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Vermeer's Palette: Carmine


Origin, History and Characteristics

(cochineal, crimson lake)

Carmine is a natural organic dyestuff made from the dried bodies of the female cochineal insect, Dactylopius coccus, 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 the New World, first described by Pietro Andrea Mattioli in 1549.

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

"The color could be extracted from pieces of cloth that had already been dyed. 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.

The process of turning cochineal into a paint involves several steps. First, the red dye is extracted from the dried and crushed insects. This dye is then purified and often turned into a lake pigment by precipitating it onto a substrate, usually hydrated alumina. The pigment is finely ground and mixed with a binder such as oil, gum arabic, or acrylic to create the final paint.

Historically, carmine has been a prized pigment due to its vividness and intensity. It was often used for glazing and was mixed with other pigments to create a range of reds and purples. Given its cost, it was typically reserved for important commissions or for specific, focal areas of a painting, such as garments in portraiture.

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.

When it comes to its brushing characteristics, carmine is generally smooth and flows well, especially in oil and watercolor mediums. It is an intensely vivid pigment, so a small amount can have a significant impact. The pigment is often semi-transparent, making it particularly useful for glazing techniques that create depth and luminosity in a painting.

As for drying, carmine dries at a moderate rate in oil form—not as quickly as some earth pigments but faster than some of the modern synthetic ones. The finish can vary depending on the medium used, but in oils, it often has a slight sheen, adding to its vibrancy.

According to Maximilian Toch, it is only legitimate for use as a food coloring, as exposure to the sunlight for three months, bleaches the pigment completely.

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 nineteenth century, the reliance on natural dyes began 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.

For the Old Masters, preserving the integrity of their colors was a matter of great importance. Commonly used pigments, such as brown and yellow earth tones, were typically prepared in bulk. These were stored in small earthenware pots, sealed with parchment and tightly tied to prevent them from drying out. On the other hand, more valuable pigments like ultramarine and carmine were prepared in limited quantities. These were stored in pig bladders that were specially sealed to be airtight. When these high-value colors were needed, a small hole was punctured in the bladder with a short nail, allowing the paint to be squeezed out much like it is from a modern tube. After use, the small hole was resealed with the same nail to maintain the paint's freshness. For pigments that were seldom used, small shells served as convenient storage containers.

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.
  • Hermann Kühn, "A study of the pigments and the grounds used by Jan Vermeer," Technical Reports: Report anda Studies in the History Art 2 (1968): 176–202..
  • Kirby, Jo, and 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

Enhanced by the author's dual expertise as both a seasoned painter and a renowned authority on Vermeer, Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder offers an in-depth exploration of the artistic techniques and practices that elevated Vermeer to legendary status in the art world. The book meticulously delves into every aspect of 17th-century painting, from the initial canvas preparation to the details of underdrawing, underpainting, finishing touches, and glazing, as well as nuances in palette, brushwork, pigments, and compositional strategy. All of these facets are articulated in an accessible and lucid manner.

Furthermore, the book examines Vermeer's unique approach to various artistic elements and studio practices. These include his innovative use of the camera obscura, the intricacies of his studio setup, and his representation of his favorite motifs subjects, such as wall maps, floor tiles, and "pictures within pictures."

By observing closely 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 masterworks, which reveal a seamless unity of craft and poetry.

While the book is not structured as a step-by-step instructional guide, it serves as an invaluable resource for realist painters seeking to enhance their own craft. The technical insights offered are highly adaptable, offering a wealth of knowledge that can be applied to a broad range of figurative painting styles.


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


  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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Looking Over Vermeer’s Shoulder

The complete book on Vermeer’s materials, artistry and painting techniques

Jonathan Janson

(founder of Essential Vermeer.com)