Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Add depth to your palette with this comprehensive guide to the history and variety of different red pigments.
"Red is the colour of fire and blood. A mysterious pigment with positive and negative connotations: bloodshed, aggression, war, and hate are on one side, and love, warmth and compassion on the other side."
"Red unfailingly provides focal points to a painting, particularly when placed alongside a cool colour such as green. But red can appear garish if overdone."
What are the best red pigments to include on your palette?
Cadmium Reds are the most popular of the reds. A highly opaque pigment, cadmium is popular with tube painters looking for bright colour applied in dense, rich layers. Cadmiums are also ideally suited for diluted, soft effects as well as subdued mixtures. Experience shows that properly milled cadmiums offer clarity and density that is unparalleled, while, interestingly, poorly milled cadmiums often show evidence of “bruising,” yielding colour that is dull and flat. Since first introducing them in the 1930’s, Winsor & Newton has offered cadmium reds at pale, middle and deep positions within the spectrum: Cadmium Scarlet, Cadmium Red and Cadmium Red Deep. Having a range of hues over the same pigment characteristics gives familiarity and control when painting.
Quinacridone Red is a bright, highly transparent colour, established by us for water-colourists in the 1990’s. We were keen to see this colour enter the palette, not only for the higher key mixtures it provides (as compared to the cadmium reds) but also because it is a pure, central red for colour mixing, neither too blue nor too yellow.
Winsor Red and Winsor Red Deep belong to the pyrrole family of pigments. The pyrroles are among the first of a new generation of pigments to offer the combination of clarity and opacity approaching that of the Cadmiums. Winsor & Newton pyrroles are clean and dense in heavy layers while being well-suited for subdued, diluted mixtures.
The Pyrroles are at least the third generation of modern pigments that we have used for Winsor Reds. The first Winsor Reds in the 1920’s were the earliest coal tar red pigments. These colours changed the artists’ palette forever; semi-transparent reds sitting between the opacity of the cadmiums and the transparency of the fugitive 19th c. lakes. Although unique in hue, these original pigments offered only moderately durable permanence, so naturally enough, as Winsor & Newton, we were as keen as ever to improve them and have done so at every opportunity in the last 80 years. As the complexity of modern chemistry increased, it made possible successive improvements in the lightfastness of the organic red pigments and we are delighted to have arrived with our two Winsor reds being at least as permanent as cadmiums. In water colour, lightfastness is of the utmost importance because of the thinness of the water colour film.
Historically, crimson pigments were rare and have posed unique difficulties in milling. The pigments available to us in the 19th century were, at best, only moderately durable with many being highly fugitive. Contemporary crimsons, however, are an entirely different story.
The whole development of crimsons since Egyptian times is a great example of how lightfastness has been increased with each new colour and how, finally, in the 21st century, we have achieved lightfastness while remaining true to the optical and mixing properties of the original pigments. Let’s travel that journey…………
Madder is a “lake” pigment, a plant dye which has been fixed onto an inert, transparent base. The “lake” method was first invented by the Egyptians. The permanence of madder lakes, however, is variable, depending on the recipe and it was not until 1806 that George Field, the pre-eminent colour chemist of that time, formulated Rose Madder Genuine with permanence that was exceptional for that period. The Field recipes were – and still are – used exclusively by Winsor & Newton. These formulations simply have not been bettered, even by our own chemists! In 1862, having visited the Winsor & Newton stand at the Crystal Palace exhibition in London, organized by Prince Albert, Dickens exclaimed, ‘Has anyone ever seen anything like Winsor & Newton’s cups of Carnations and Crimsons loud and fierce as a war-cry, and Pinks tender and loving as a young girl?’ The crystal cups used to display our colours then, display them still in our Artists’ Colourman’s Museum at our factory in London for viewing by many hundreds of visiting artists every year.
Carmine was introduced in the early Renaissance, a deeper, stronger crimson than Madder but fugitive in nature. It was used as a food colouring for the best part of the 20th century, being known as Cochineal, the name of the beetles from which it is made.
Alizarin Crimson was the first natural dye to be synthesized in the laboratory in 1868. In fact, the main dye in Madder is natural Alizarin (1,2 – dihydroxyanthraquinone). Alizarin Crimson is not quite as lightfast as Madder, but it is stronger and deeper like carmine. It quickly became the main crimson in the water colour spectrum and remains so. It’s hard to think of painting without picturing this deep, blue-shade crimson on your palette!
Permanent Rose was the first quinacridone pigment introduced in the 1950’s by Winsor & Newton. It was the first water colour in this part of the spectrum to have the unconditional permanence which so many of our new organic pigments of the late 20th century would later provide. Pinker in top tone, like madder, it has the bluer undertone of alizarin and was the suggested alternative for both colours for more than 40 years, until we were able to match the hues of the original alizarin and carmine. Many of the technical queries that we field come from artists from around the globe asking for support with colour mixing, and we strongly advocate the use of Permanent Rose as the ideal Primary Red (Magenta). Ordinarily, most of us as painters would think of Cadmium Red as the principal Primary Red but, in fact, its opacity interferes and it is too yellow. As Permanent Rose is more central (neither too yellow nor too blue), it gives much cleaner oranges and violets. If you’re to use only one red in your palette, this must be it.
Permanent Alizarin Crimson and Permanent Carmine are both made with different shade quinacridones and have been available from Winsor & Newton since 1996. Both match the optical and mixing properties of original pigments while offering dramatically superior lightfastness. And, sometimes, newer means more economical. While Permanent Alizarin is more expensive than the original due to the pigment cost, Permanent Carmine is actually cheaper than the insect colour!
Opera Rose, the new fluorescent pink/magenta is a step forward, too, in its way. Fluorescent pigments are unique, their astonishing brightness a result of actually absorbing energy from the UV (high, invisible) energy spectrum and then reflecting that energy within the visible range. No wonder, then, that the brightest fluorescent red pigments (often favoured by floral painters to match the flowers and buds of the many newer hybrid or tropical plants) have long been fugitive (“C” rating for Winsor & Newton). Opera Rose, however, as a new generation of fluorescents, can now be supplied as moderately durable (“B” rating), equal in permanence to Alizarin Crimson, which is great news for botanical artists!
Red is the colour of blood, a ruby, and strawberries. Next to orange at the end of the visible spectrum of light, red is commonly associated with danger, sacrifice, passion, fire, beauty, blood and anger. In China and at Swinton's red is associated with happiness. Why?
Red is the colour of sexuality and can stimulate deeper and more intimate passions in us, such as love and sex. It is often used to express love, as in Valentine’s Day, however it relates more to sexuality and lust, rather than love – love is expressed with pink. So don't forget to also pick up some white. :)
What did Artists think ?
William Blake (1757 – 1827) was a great fan of Rose Madder for its pure crimson hue which cannot be mixed from red and violet.
William Russell Flint (1880 – 1969) maintained Alizarin Crimson in his limited palette for more than sixty years of water colour painting.
Gerhard Richter (born 1932) used multi-layered water colours in the 1990’s to show how even Cadmium Red appears transparent when used in thin enough dilutions.