I’ve been messing around with colors ever since I was a kid: crayons, tie-dyeing, colored pencils, oil paints, food dyes, and later, pigments for staining clay and so many more of the offerings we find in any art supply store. My parents were really good about taking us to museums and galleries when we were on trips and we saw the old paintings made by the masters, the stained glass in old churches, illuminated manuscripts, the peeling paints of old santos, tapestries, costumes, and art from ages past. Color has always been the language of artists! But, I never gave much thought to where it came from… Even as I got older and learned about natural dyes, I just assumed that each region of the world had natural resources that would give artists the colors they used and that have survived the passage of time, the ones we see archived behind glass or in books.
The other site that I run, TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List, has a significant number of people working with dyes, both commercial and natural. They dye yarn, embroidery threads, silk worms and fabric and may teach workshops on dye techniques or perhaps they are salvaging and preserving vintage textiles that show interesting techniques. TAFA Dye and Paint Search Results In a group discussion, Mary Hertert recommended the book “Color” by Victoria Finlay. I got it on Amazon for a few bucks and then it just sat on my desk for over a year as I rarely have time to read anymore. I finally started and then couldn’t stop. Finlay travels around the world to investigate the source of various colors that have had historical impact on art: lapis lazuli in Afghanistan, ochre in Australia, cochineal in Mexico, among others… That’s when I learned about how the color red had so much importance in world history, especially in the colonization of Central America and in the enrichment of European kingdoms.
Cochineal is a bug that thrives on a cactus plant native to Mexico. When you squeeze the bug, a red dye oozes out. You can get the specs on Wikipedia. The Incas also treasured cochineal. Finlay talks about how the Incas used it:
“Women used cochineal as a blusher, potters used it as decoration, home decorators used it on walls, and artists used it their frescos. But most of all it was found in textiles, most of which have now been destroyed by time and sunlight.
The beetle blood alone would not pass any color fastness tests – without any additives the quipus and the clothes would have faded with the first wash. To make the color fix, the ancient Meso-Americans used to mix it either with tin or with alum.” (p. 143, 144)
Finlay goes on to talk about other reds and gives an overview of how they impacted European art and life. The whole book jumps around with interesting narratives and parallels of how various colors were used in history and whether they still survive today. Some were extremely poisonous and led to insanity and death.
Millions of cochineal insects were needed to feed the European lust for red. Ships traveled back and forth from Europe, loaded with the bugs. That story is told in more detail by Amy Butler Greenfield in her book, “The Perfect Red“. When the Conquistadors arrived in the Americas, cochineal was already in use by natives in Mexico and Peru. It took quite a while for the value of these insects to sink into these treasure seeking Spaniards as they were more interested in gold and silver. When the waves of merchants began making their way to the “New World”, the economic potential of cochineal manifested itself and they made it their business to harvest, transport and sell cochineal red to the dyers back home.
A bit from the book:
“After harvesting, the insects were spread onto mats and dried in the sun for four or five days. To hurry the process along, farmers could place the insects in ovens or heat them in steam baths called temazcalli. In each case, the cochineal shriveled up and died, losing a third of its weight in the process. It took as many as 70,000 dried insects – and sometimes more – to make one pound of dye.
Raising cochineal was hard work, but the ancient Mexicans considered it well worth the effort. Long before the Conquest, farmers were able to sell their cochineal in many marketplaces, exchanging it for fish, maize, chile peppers, and salt. As commerce developed, certain merchants from the southern highlands became specialists in the rare dyestuff. … Complex and sophisticated, these ancient trade networks flourished for centuries, reaching what may have been a high point under the rule of the Aztecs, a warrior society that controlled much of ancient Mexico in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.
… Gifted poets and musicians, the Aztecs were also master craftsmen, especially when it came to textiles and dyes. Most remarkable was their skill in dyeing feathers, which they used in the thousands to create elaborate cloaks, shields, and headdresses…. Red was the color of the sun, and they further identified the color with rituals of blood, death and sacrifice.” (p. 40, 41)
The book goes on for another 250 pages about the rise and fall of cochineal and other natural dyes like madder. Fascinating stories! Cochineal production almost died out until a resurgence within the textile community in the 1970’s raised awareness and the old Oaxacan natives who were still alive taught what they knew to the both locals and foreigners who came to them do document their knowledge.
The Oaxaca Cultural Navigator is one such effort that hosts workshops and provides educational opportunities to learn about cochineal, other dye practices and weaving techniques local practiced traditionally in the area.
If you are interested in the history of colors and specifically cochineal red, both of these books entertain, inform and are great starting points for learning about how color has played out with artists, culture and world economies. As humans, our ability and desire to mark our surroundings with color has been documented from early on. It’s hard wired into us and all colors carry deep meaning.
