viable again. Currently, Peru is the leading producer, with Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and the Canary Islands trailing behind.

Carmine in Vermeer's Painting

Carmine has been detected in only three of Vermeer's paintings, The Love Letter, The Procuress and Girl with a Pearl Earring. In The Love Letter it was most likely used in the design of the leather guilt wall covering behind the two sitters or in the hanging curtain. In cross-sections taken from the Girl with a Pearl Earring, "red lake is sometimes visible as particles that appear deep red in normal light, and fluoresce bright pink in UV. Because red lake fades over time, it is harder to see some of the particles. But when paint fragments from the Girl’s skin and clothing were examined with the chromatographic technique UHPLC, the were found to contain carmine, most likely made from Mexican cochineal. The distribution of red lakes in her lips and skin using ultraviolet fluorescence infrared examination."Abbie Vandivere, "11. Seeing red," Girl with a Blog, Mauritshuis, accessed [Augut 13, 2023], https://www.mauritshuis.nl/en/our-collection/restoration-and-research/closer-to-vermeer-and-the-girl/girl-with-a-blog/red-pigments-girl-with-a-pearl-earring-vermeer/. Vermeer most likely used carmine more extensively but either in areas which have not been examined or else it has suffered fading.

The Love Letter, Johannes Vermeer The Love Letter (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1667–1670
Oil on canvas, 44 x 38.5.cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Carmine Resourses

  • Kirby, Jo, Marika Spring, and Catherine Higgitt. 2005. “The Technology of Red Lake Pigment Manufacture: Study of the Dyestuff Substrate.” National Gallery Technical Bulletin 26:71–87.
  • Kirby, Jo, Raymond White. 1996. “The Identification of Red Lake Pigment Dyestuffs and a Discussion of their Use.” National Gallery Technical Bulletin 17:56–80.
  • Kirby, Jo, Susie Nash, and Joanna Cannon, eds. 2010. Trade in Artists’ Materials: Markets and commerce in Europe to 1700. London: Archetype.
  • Gettens, Rutherford J., and George L. Stout. 1966. Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopedia. Courier Dover Publications. Google Books.
  • Wikipedia. s.v. “Cochineal.”


Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder is a comprehensive study of the materials and painting techniques that made Vermeer one of the greatest masters of European art.

Bolstered by the author's qualifications as a professional painter and a Vermeer connoisseur, every facet of 17th-century and Vermeer's painting practices—including canvas preparation, underdrawing, underpainting, glazing, palette, brushes, pigments and composition—is laid out in clear, comprehensible language. Also investigated are a number of key issues related specifically to Vermeer's studio methods, such as the camera obscura, studio organization as well as how he depicted wall-maps, floor tiles, pictures-within-pictures, carpets and other of his most defining motifs. Each of the book's 24 topics is accompanied by abundant color illustrations and diagrams.

By observing at close quarters the studio practices of Vermeer and his preeminent contemporaries, the reader will acquire a concrete understanding of 17th-century painting methods and materials and gain a fresh view of Vermeer's 35 works of art, which reveal a seamless unity of craft and poetry.

While not written as a "how-to" manual, realist painters will find a true treasure trove of technical information that can be adapted to almost any style of figurative painting.

author: Jonathan Janson
date: 2020 (second edition)
pages: 294
illustrations: 200-plus illustrations and diagrams
formats: PDF | ePUB | AZW3

Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder


  1. Vermeer's Training, Technical Background & Ambitions
  2. An Overview of Vermeer’s Technical & Stylistic Evolution
  3. Fame, Originality & Subject Matte
  4. Reality or Illusion: Did Vermeer’s Interiors ever Exist?
  5. Color
  6. Composition
  7. Mimesi & Illusionism
  8. Perspective
  9. Camera Obscura Vision
  10. Light & Modeling
  11. Studio
  12. Four Essential Motifs in Vermeer’s Oeuvre
  1. Drapery
  2. Painting Flesh
  3. Canvas
  4. Grounding
  5. “Inventing,” or Underdrawing
  6. “Dead-Coloring,” or Underpainting
  7. “Working-up,” or Finishing
  8. Glazing
  9. Mediums, Binders & Varnishes
  10. Paint Application & Consistency
  11. Pigments, Paints & Palettes
  12. Brushes & Brushwork

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