Safflower: Ukiyo-e colorant

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Actor Sawamura Tanosuke II by Utagawa Kunisada

Safflower 紅花 (benibana): An organic red obtained from the florets of Carthamus tinctorius, it produces a wide range of tones from pale pink to red. The florets are picked, washed, massaged, and fermented to create safflower cakes (紅餅 benimochi) from which the red dye can be extracted later. Dried florets can also be used to extract the dye directly. The florets are first washed with water to remove non-lightfast yellow chromophors including several quinochalcones. The red colorant, primarily carthamin, is then extracted in an alkaline solution. Safflower was grown throughout Japan during the Edo period (1603–1868) for use as a cosmetic and food dye. The area of Yamagata prefecture was known as a producer of high quality benibana and still produces it today.

Safflower can appear as a pale pink, such as the delicate pink used to depict subtle eye shadow or blush effects as well as deeper reds. Safflower was noted to be an expensive colorant and often required multiple printings to achieve darker colors. Safflower and madder are the most commonly found reds before the introduction of aniline dyes in the 1860's. Red safflower and madder are found as a single colorant or as a mixture of the two. Although the visual difference between red safflower or madder used alone and a mixture of the two is currently difficult to discern, madder may have been used to extend the safflower. Safflower is most commonly mixed with dayflower to produce purple. The safflower and dayflower combination is continuously detected even after the introduction of synthetic colorants such as Prussian blue and aniline dyes, which seems to indicate that the tone obtained by the two was preferred over other possible mixtures of reds and blues.

For more information see: Safflower, Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) LC, Uemura Dye Archive: Safflower 239, Safflower (Kew Gardens)

Examples of Safflower in Ukiyo-e Prints


Pt 5: hand applied
Torii Kiyomasu II, 11.13297


Pt 2: printed
Torii Kiyomasu II, 21.5452


Pt 1: printed
Suzuki Harunobu, 11.16479


Pt 3: printed
Kikukawa Eizan, 11.17716


Pt 3: printed
Keisai Eisen, 11.17904


Excitation Emission Matrix (EEM) spectroscopy can easily identify the organic reds: safflower, madder, and sappanwood. Safflower fluoresces under UVA radiation and produces a unique EEM pattern, even when the safflower has visually faded to a dull brownish red. For safflower, the Excitation maximum occurs at 530 +/− 10nm and the Emission maximum occurs about 560 +/− 10nm. In addition to the fluorescence for the red chromophore, the pattern often contained an additional peak for the yellow chromophore that was supposedly removed in the preparation of the red colorant but often needed several washings for complete elimination.

Images of Safflower

List of Prints

Below is a list of prints where safflower was detected.

Pages in category "Safflower: Ukiyo-e colorant"

The following 73 pages are in this category, out of 73 total.