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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Frankly My Dear, I Don’t Give a Lake!

I heard an “interesting” story years ago on the origin of lake pigments. A person who felt he was a leading expert on pigments, told a novice artist in a condescending air, when asking about lake pigments, “Of course, you know that ‘lake’ means transparent.” Well, that set the record straight! (I thought some reference to a pond was coming.) At first glance, the answer seems to follow logic and empirical thinking. Unfortunately, it distorts the true meaning and richness of the term “lake.”

Writers on art materials mention the word “lac” as the origin of the term “lake” in their discussions, a reference to the insect Laccifer lacca, that produces both the resin shellac and an organic, transparent, red colorant. However, “lake” is properly associated with the Italian term for the foamy substance that appears on top of dyers’ vats called lacca.

When one thinks about it carefully, the concept of creating lake paints makes perfect sense. Dyes are the source of the colorant in lake pigments. However, it becomes a physical conundrum to figure out how to take a colored liquid and turn it into a solid material that can be ground with a medium. If you evaporated the fluid part of the dye you would be left with a very small quantity of fine powder, but not of the sort that can be combined properly with oil to create a usable paint. The concept of laking introduces a substrate or base that precipitates and absorbs the dye, fixes the hue, provides bulk and some measure of covering power for the transparent colorant.

A number of substances were used to create lake colors in the past. One of the most popular was aluminum hydrate. Other materials, especially metal oxides, provide a range of suitable bases on which to cast transparent dyes. Each material has a pronounced effect on the hue of the colorant used in the process. Examples of the range of madder lakes can best be found in the fabric dyeing industry. Madder can appear golden yellow, or red, or purple or rusty brown all by the selection of bases and the type of fiber selected to dye.

Traditionally lake colors have been a large part of range of paints available to the artist. Lakes made up a sizable percentage of a colormaker’s product line in the past and today are still some of the most indispensable group of colors. Fortunately, many are now synthetically produced from stable, light fast, organic colorants so the problem that most lake colors had with fading has been curtailed. In the past, many lakes were notorious for their fugitive behavior and artists knew to paint them thickly or live with the notion that they would change within a few years after being applied. Today, artists should still examine the source of the lake colors they use to make certain that light-stable pigments are used. Several pigments are not light fast but are so popular that manufacturers use them as colorants despite their inherent instability.

Some of the most notable lake pigments derived from natural dye materials are Carmine, Madder Lake, Indian Yellow, Indigo, Brazil-Wood Lakes and Sap Green. The invention of aniline dyes made of coal tar in 1856 by Perkins, provided a broad range of synthetic hues and some fascinating color names like Chloranisidine lake, Helopurpurine lake, Alizarine lakes as well as other red, scarlet, yellow, orange, maroon, blue, green, violet and brown lake colors.

Citizens of the middle to late 1800s saw a veritable explosion of color that transformed fashion, home furnishings and the arts. Lake colors became a powerful engine of change in the modern world. So many of the colors we use today are the offspring of lake colors that became established as fixtures on many artists’ palettes. Each one of these colors has a story and perhaps we shall tell those tales someday.

The Syntax of Color

(Originally published Grammar of Color, 4-26-2005)

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Oct 26, 2021

Is Brown Madder a "lake" color? I was wondering why I was having such a hard time finding it. Maybe it's not lightfast? I love your articles, btw :-)

Michael Skalka
Michael Skalka
Nov 08, 2022
Replying to

Andrea: Yes, Brown Madder is a lake color and if my memory serves me, it was in the inventory of oil colors that Winsor and Newton produced. Any of the madder colors come from the same madder root and the color variation is derived from adjustments to the formulation that turn the madder from the well-known deep red to orange, brown and purple.

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