We have a prickly pear cactus at home. It is the kind of cactus that is used as a "veggie" in the traditional Mexican gastronomy. We cut leaves from it almost every Sunday for cooking and it is very old. It is almost like a big tree with a huge trunk and strong branches. Every Spring it blooms and produces a couple of yellow prickly pears that mostly the birds are the ones that actually enjoy them before we could even harvest them.
My dad, who takes care of the garden, used to wash the cactus with pressured water and soap very often because he thought it was getting infested with a white fuzzy bug. Interestingly enough, that bug would dye your hands red if you squish it. So one day I showed a picture of it to my cousin and she said with excitement: ¡Es Cochinilla!
That day I realized that such infestation was actually a treasure; This humble bug has been used to dye textiles for centuries, and its use is re-emerging more and more as people is looking for natural and organic dyes instead of synthetic ones.
Immediately I started to search for as much information as I could find about it. At first, I thought about dying some old clothes but then I decided it would be more interesting to use it to paint. Here I tell my story with the Grana Cochinilla or Cochineal. People who already know how to use it might think I did a lot of things wrong, and hopefully at least you can have a good laugh. Everything I write here I did with the best intentions and with all the information and resources I had available at that time. I am sure there are better ways to harvest the cochineal, more gentle ways to treat this wonderful bug and more efficient ways to obtain the pigment. Please, leave your comments at the end of the article if you have more experience with this process. I am happy to learn more about this topic and I am sure some people will appreciate it.
Harvesting and Drying Process
My imagination started to fly thinking about all the great projects I could do with this amazing carmine pigment. it is so versatile that the cochineal has been used not only on textiles but in the food and cosmetic industry. Maybe you have a lipstick that uses cochineal and you didn't even know it. Those "red velvet" cakes are very likely using cochineal to achieve that amazing color (unless they are labeled as vegan).
In order to harvest the cochineal I took a small brush and climbed a ladder so I could scrub as much as I could. At first, I did't do any selection of what was I picking up so I ended with a bowl full of fuzz and larvae!
Wild cochineal, I learned, its covered with a denser fuzz than the domesticated cochineal. This fuzz protect the bug from predators and it is very difficult to remove by hand. I also learned that what I really needed was only the mature females, which look very similar to the ground "roly polies" (I know those as cochinillas as well, even though they are not related). The cochineal bug is almost transparent, but it is full of that red hemolymph so they look darker. In the bowl I filled earlier there were barely a couple of them. And since I left the bowl outside under the Sun to dry, some bugs either escaped, where eaten by lizards or maybe the birds realized my mistake because I couldn't find but just a few.
During my second expedition to the cactus I focused on collecting only the mature females and leave the larvae alone. I had to be very careful taking them off the cactus so I wouldn't squish them, and again, I lost several good ones that fell to the ground and I couldn't find anymore.
Then, I dry them under the Sun but this time inside a tall glass jar, thinking that they wouldn't be able to escape (ha ha ha). Several days later I just managed to have about a dozen dried insects. I kept them in the cupboard while I decided what I was going to do with them.
Processing the Pigment
I was only after the Christmas holidays that I had enough time to go back to this project. The glass jar was still in the kitchen waiting for me. I went to check it and found out to my surprise that two of those cochinillas that I assumed where completely dead and disescated morphed into flies... just to die inside the jar :(
I later read that the habitants of the Mexican altiplano had a very efficient way to process the cochineal and make sure it was completely dead: First, they would collect it from the cactus using a deer tail so it would not get damaged, and then, they would pour them in boiling water, just like lobsters. To dry them, they could either sun dry them or leave them in a temazcal (sweat lodge). Once they were dry and hard as gravel, they would grind it in a metate (grinding stone).
I do not have a deer tail at home, neither a temazcal or a metate, but I do have a tiny mortar made out of clay that my mom made one day to entertain her grandchildren. It is just slightly bigger than a quarter, and it is what I used to grind the cochineal that I still had left. I had to be very careful not to spill it. The resulting powder was not as fine as I wanted, with some big chunks here and there. I made three batches and poured a bit of hot water in them so the pigment started to come out.
Oh dear chemistry! that science that looks almost like magic when you see how things get transformed in front of your eyes. The ancient painters from Tenochtitlan knew very well how to transform the cochineal to obtain different colors. In the Codices of the XV and XVI century it has been found a wide range of colors with cochineal as a base: Pink, bright red, purple, brown, and gray. The magic in cochineal is that its PH reactive, so depending on the acidity or alkalinity of the medium, we can obtain different colors. Hence, we can add some salts to the cochineal (which are alkaline) such as baking soda, alum, ash, clays, or we can add acids such as lime juice or vinegar until we find the color we want. I wished I could make hundreds of experiments but I didn't have that much cochineal to play with. Since I had three batches I made the simplest experiment: One was my control batch. I wouldn't add anything to this one but water. To the second batch I added lime juice and I obtained a bright orange color. To the third one I added baking soda and I obtained a deep purple color.
With three colors I was able to make four 9x12 inches paintings. One of the things I love about working with watercolors is that we can change the intensity or opacity of the colors adding more or less water. This characteristic allows you to do monochromes and still have depth and volume in your artworks.
To finish I wan to add a few things: The lime juice mixture had a tendency to turn brown. I believe it was because it reacted to something else while it was drying. I also added some vinegar but it didn't make it better and still looked like the control batch. The mixture I really really loved was the one with baking soda. I made two cactus paintings with it and I was able to get a very beautiful and unique magenta color. I named them Nocheztli 1 and Nocheztli 2, which is the Nahuatl name for the cochineal (you can find them in the art shop both the originals and the prints).
I also want to mention that the domesticated cochineal, or Grana Fina, has a different color. It is raised mainly in farms in the state of Oaxaca, and it requires a lot of care, love and patience to keep it healthy. In fact, there is a museum to which I would love to visit called Nocheztlicalli. They are doing an amazing work keeping this ancient knowledge that is probably hundreds if not thousands of years old.
Natural organic pigments are way better than the synthetic one, not just for environmental reasons, but also for our health. Keeping the cochineal the way this families are doing it is good for their communities too, which are mainly indigenous groups that have done this work for centuries and it is part of their culture. The cochineal production allows them to obtain an income and maintain a healthy ecosystem for the future generations.
The last painting I made with cochineal is a heart I draw several years ago. I kept that drawing in my journal and this is the first time I made this artwork public. The original and the prints are available in the art store too, but if you want the original I would love to have a private conversation with you before selling it so you understand the full meaning of the artwork.You can Contact me through this form and we can arrange either a video call or an in-person meeting if possible. This piece is very special. Thank you.
DOMENICI, Davide, Chiara Grazia, David Buti, Aldo Romani, Constanza Miliani y Antonio Smagellotti, "La grana cochinilla en la pintura de códices prehispánicos y coloniales", Secretaría de Cultura, Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, México, 2017.