Tuesday, 7 April 2015


 “There are times when we need certain colours. 
They nourish the soul in a way nothing else does “
Catherine Jo Morgan

I’m craving colour. 

I have had an earthy palette on my desk for the past couple of weeks, but now I’m yearning for some juicy pigments. With a workshop coming up and a demo at the SBA in London to prepare for, 
I decided to pull out the paints and delve into purple!

Over the years I’ve collected quite a number of purple pigments. My favourite ones are definitely the Schmincke range Quinacridone Violet, Manganese violet and Purple magenta. I’d certainly be lost without my Winsor & Newton Cobalt violet…  that colour seems to make it’s way into every painting that I do. I also like the W&N winsor violet for it’s rich deep tones. My most recent purple purchase is Daniel Smith’s Moonglow, which makes a wonderful shadow colour.

The dried flower calyces of Hibiscus sabdariffa are a beautiful dark purple colour which gives them a curious mystical quality
Purple is one of those deeply evocative colours. It can be sensual, mysterious and incredibly versatile. From inky blacks to flamboyant magentas to the soft soothing tones of lavender, purple is a colour that has captivated and inspired us for centuries.
And it all started off with a sea snail

A Murex sea shell 
In the 15th century BC, the Phoenicians discovered that some sea snails (Bolinus brandaris, the spiny dye-murex and Hexaplex trunculus the banded dye-murex ) secreted a mucus that could be used to dye cloth a rich purple colour. This colour did not fade, but instead became brighter with weathering and sunlight. 
In fact the word Phoenician derives from the ancient Greek word phoĆ­nios meaning "purple"

Fresh olives from Egypt
The Phoenicians grew wealthy from trading in olive oil, gold, silver and cedar wood from the mountain forests of their homeland, Lebanon. However the sumptuous purple dye of the murex snail was their most valuable asset. 
It took a staggering twelve thousand Murex snails to make 1.4 g of pure dye, which was just enough for a single garment. 
The whole process was time consuming, laborious and incredibly foul smelling.
The dye, known as Tyrian Purple became a status symbol, associated with royalty. Special laws were passed restricting the use of purple. Only the Roman Emperor could wear a Tyrian purple cape trimmed in golden thread and only a Roman senator could have a purple stripe on his toga. Even the royal birthing chambers had to be purple.

Dutch iris, gouache on board ©Shevaun Doherty 2014
The production of Tyrian Purple eventually came to a halt in 1204 with the Siege of Constantinople, when it just became too expensive to keep producing. The secret to Tyrian purple was lost for centuries.
I found this recipe which made me smile. Go on, I dare you to try it.

 The choke was painted using Cobalt violet, Helio blue, Purple lake (quin violet would also work), Egyptian violet (Lefranc & Bourgeois), Permanent blue violet (Rembrandt), winsor violet and perylene maroon. 

In 1856, a young chemistry student Sir William Henry Perkin, accidently created the first synthetic purple dye from aniline. He called it Mauveline. Once again purple became the colour of royalty. Queen Victoria discarded her black robes of mourning and wore instead a mauve silk gown to the Royal Exhibition of 1862, . The purple frenzy was soon copied by Empress Eugenie, wife of  Napoleon III, which then sparked the "Mauve Madness" that swept Europe in the 1860s. 
Purple was back.

 “Mauve is just pink trying to be purple“
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
In 1896 a new set of synthetic pigments were created from aniline, the Quinacridones. A favourite of mine, these colours are transparent, non-toxic and resistant to fading. In 1955 the DuPont company decided to use the quinacridones to create paint for the automobile industry, giving rise to a funky range of bright colourful cars from golden yellow to bright red to deep purple. 

Jacob's Coat, Acalypha wilkesiana ©Shevaun Doherty 2010

Fortunately for us, the  Quins were also made into artists paints. I think that they are a must for watercolourists as it’s hard to beat their transparency and lightfastness. They give a welcome glow to any painting. I enjoyed reading this great blogpost on quinacridone. It’s worth reading.

As for me, well, my purple paints are calling out to come and play.

“All the other colours are just colours, but purple seems to have a soul. Purple is not just a noun and an adjective but also a verb - when you look at it, it's looking back at you”
Uniek Swain


  1. Nice one, Shevaun.
    Purple Rocks.

    1. Thanks Joe. It's one of my favourite colours

  2. Yes, the colour purple is just magnificent, in all its shades and tints.

  3. My favourite colour too. Thank you for the history of the colour, I had no idea that it came from sea snails originally and I've got one of those shells too, maybe I'll try to draw it in shades of purple, that will be a challenge!

    1. That sounds like an inspired idea, Valerie! I had no idea about the seashells either, which is one of the reasons why I love writing this blog. I have no idea what I will discover along the way.

  4. Thanks for another great blog post.
    It made me think of my time at the academy, we used to have assignments for making organic colors with beets, red cabbage, onion etc.
    You certainly added some new ones!
    (Wish I had a back a PC and could go blogging again!)
    Meanwhile I'm very much enjoying yours and others!!

  5. There is a book about the creation of mauve.The title is 'Mauve' (duh), but I don't recall the author.
    P.S. I love a dare! Thanks, again, for sending me off on another investigation.

    1. Thanks Candice (sorry for the tardy response). Is it this book?
      I'll add it to my Wishlist It looks fascinating

  6. One of my favourite colours as well.

  7. I love purple too and the all of the quin pigments I've tried turn into instant favorites! I just finished the book, Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay, which talks about some of the history of pigments that you mentioned. It is written in the form of a travelogue and is pretty interesting--you might like it. I enjoyed seeing all of your purple paintings--luscious!

    1. Oh that book looks amazing, Janene! Another one on my wishlist! I love books like that. Thanks


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