Old pigments painting blog: Madder Lake

My paint box: Madder Lake

My paint box is one of my favourite things: I’ve managed to exclude any paint developed after 1700, so no cadmiums or synthetic ultramarine for me. I guess that makes me a purist – it’s interesting how you learn things about yourself after a number of decades. So, I have ended up with a palette containing colours 17th century Dutch painters had access to:

Lead white and chalk-containing lead white, lead-tin yellow, stil de grain/schietgeel, vermilion, madder lake, lapis lazuli, blue verditer/bice, smalt, malachite, raw and burnt siennas, raw and burnt umbers, Cassel earth and bone black.

These colours are from a variety of sources: man-made (such as Lead white, Smalt), mineral/deposit (such as Lapis lazuli, Malachite and earth colours) and organic (made from berries such as Stil de grain, or sourced from ancient peat-containing soil such as Cassel Earth). Madder Lake is organic in origin and produced from the root of the madder plant (Rubia tinctorum). It is a beautiful, deep ruby-red.

Use throughout history
Madder lake has been in use since antiquity, as a textile dye and as a paint. It was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb and as a paint was especially popular in 15th and 16th century Holland, where it was one of the few bright paints available to painters. Examples can be seen in paintings by for example El Greco, Velazquez and Vermeer. It had to be used with caution though as the purpurin pigment in this paint (rather than the pseudo-purpurin and alizarin), is prone to fading if not used in a careful way: exposure to excessive light was to be  avoided. This was achieved by using Madder lake as a glaze or as a thick layer in relatively dark areas of a painting – and definitely no heavy mixing with white. Using this approach, madder lake is fairly permanent.

As a transparent paint madder lake is ideal for glazing. It was traditionally paired with vermillion: brushed over this as an unbroken glaze results in a brilliant deepened red. Vermeer was known to use this technique, and we can see this today in his paintings Girl with a Red Hat, Girl with a Wine Glass and, famously,  Girl with a Pearl Earring where he used madder lake to paint those lips:

girl with a red hat vermeer

Girl with the Red Hat
Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665/1666
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Google Arts & Culture
girl with a wine glass vermeer
Girl with a wine glass
Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665/1666
Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, 3Landesmuseen Braunschweig
Google Arts & Culture
girl with a pearl earring vermeer

Girl with a Pearl Earring
Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
Mauritshuis, The Netherlands

Further reading/references: