When Pink Was a Yellow Color

At one time in history, the English word pink referred to a yellow color. There is no satisfactory explanation for why the word pink meant a yellow color. There is speculation, owing to its greenish-yellow tone, that it is derived from the German word pinkeln, translated in a dictionary of 1798 as ‘to piss, to make water.’

The color most often known as Dutch pink was ’a yellow lake prepared from Persian berries or quercitron and used chiefly as an artist’s pigment,’ according to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, under the definition of Dutch pink. This color was ’a light yellow that is greener and slightly darker than jasmine and greener and stronger than average maize or popcorn—called also English pink, Italian pink, madder yellow, stil de grain, yellow madder.’

When we review the literature on Dutch pink, we find that it is a lake pigment made from various organic sources; the most often mentioned is from Persian berries. These pigments also contained other yellow dyes, such as fustic, turmeric, weld, dyers’ broom, and dyer’s oak. Chemically, the colorants of all these yellow dyes are aromatic molecules known as flavonoids. The various yellow dyes have a very similar appearance and were probably used indiscriminately by color makers and artists.

Persian berries, also called buckthorn berries, are small berries from any shrub of the buckthorn family, such as Rhamnus infectoria, R. amygdalinus, R. oleodies, or R. alaternus. Buckthorn plants are native to the Near East and have been cultivated in Europe since Roman times. The unripe berries produce a yellow juice or sap used for dyeing cloth and making a yellow pigment called ‘sap green.’ The ripe berries were used to make Dutch pink, a yellow lake. The principal colorant, rhamnetin, is extracted from the dried berries by boiling water. Some plants also contain similar colorants, such as kaempferol (R. cartharticus), quercetin, xanthorhamnin, and emodin.

Buckthorn berries (Rhamnuss frangula)

Buckthorn plant (Rhamnus frangula) is the common source of the yellow dye known as ‘Dutch pink.’


Note what Robert Dossie in Handmaid to the Arts wrote about Dutch pink:


Of Dutch pink.

Dutch pink is a pigment of chalk, coloured with the tinging particles of French berries or other vegetables. It is principally used for coarser purposes in water ; not bearing well to be worked in oil : nor can it be depended upon with regard to its standing so as to be fit for paintings of any consequence.

There are a variety of methods of preparing Dutch pink : but the following is very cheap and easy ; and makes a most beautiful pigment.

“Take of French berries one pound, and
“of turmeric root powdered four ounces ; boil
“them in a gallon of water two hours ; and
“then strain off the tincture through flannel,
“and boil it again with an ounce of alum till
“it be evaporated to one quart. Prepare in
“the mean time four pounds of chalk, by
“washing it over, and afterwards drying it :
“and mix the chalk with the tincture, by
“grinding them together : and then lay out the
“Dutch pink thus made to dry on boards.”

Dutch pink is sometimes prepared in the same manner with starch and white lead.

The goodness of Dutch pink consists in its being of a full gold coloured yellow, and very bright.

Of English pink.

English pink is only a lighter and coarser kind of Dutch pink.

Of light pink.
Light pink is of two kinds, the one the same with the Dutch pink, only with greatly less colour : the other the same with the brown pink ; that is, transparent in oil, but with less colour.

The first kind like the Dutch pink is only fit for using in water ; and there, likewise, only in paintings where the holding of the colour is not of great consequence.

The other is by some used in oil paintings in the same manner as brown pink : its transparency making it have a good effect in shades for some purposes ; but it is not a judicious practice : for all these colours formed of vegetables are very uncertain with respect to their standing; and the native earths or prepared okers properly managed will answer equally the same ends.

The preparation of the (first kind of light pink may be in the same manner as that of the Dutch pink ; only diminishing the proportion of the French hernes and turmeric to one half.

The light pink may be prepared in the following manner.

