Colour Story: Ruby Madder Alizarin

Ruby Madder Alizarin

Ruby Madder Alizarin is a new Winsor & Newton colour formulated using the benefits of synthetic alizarin. We rediscovered this colour in our archives, in a tint book from 1937, and our chemists decided to try to match this powerful deep-toned variety of Alizarin Lake.

We still possess English colourman George Field’s notebooks; he was known for working closely with our founders on colour formulation. After Field developed a technique to lake madder which resulted in a longer-lasting colour, further experiments were carried out to develop other beautiful variations of madders, with the principle colouring matter being Alizarin.


Ruby Madder Alizarin
The Madder room in the former Winsor & Newton factory in Harrow, London.


The roots of the common madder plant (Rubia tinctorum) have been cultivated and used for at least five thousand years to dye textiles, although it took a little while before it was used in paint. This is because to use madder as a pigment you must first turn the water-soluble dye into an insoluble compound by combining it with a metallic salt.

Once it is insoluble, it can be dried and the solid residue ground up and mixed with a paint medium, like any mineral pigment. This is referred to as a lake pigment and is a technique used to make many pigments from plant or animal matter.


Ruby Madder Alizarin
Etching ink madder lake swatch.

Some of the earliest madder lakes have been found on Cypriot pottery dating from the 8th Century BC. Madder lakes were also used in many Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits. In European painting, madder was more commonly used during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Due to the pigment’s transparent properties, madder lakes were often used for glazing.

A common technique was to apply a madder glaze over the top of vermillion to produce a brilliant and deep red. This method can be seen in several of Vermeer’s paintings, such as ‘Girl with a Red Hat’ (c.1665). There are surprisingly few historic recipes around for laking madder. One reason for this could be that rather than using dye extracted from the plant, in many cases the madder dye was extracted from already dyed textile.

By 1804 George Field had developed a simplified method to extract the dye from madder roots and to lake the madder that produced a more stable pigment. The term ‘madder’ can be found to describe the gamut of red hues, from brownish to purplish, to bluish. This is because the rich colour of madder dye is the result of a complex mix of colourants.

The proportions of these colourants can be affected by dozens of factors, from which species of madder plant is used, what soil the plant is grown in, to how the roots and stored and processed. Furthermore, the colour of the final madder pigment is also affected by the metal of the salt used to make it insoluble.

In 1868 English chemist William Henry Perkin was pipped to the post by the German scientists Graebe and Lieberman who patented their recipe for synthetic alizarin one day before. This was the first natural pigment to be recreated synthetically. One of the most significant benefits of this was that synthetic alizarin cost less than half the price of natural alizarin lakes and it has even better lightfastness. This was because madder plants take three to five years to reach their peak colour potential, followed by a lengthy and time-consuming process to extract their dye.

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