Spotlight on: Scarlet Lake

Scarlett Lake is a vibrant red lake pigment; lake pigments are organic pigments derived from plants or the Mexican cochineal, a small scaled insect.  The cochineal produces a colour that is a vivid red with a high tinting strength, but it is light sensitive and therefore historically considered a fugitive colour.  Red lakes were admired for their brilliancy, but also frustrating because they were not light-fast.

Historically, in Renaissance and Baroque paintings, red lakes were used as glazes to add richness to fabrics and tapestries. Lake pigments were also a common part of the 17th-century Dutch artist’s palette, despite being liable to fade.  They generally used lakes as glazes and mixed with other colours.  For example, Vermeer is known for using a red lake to mix purple by combining it with natural Ultramarine and he created his famous fleshy pinks by mixing red lake with Flake White.  In ‘Margaret, the Artist’s Wife’, painted in 1439 by Jan van Eyck, ultraviolet light reveals that the opaque red of her dress is vermillion covered in three layer of a red lake glaze.

Scarlett Lake is a modern-day orange-yellow version of a red lake colour, formulated to be light fast and reliable.  The name stems from a type of finest English woollen cloth called scarlet cloth which was dyed red and worn by nobility as a symbol of status.