Colour Story: Pinks

The addition of pink to an artist’s palette can be subtle and soft or powerful and loud. The word ‘pink’ derives from the dianthus species of flowers, which includes carnations, pinks and sweet William. In painting terms, pink is commonly known to be a mixture of red and white, but it comes in a wealth of different shades: Coral, Cotton Candy, Hot Pink, Cerise, Fuchsia, Rose, Magenta and Potter’s Pink to name a few. We examine some of the most popularly used pink pigments.

From red to pink

Red-pink dye, such as that made from brazilwood or madder diluted with paler gypsum, existed since antiquity across Asia, Europe and North Africa. Ancient Egyptian mummy portraits used the dye combination, and cloth dyed with madder and gypsum were excavated from the tomb of Tutankhamun and discovered in the buried ruins of Pompeii. More recently, the pigment Rose Madder Genuine came to the market. Made from the root the colourman George Field extracted from the madder plant Rubia tinctorum, Rose Madder is a fugitive pigment, which means that it changes in appearance over time and is not permanent. Field made extensive study of the madder plant, and in 1804 discovered a more efficient process of extracting the dye and making a stronger, more vibrant pigment.

William Winsor understood the importance of Field’s research and acquired his notes and experiments following his death in 1854. The production of Rose Madder Genuine is still based on Field’s recipes, which Winsor & Newton has exclusive access to. Brazilwood lakes would create a lighter red or rose colour, and due to its relative low cost compared to insect-based dyes, it was commonly used for pinks in medieval artworks. Its lack of permanence meant it was replaced by madder. 

Permanent Carmine is a pink produced from another red dye, Carmine, which is derived from insects found on the prickly pear cactus. Introduced to Europe from Mexico in Spanish treasure fleets, it took thousands of insects to make a small amount of dye. It is still used for colouring fabrics, makeup and food, but has been replaced in artists’ paints by a synthetic, lightfast pigment which is kinder to the beetle. Permanent carmine owes its pinkness to being a combination of a rich red masstone and a blueish undertone. It is transparent, permanent and available in the Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil and Professional Watercolour ranges.

Soft pinks

Though it was a largely uncommon colour for fashion and artwork during the Middle Ages in Europe, pink was used in religious artworks and in women’s clothes. The pink pigment used at the time was known as light cinabrese and was made up of earth pigment Venetian Red, and white pigment called Bianco San Genovese, or lime white. In the delicate garments of Early Renaissance religious paintings such as The Annunciation by Fra Angelico (1395-1455) a statement was made – this was the first instance in which pink was used to depict clothing rather than simply flesh, and it altered the usage of pink in European paintings from here on out.  


Fra Angelico, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


By the 18th century pink tended to be used in paler shades to depict softness and youth at a time where pastel shades were popular in textiles and porcelain. Thomas Lawrence uses billowing pink ribbons with a pink bonnet and dress to portray a sense of tenderness and innocence in his 1794 portrait of Sarah Barrett Moulton, entitled Pinkie. It captures a moment in time and is even more symbolic when we consider that Sarah was just 11 when it was painted but died the following year. A colour worn by both genders in the 1700s, pink then transitioned to a masculine colour, and young boys were dressed in pink because it was a lighter and therefore more youthful version of the red worn by men.  

Thomas Lawrence, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

King Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour championed the wearing of pink in French courts, and was said to have a tint of pink created for her by the Sevres porcelain factory. In England, the shade Potter’s Pink was created in the late 1700s in Staffordshire by an unknown potter and used as a ceramic glaze. The colour was later introduced in 1900 by Winsor & Newton as a watercolour with the name Pinkcolor. Potter’s Pink is a soft rose semi-opaque colour with excellent lightfast qualities. 


Vassil, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


Bright pinks

The 19th century saw many more pinks being added to the artist’s palette through synthetic inventions from the likes of coal tar, such as Perkin’s Mauve. The name Magenta comes from a lake colour named after the battle in Magenta, Italy. The synthetic colour Quinacridone Magenta is based on the transparent quinacridone pigment introduced in the 1950s. Quinacridone pigments are unique as they have an intense colour while also being transparent, and range from yellow to orange to red to violet in hue. They are considered high performing due to their colour intensity and lightfastness. Quinacridone Magenta is a floral colour, popular with botanical artists. 
By the 20th century brighter pinks were more in vogue, in part because chemical dyes that were now widely available were resistant to fading. Much of this is also owed to designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who in 1931 created Shocking Pink by mixing magenta with a small amount of white. Daisy Fellowes, a French socialite and fashion icon, wore a 17.27ct pink Cartier diamond called the Tête de Bélier (Ram’s Head) as she went to meet the designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli was immediately taken with the colour, so much so that she packaged her new perfume, Shocking, in it – the same name as the fragrance, later popularised by Marilyn Monroe and Madonna.  


Cutex, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Pink’s effects on mood 

In the late 1960s, the scientific researcher Alexander G Schauss discovered that a particular shade of pink – P-618 – had a highly calming effect on the human endocrine system. He convinced the Seattle Naval Correction Facility to paint its cells with this colour in an attempt to pacify prisoners, and it has been used in holding cells ever since. The results are sometimes contradictory, although the phenomenon has been such that at some US sports grounds the visiting team’s changing rooms have been painted in P-618 in an attempt to gain an advantage. In the 1990s, the Western Athletic Conference banned the practice and made a ruling that home/away locker rooms must be painted the same colour. P-618 is now widely known as Baker-Miller Pink (after the directors of the original Naval facility), drunk-tank pink or Schauss pink.  
The pinkest pink 

More recently pink has been a divisive colour – the colour of political movements and subcultures. The controversial backstory behind the fluorescent world’s pinkest pink was created by British artist Stuart Semple as a reaction to Anish Kapoor buying exclusivity to Vantablack, the world’s blackest black. This pink is available to everyone except Kapoor, who was legally forbidden to buy it by Semple as a retaliation – although his Instagram feed shows he did manage to get his fingers on some. Semple pointed out that he, among other artists, was angered by the exclusivity of Vantablack, and the hashtag #sharetheblack was set up in response. Semple said of it: “Pink is a really powerful colour and this particular pink is extremely vibrant, so it felt like the logical choice to make the point I was hoping to make.” Semple’s pink was in such high demand that the artist and his family grouped together to grind the pigment’s ingredients and package up orders to be sent out.  
The variety of pinks hues have meant many things over the centuries, but one thing has been for certain – its ability to showcase social and cultural trends that define a moment in time. 

More like this

winsor newton purple

Purple: an enchanting pigment reserved for royals and rulers

Purple is captivating and enchanting. From deep purple to lilac and ultraviolet, it conjures up ideas of magic, royalty, and psychedelia.

Colour stories from the Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour range

Explore the unique stories behind six iconic colour pigments from the Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour collection.