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10 Things About Red

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

by Doug Swinton

1. Let’s begin at the beginning… First employed in prehistoric cave paintings, Red Ochre is one of the oldest pigments used in art and is still widely used today. Although there are many shades of Red Ocher they all appear subdued when compared to Vermilion. Red Ocher is very opaque. It mixes well with other colours and produces a great variety of natural shades. 

2.Red is the first colour to leave the visual spectrum. Red has the shortest wave length and therefore has the least amount of oomph when it comes to visual distance. If you look out over a long landscape, you will see that there is very little red in the distance. This is the reason warms colours tend to come forward and cool colours tend to move away from you. Red leaves the spectrum first, then orange, then yellow, until you are left with the distant longer-wave colours - green purple and blue.

3. Keep it bright. Red turns pink when you add white to it. White will not only desaturate the colour, it will bring out the red's true nuance, its pinkness. You have two options when you want to lighten your red. Purchase a brighter red OR dull down whatever is around the red you are using to make it appear brighter.

4. Don't let it bug you. A non-toxic source for red pigment, the cochineal bug, found living in the prickly pear cactus, is used to colour lipsticks, blush, food and many fabrics today. It takes 70,000 insects to make a pound of Carmine dye. Why not make your own: LINK

6. Speaking of portraits… If you mix Cadmium Orange and Quinacridone Rose it makes Cadmium Red! Put a little more Cadmium Orange in it and you will get a really nice Cadmium Red Light which is perfect for using in skin tones.

7. Bright does not always mean light. Don’t be fooled by red. Even though a red might look bright in intensity, when you look at it through a Value Finder or take a photo of it and turn it black and white, it will look very dark, almost black. Be carful where you place reds!

8. Be biased... For cleaner red mixes use colours that have the same bias. If you choose a Cadmium Red which has a yellow bias and mix it with a blue like Cerulean which also has a yellow bias to it, the yellow (a purple opposite) will negate the effect of having a bright clean colour and will dull your purple, making it look muddy. If you want to make a clean purple use a red the tends to the blue side like Quinacridone Rose and mix it with a blue that also has a red bias to it, like Ultramarine. The resulting purple will be clean and bright.

9. Red warm in nature. To make a deep rich warm red use Cadmium Red Deep. Most reds will turn purple the minute you try to darken them. Cad Red Deep is the only red I know that will stay red when you add Ultramarine Blue to darken it. The result is a deep rich red that is warm in nature. Great for warm darks when you have cool lights.

10. Use it more... My guess is that you don’t use enough red. When I look at people’s palettes I always see big squeezes of blues and greens and the tiniest dots of reds. Try using more red on your palette! It’s not as scary as you think.

Here is another article I wrote some time ago on the colour red: Introduction to the Pigment of Love. Add depth to your palette with this guide to the history and variety of different red pigments.

Having issues with your reds? Tell me about it below and I will try to help.

Your Friend in Art,


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