“Take of French berries one pound. Boil
“them with a gallon of water for an hour : and
“then strain them off; and add two pounds of
“pearl-ashes, dissolved and purified by filter
“-ing through paper. Precipitate with alum
“dissolved in water, by adding the solution
“gradually, so long as any ebullition shall
“appear to be raised in the mixture. When
“the sediment has thoroughly subsided, pour
“off the water from it ; and warn it with
“several renewed quantities of water, pro-
“ceeding as has been before directed in the
“case of lake, &c. ; and then drain off the
“remaining fluid in a filter with a paper
“covered with a linen cloth ; and lastly dry
“it on boards in small square pieces.”

It may be likewise prepared from fustic wood, yellow sanders, and several other vegetable substances, which afford copiously a yellow tinge.

The goodness of light pink lies principally in its brightness and transparency : and, when designed for the shops, care mould be taken that it do not fatten in the oil; which will happen, if the salts be not thoroughly washed out of it.


Robert Dossie. The Handmaid to the Arts, pages 94–96.

Tingry describes the preparation and uses of different types of Dutch pink in the late 18th century:


Dutch pinks.

Dutch pinks are much used in house-painting, &c. and in painting in distemper and in oil. They are seldom employed by artists who paint pictures, because they prefer yellows obtained from metallic substances, as being more durable.

The Dutch pinks are composed of earthy parts charged with the colouring matter or colouring fecula of certain plants. The basis of that of the first quality is clay. Sometimes this base is marly (a mixture of clay and chalk), and in certain cases it is carbonate of lime (chalk). The last-mentioned composition of Dutch pinks is inferior to the other two. It is much better suited to painting in distemper than to oil painting.

Dutch pink from woad.

Woad is a plant common in France and in Spain. When cultivated it is superior for dyeing to the uncultivated kind. The use of its colouring part is not confined to dyeing ; it is extended also to painting, under the denomination of Dutch pink.

To make Dutch pink, boil the stems of woad in alum water, and then mix the liquor with clay, marl, or chalk, which will become charged with the colour of the decoction. When the earthy matter has acquired consistence by evaporation, form it into small cakes, and expose them to dry. It is under this form that the Dutch pinks are sold in the colour shops.

Another kind of Dutch pink.

This kind of Dutch pink is made with an aluminous decoction of woad mixed with chalk, which becomes charged with the colouring part of the plant. The use of chalk renders this kind of pink inferior to all those the base of which is of an argillaceous earth, or a very argillaceous marl. These compositions would, perhaps, acquire some additional qualities were the clay, marl, or chalk mixed with a second, and even a third decoction of the plant.

Dutch pink from yellow berries.

The small buckthorn produces fruit, which when collected green are called graine d’ Avignon, or yellow berries. They have been distinguished by the name of graine d’ Avignon, because the plant which furnishes them grows in great abundance in the neighbourhood of that city.

These seeds, when bailed in alum water, form a Dutch pink superior to the former. A certain quantity of clay or marl is mixed with the decoction, by which means the colouring part of the berries unites with the earthy matter, and communicates to it a beautiful yellow colour.

These yellow berries are much used in dyeing, and even in cotton printing, which occasions a great consumption of yellows.

The colouring part of Dutch pinks is darker according as the earthy substance employed is less mixed with carbonate of lime (calcareous earth or chalk). Clay contributes to the durability of the colour. In consequence of this principle, a Dutch pink resulting from the decomposition of sulphate of alumine might be substituted for the mixtures here described.

Brownish yellow Dutch pink by the decomposition of sulphate of alumine (alum).

Boil for about an hour in twelve pounds of water a pound of yellow berries, half a pound of the shavings of the wood of the barberry shrub, and a pound of wood ashes. Then strain the decoction through a piece of linen cloth.

Pour into this mixture warm, and at different times, a solution of two pounds of the sulphate of alumine (alum) in five pounds of water : a slight effervescence will take place ; and the sulphate being decomposed, the alumine, which is precipitated, will seize on the colouring part. The liquor must then be filtered through a piece of close linen, and the paste which remains on the cloth, when divided into square pieces, is exposed on boards to dry. This is brown Dutch pink, because the clay in it is pure. The intensity of the colour shows the quality of this pink, which is superior to that of the other compositions.

Dutch pink with Spanish white, or with ceruse, preferable for oil painting.

