Colour story: Magenta

Violet-red magenta is known for its intensity. It also has a rich history as a popular synthetic dye and pigment. Winsor & Newton offer two paints in the colour: Permanent Magenta and Quinacrine Magenta. However, magenta is not actually on the light spectrum. Which begs the question: how can we see it? And how can it be used as a colourant? 

Magenta is from the family of aniline dyes. This comes from the Spanish word for indigo, ‘anil’. Aniline dyes were discovered through distilling the colourant in the natural vegetable indigo. 

The potential of synthetic dyes led to a worldwide search for what colours were possible, and scientists began experimenting with testing compounds in all sorts of combinations. British and French firms were racing against each other to make vibrantly coloured commercial synthetic dyes. Magenta was first produced in 1859, as a result of this pursuit. Its name commemorated the Italian-French victory in the Battle of Magenta.  

Winsor & Newton were the first to make the synthetic pigment Quinacridone Magenta for artists, in 1958. This was a significant advancement, as quinacridone pigments are strong yet transparent. Ranging from yellow to orange and red to violet, they are bold and extremely lightfast (Quinacridone Magenta is rated an A in permanency). As a result, they are often used in industrial and motor industries.  

At first magenta was an elite, expensive colour reserved for the wealthy and the military. But its popularity quite quickly spread through society’s ranks. As the public clamoured for access to beautifully coloured fabrics for themselves, anilines became more affordable, and a whole range of colours came from experiments in factories from all over France and the UK. 

This surge in popularly ironically led to the decline of magenta. Once it became commonplace, magenta was less of a fashion statement, and demand fell. Also, these new colours of the early twentieth century had disturbing levels of arsenic content, making them unsafe. Today, Permanent Magenta is a modern formulation of the original, and is found in the Winsor & Newton oil, acrylic and watercolour ranges.  

Understanding the science behind magenta’s visibility, however, lies in how we see light.  

Red and violet sit on either end of the colour spectrum. Scientists have learned that, when the human brain sees red and violet waves, it invents a new colour – halfway between the two colours. Magenta has no wavelength attributed to it, because it is really a bridge between red and violet. Instead, our brains blend these two extremes to fill the gap in the spectrum, making magenta.

Magenta is a phenomenon that illustrates our brains innate tendency to make sense of colour. So, the next time you use a tube of Permanent or Quinacridone Magenta, or see its red-violet hues splashed across a canvas, remember that the colour you are seeing is in fact a construct of your mind.