Material Color
Exchanging Ideas on Natural Dyes


Purple, the Color from the Sea.

© Inge Boesken Kanold

The purple of ancient civilizations, also called Royal Purple, has a reputation of supremacy.Throughout antiquity, it is considered the most beautiful, the most stable and the most precious of all the colors. It is used to dye the wool and silk garments of sovereigns.

Traces of its production can be found all around the Mediterranean and elsewhere in the world. Pliny the Elder (1st century A.D.) mentions it at length in his Natural History.

Numerous examples in the Bible give proof of the importance of this color, which was at first reserved for the cult of Yahve, later on for the kings of Israel and the emperors of Persia. Alexander the Great has the funerary pile of his friend Hephestion draped with purple. Later on, Cleopatra’s galley carries sails dyed purple.

Twelve thousand sea snails (Murex trunculus, M.brandaris, Thais haemastoma and others) are needed in order to extract 1,4 grams of the colorant. The snails die in the procedure of extraction. Purple is exclusively used in a dye bath.

In Rome, Nero punishes with death and confiscation of all belongings anyone found wearing or even buying the imperial purple. The supremacy of this color continues until the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. This event symbolically marks the end of the Middle Ages, the beginning of the Renaissance and, with the discovery of the American continent, that of the new world.

Purple is then forgotton. Eventually, some individuals make a discovery: the color is secreted by the hypobranchial gland of the sea snail. Upon exposure to light and air, this transparent gland turns yellow at first, then green, then blue and finally ends up a violet red or other nuances. Only the person involved with the extraction is able to see this transformation. The color was never mixed with others. The dyers of old, however, knew how to imitate it ; for example, in using madder and indigo. Therefore it is likely - and scientific analysis confirms this - that purple when represented in painting is but the image of this color.

Until very recently, we did not know how to extract the pigment for the use in painting. It is in 1979 , while living in Lebanon, the home of Tyrian Purple, that I first encountered this color. I tried to extract the dry pigment, but I have failed. Consequently, I used the organic material directly to paint my first "water color".

My fascination with purple has to do with the mystery of its past. With its provident transformation entirely linked to air and sunlight, to finally manifest itself in many nuances, among which a people chose a single one : tekhelet, the blue purple in order to represent the highest abstraction man has been able to invent.