By substituting for clay a substance which presents a mixture of that earth and metallic oxide, the result will be Dutch pink, superior, no doubt, to any of those the composition of which has been already given.

The ceruse is ground on porphyry with water, and a then separated from the porphyry with a wooden spatula. In this state it is fit for use ; but it will be proper to let it lose its humidity.

Boil separately a pound of yellow berries and three ounces of the sulphate of alumine (alum) in twelve pounds of water, which must be reduced to four pounds. Strain the decoction through a piece of linen, and squeeze it strongly. Then mix up with it two pounds of ceruse and a pound of pulverized Spanish white. Evaporate the mixture till the mass acquire the consistence of a paste ; and having formed it it into small cakes, dry them in the shade.

When these cakes are dry, reduce them to powder, and mix them with a new decoction of yellow berries. By repeating this process a third time, you will obtain a Dutch pink so much charged with colouring matter that it will be brown.

In general, the decoctions must be warm when they are mixed with the earth. They ought not to be long kept, as their colour is speedily altered by the fermentation. Care must be taken also to use a wooden spatula for stirring the mixture.

Dutch pinks are employed in distemper and in oil. They are however said, and with some foundation, not to be durable. The colouring part in them is the less fixed as the earthy substance combined with it contains less chalk. Those, therefore, who wish to select the best, must prefer those which produce the least effervescence with acids. In this point of view I have examined several of the English pinks, which occasioned very little effervescence.

When only one decoction of woad or of yellow berries is employed to colour a given quantity of earth, the Dutch pink resulting from it is of a bright-yellow colour, and is easily mixed for use. When the colouring part of several decoctions is absorbed, the composition becomes brown, and is mixed with more difficulty, especially if the paste be argillaceous ; for it is the property of this earth to unite with oily and resinous parts, to adhere strongly to them, and to incorporate with them. In the latter case, the artist must not be satisfied with mixing the colour : it ought to be ground ; an operation which is equally proper for every kind of Dutch pink, and even the softest, when destined for oil painting.


Pierre François Tingry. The Painter and Varnisher’s Guide. pages 363–7.

Field lists Dutch pink as a yellow lake and provides a clue as to why it was called pink, writing that it was prepared in the same ‘manner of rose pink, from which they borrow their name.’:


DUTCH PINK, ENGLISH and ITALIAN PINKS, are sufficiently absurd names of yellow colours prepared by impregnating whitening, &c. with vegetal yellow tinctures, in the manner of rose pink, from which they borrow their name.

They are bright yellow colours, extensively used in distemper and for paper-staining, and other ordinary purposes ; but are little deserving attention in the higher walks of art, being in every respect inferior even to the yellow lakes, except the best kinds of English and Italian pinks, which are, in fact, yellow lakes, and richer in colour than the pigments generally called yellow lake.

The pigment called Stil, or Stil de grain, is a similar preparation, and a very fugitive yellow, the darker kind of which is called brown-pink.


George Field. Chromatography, page 159.

In the Salter edition of Field’s Chromatography, he defined Italian pink as “an absurd name for a stronger and richer kind of yellow lake, warmer in tint and more powerful than the proceeding [yellow lake].” and simply another name for English and Dutch pink.

George Field. Chromatography. page 100.

Bersch provides details about the manufacture of Dutch pink in his volume:


Dutch Pink. — Several species of buckthorn (Rhamnus) contain a yellow colouring matter— xanthorhamnin — which is obtained pure by extracting the yellow berries with hot alcohol. On cooling, the impure colouring matter separates ; by repeated recrystallisation from alcohol it is obtained in the form of crystalline needles, which are soluble in water and alcohol.

The yellow lake known as Dutch pink is prepared from yellow (Persian) berries, by boiling the crushed berries with water and mixing the extract with a solution of alum. The lake is then precipitated by the addition of powdered chalk. As a rule, 500 parts of water are used to 100 parts of berries, 20 parts of alum are added to the decoction, and the mixture poured upon 75 parts of finely powdered chalk. The liquid is decanted off, the residue filtered, washed and dried. Commercial Dutch pink is made from a mixture of the decoctions of yellow berries, quercitron bark and turmeric, to which the alum solution is added, and then chalk. The precipitate is made into conical lumps, which are sold as Dutch pink, and used for ordinary painting and for colouring leather.


