Color Theory: Know Your Reds

A Look at the Various Red Paint Pigments Available to Artists

Artist working on a painting in art studio
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Red is an extremely dominant color and even a small piece in a painting will draw in your eye. It's the color associated with love, passion, anger, heat, fire, and blood. The various red pigments available to artists each have their own characteristics and degrees of permanency.

The Many Shades of Red

The first two reds were introduced by ancient Egyptians artists—one made from cinnabar (vermilion) and one from madder root. Prior to this, palettes were restricted to black, white, and ochers.

Cadmium red: Available in light, medium, and deep (or dark). A very strong, warm, opaque red. Tend to blacken when mixed with copper pigments. Toxic. Mix cadmium red medium with cadmium yellow medium for a warm orange.

Scarlet Lake: A bright, intense red with a slight tendency towards blue. A strong color good for glazing or washes. Also known as toluidine red, bright red, vermilionette.

Alizarin crimson: A dark, transparent, cool red with a slight tendency towards blue/purple. Add to other reds to darken or deepen them. Good for transparent glazing or washes as it will add depth without obscuring any details. A synthetic pigment related to traditional rose madder. Also known as alizarin madder, rose madder alizarin, alizarin carmine.

Vermilion: A bright, intense red made from sulfur and mercury (mercuric sulfide). Toxic and prone to turning black in sunlight. Traditionally reserved for key figures in a painting. Being a very expensive pigment, it's now available as a hue. Also known as cinnabar vermilion or scarlet vermilion.

Carmine: A traditional red that's fugitive, but is now manufactured in permanent versions (sold as permanent carmine).

Rose madder: A distinctive, transparent red. Made from rose madder root. Also known as madder lake, madder pink.

Quinacridone red: Mix with ultramarine to get a brilliant purple and with Payne's gray for a dull purple. Also known as permanent rose, red rose, permanent magenta.

Venetian red: A warm, earth red with a slight tendency towards orange. Made from natural or synthetic iron oxide. Also known as red ochre or light red.

Indian red: A warm, dark earth red with a tendency towards blue. Makes cool colors when mixed. Made from natural iron oxide.

Naphthol Red: A 20th-century, intense, transparent mid- to deep red.

Earth reds are closely related to brown ochres and umbers. Names include red ocher, red oxide, Mars red, burnt sienna, terra rosa, red earth.

Tips on Using Red

• Adding an opaque white to red will tend to create a pink, rather than a lighter red. Try a transparent white or a little yellow for a lighter red.
• A pigment that fades when exposed to light will fade faster if used on a white background than on a dark one.
• Pigments that aren't permanent are best used full strength, rather than as tints.
• Artist's quality paints are classified into series, indicated by a number on the tube, costing increasingly more as the pigment becomes more expensive. So, for example, in Winsor & Newton oils, bright red is series one, cadmium red is series four, and carmine is series six.
• Remember that using a complementary color intensifies a color.
• Make use of the fact that red appears to 'advance' against a green or dark blue, which appear to 'recede'.