Colour story: Pinks

The colour pink is named after flowers from the dianthus species, which includes carnations, pinks and sweet William. In painting terms, pink is commonly known to be a mixture of red and white, but there are many different shades: pale pink, hot pink, cotton candy pink, carnation pink, cerise, coral pink, fuchsia, puce, rose, magenta and many more.

Winsor & Newton has a beautiful range of pinks, all with interesting histories. Here are a few:

Potter’s Pink

Created in the late 1700s in Staffordshire by an unknown potter and used as a ceramic glaze, Potter’s Pink was introduced in 1900 by Winsor & Newton as a watercolour with the name Pinkcolor. Potter’s Pink is a soft rose colour. It is a semi-opaque colour with excellent lightfast qualities.

Permanent Carmine

Carmine, which makes shades of red, 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, make up and food, but has been replaced in artists’ paints by a synthetic, lightfast pigment which is kinder to the beetle.

Rose Madder Genuine

Made from the root the colourman George Field extracted from the madder plant Rubia tinctorum, rose madder is a fugitive pigment, meaning 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.

Rose Tyrien

Tyrian (the English spelling) originally came from murex sea snails, said to have been discovered by Hercules. As he and his dog walked along a beach in Tyre, Hercules noticed a purple staining around the dog’s mouth that came from the snails it was chewing. As it took thousands of snails and intensive labour to create it, tyrian was at one time the most expensive dye and worth its weight in silver.

Quinacridone Magenta

This colour 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 synthetic pigments which are considered high performing due to their colour intensity and lightfastness. The quinacridones are much loved among artists who, once they try them, are seduced by their qualities.

The influence of pink in painting and beyond

The addition of pink can be subtle, but very powerful, and is still influencing artists today. It can be found throughout art history – from the delicate garments of Early Renaissance religious paintings such as The Annunciation by Fra Angelico (1395-1455), to pieces such as L’Acteur in Picasso’s “Rose Period” (1904-06). Coming after his more sombre “Blue Period”, the work from this time featured happier images of actors, harlequins and performers in tones of red, orange and pink.

Later, in the 1970s, New York artist Philip Guston (1913-1980) took up pastel pinks in his paintings. Many of these pieces brought a sensory realness, depicting non-romantic everyday pink items, including ointments, sticking plasters, bubble gum, prawn cocktails and sausage meat. More recently the “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 – although his Instagram feed shows he did manage to get his fingers on some.

Pink has an interesting place in science and psychology. 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 the shade 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.

Pink also has an interesting history in fashion. A colour worn by both genders in the 1700s, it then transitioned to a masculine colour, and young boys were dressed in pink as a lighter version of the red worn by the men. An article in the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department in June 1918 stated: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” Fashions flipped, and by the 1940s it was normal to think of pink for girls and blue for boys.

In the 1930s, Daisy Fellowes, a French socialite and fashion icon known for outrageous behaviour 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 in it and the shade became known as “Shocking Pink” – the same name as the fragrance. Later, Marilyn Monroe would wear a dress in this colour while singing Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She was followed by Madonna, in a slightly softer hot pink replica, in her 1985 homage video for Material Girl, further linking the colour pink to diamonds, wealth and outrageous extravagance.

In nature, pink flamingos are naturally born with grey feathers, which turn pink from the beta carotene found in their diet of shrimp and blue-green algae. The same blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, can cause lakes with high salt content to appear pink where bacteria and algae survive. This can be seen in the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the site of Robert Smithson’s 1970 earthwork sculpture Spiral Jetty, as well as Pink Lake in Canada, Pink Lake in Western Australia and Lac Rose in Senegal.