Red, especially, has powerful symbolic references for us: blood, war, heart, love… We get red marks on our papers, red lights stop our cars, red dresses are sexy, red eyes in the night are scary, a red rose is romantic, a red nose might be funny, a red face is embarrassing….
What does red mean to you?
Let us know in the comment area below…
Of course, here at Artizan Made, we would like to show off some of our reds:
More from our Artizan Market!
See them all in our Red Category.
Quickview All Products, Home and Office, Table Top, Bowls, Ceramics, Folk Art, Tribal Art, Dots, Red, Clay, Terra Cotta, Method, Painted, Thrown, AfricaA festive table comes to life when you personalize it with handmade accents. The Loaded Trunk has a wonderful selection of bowls from around the world. Rooted in history and tradition, they also speak to us in a contemporary setting.$89.00
Quickview All Products, To Wear, Accessories, Scarves, Green, Red, Yellow, Fiber, Silk, Dyed, Sewn, Americas, USAThis colorful triangle scarf was created by hand-painting and silkscreening tight twisted seersucker silk with fiber reactive dyes. Great to throw over a plain outfit to add some interest and zest! Clicking on the Shop on Etsy button will take you to my listing there where you can purchase this item and see what else is in stock.$45.00 Shop: Dianne Koppisch
Quickview All Products, Home and Office, Table Top, Bowls, Niche, Glass, Holiday Themes, Weddings, Elements, Blue, Red, Materials, Glass-Material, Method, Blown, Provenance, Americas, USAClick on the Shop on Etsy button to visit my shop there. You will see all of my available stock.$94.32 Shop: ElliottGlassArt
Quickview All Products, Home and Office, Niche, Kids, Decorative, Folk Art, Holiday Themes, Christmas, Ornaments, Easter, Red, Zen, Cotton, Wool, Embroidered, Provenance, Americas, USA
Mesa Temari BallDeep rust temari ball embroidered with warm shades of brown, tan, and orange Temari balls and fine handknits by India Tresselt. www.yarndancevt.com This listing on Artizan Made links over to my shop on Etsy. You will be able to see what I have in stock there.
Quickview All Products, Home and Office, Pillows, Niche, Holiday Themes, Textiles, Upcycled, Nature, Red, Shabby Chic, Fiber, Hooked, Provenance, USADelightful Hand Hooked Snowflake Pillows tease with the promise of the winter to come.$58.00 Shop: Jwrobel
Quickview All Products, Home and Office, Wall Art, Niche, Folk Art, Textiles, Upcycled, Elements, Red, Rustic, Stripes, Materials, Mixed Media, Wool, Method, Hooked, Sewn, Provenance, Americas, USAPrimitive hand hooked peppermints are a playful addition to your country decor.$70.00 Shop: Jwrobel
Quickview All Products, Home and Office, Table Top, Pot, Niche, Ceramics, Folk Art, Tribal Art, Vintage, Elements, Black, Red, Rustic, Materials, Clay, Terra Cotta, Method, Provenance, Americas, MexicoCulturalPatina maintains a large shop on Etsy with over 800 Museum quality products and original art. Our focus is primarily on American Western art, but we also have a sizable collection on Naga beadwork and textiles, along with other tribal from around the world. Clicking on the 'Shop on Etsy' button will take you to that section of our shop where you can see similar works. If this item has sold, you should be able to find something else of the same quality and price range.$1,302.00 Shop: CulturalPatina Gallery
Quickview All Products, To Wear, Clothing, Tops, Green, Orange, Red, Synthetic, Dyed, Printed, Sewn, USAclick on the VISIT COLOR CREEK button to see what Mary has in stock for colors and sizes$145.00 Shop: ColorCreek
Quickview Halloween-Day of the Dead, All Products, Home and Office, Sculpture, Niche, Folk Art, Tribal Art, Woodwork, Elements, Red, White, Materials, Wood, Method, Carved, Provenance, Americas, MexicoClick on the Shop on Etsy button to visit my shop there.$135.00 Shop: Steel Goat Studio
Quickview All Products, Home and Office, Wall Art, Art Quilts, Red, Cotton, Quilted, USAContemporary Art Quilt for the Wall. Improvisationally designed and stitched on my home sewing machine with variegated thread.$295.00 Shop: CindyGrisdelaArtQuilts
Quickview All Products, To Wear, Accessories, Scarves, Red, Zen, Silk, Method, Dyed, Sewn, Provenance, USAThis sweet boysenberry silk charmeuse infinity scarf was created by hand-dyeing with acid dyes utilizing the itajime method of shibori resist. Pop this on any plain outfit and enjoy the sleekness of the silk against your skin. Diameter 56″ x Width 15″ Clicking on the Shop on Etsy button will take you to my listing there where you can purchase this item and see what else is in stock.$100.00 Shop: Dianne Koppisch