Josef Bersch. The Manufacture of Mineral and Lake Pigments. pages 348-9.

In one of the latest references to its manufacture, Maire describes its use in distemper painting, but the name is still ‘one of the conundrums that must be passed around to some one else for a satisfactory explanation.’



Character and Preparation

Dutch pink has many synonyms, i.e., yellow lake, Italian lake, quercitron lake, brown lake, yellow madder, and a host of others under which it is known in various sections, especially in England, where it is unknown under the American cognomen of Dutch pink. As under this name only is this pigment listed in pigment catalogues in the United States, and as this is recognized by all color makers in their price lists, the name is used here in preference to any of the synonyms. Why it should be called a pink (?) when it is not a pink, but a yellow, is one of the conundrums that must be passed around to some one else for a satisfactory explanation.

Dutch pink is of vegetable origin, and it can be and has been prepared from various sources, but it is now chiefly derived from quercitron, a product extracted from oak bark. Our black and red oaks contain the greatest percentage of it, although it can be obtained from the bark of white oak also.

A decoction of the bark is made by boiling, and the quercitron is precipitated by pouring into it while hot a solution of alum and dilute ammonia.

A richer-toned pigment is produced by using dilute boiling sulphuric acid instead of water in extracting it either from the ground bark or alburnum.

In former days much of the Dutch pink was obtained from various species of buckthorn and of the Rhamus family of shrubs.

Properties and Uses

It is possible that the variety of names under which Dutch pink is known may have been given to the various extracts at some time or other to note some slight variation of tone in them. This is more than doubtful, as it is next to impossible to ever find any two lots of it that are just alike in this respect. It is useless to keep up a confusing nomenclature, and all lakes of the same extraction should be classed together and known by one name only. When an Englishman calls for any of the above-named lakes, the dealer will be perfectly safe in giving him Dutch pink instead of them.

Dutch pink has but little permanency when used in distemper for wall coloring, and yet, strange to say, that is the purpose for which it is mostly used. Why that is so is one of the unsolvable mysteries.

Its use in the United States is confined to a few sections where the traditions of its usage have been handed down and inherited without the worth of the legacy having been investigated.

In oil it is a bad drier, and while it is more permanent in that vehicle than in distemper, — because of the preserving influence exerted upon it by the linseed oil, — it is insufficiently so, and there is no need of one taking unnecessary risks by using it. As a glazing color it is all right while it lasts, and it is used for that purpose in some carriage shops.


Frederick Maire. Modern Pigments and Their Vehicles. pages 90–2.


Robert Dossie. The Handmaid to the Arts, 1758. pp. 94–6.

Pierre François Tingry. The Painter and Varnisher’s Guide: Or, A Treatise, Both in Theory and Practice, on the Art of Making and Applying Varnishes, on the Different Kinds of Painting; and on the Method of Preparing Colours Both Simple and Compound. Printed for G. Kearsley, J. Taylor, 1804. pp. 363–7.

George Field. Chromatography; Or, A Treatise on Colours and Pigments: And of Their Powers in Painting. London, Tilt and Bogue, 1841. p. 159.

George Field. Chromatography; Or, A Treatise on Colours and Pigments: And of Their Powers in Painting, revised by T.W. Salter, 1869. p. 100.

Josef Bersch. The Manufacture of Mineral and Lake Pigments: Containing Directions for the Manufacture of All Artificial Artists’ and Painters’ Colours, Enamel Colours, Soot and Metallic Pigments. Translated by Arthur Columbine Wright. London: Scott, Greenwood, 1901. pp. 348–9.

Frederick Maire. Modern Pigments and Their Vehicles: Their Properties and Uses Considered Mainly from the Practical Side, and how to Make Tints from Them. J. Wiley & Sons, 1907. pp. 90-2.