Watercolor Reds & Crimsons

An artist can buy watercolor paint in almost every imaginable shade, but learning how to mix color and use color correctly can not only save you from buying paint you do not need, but can enhance your artwork. When it comes to red and crimson colors, the potential for color mixing, since red is a primary color, is astounding.

Watercolor Paint and Pigment

Watercolor paint is made up of four primary elements:
  1. Pigment - the natural or synthetic particles that produce the color;
  2. Binder - the element that holds the pigment together and also binds it with the surface of the paper;
  3. Additives - things like preservatives to help the paint last longer, or change the paint's durability or viscosity; and
  4. Solvent - dilutes the paint and also helps it dry when applied.
Oddly, the pigment used in the paint itself does not have much bearing on the name of the paint. For example, any shade of red could be called "candy apple red." However, in the 1990s companies that produced art supplies voluntarily decided to provide a more accurate way to classify colors, and a standard pigment code started to be used to describe the color of the paint. Now, most watercolor paints list the primary pigments on the back.

There are hundreds of reds and crimsons to choose from, and when one considers the colors that can be made by mixing one of those hundreds with another color, the possibilities seem endless. Rose Madder Genuine, Permanent Rose, Alizarin Crimson, Winsor Red, Scarlet Lake...these are just a few examples of the "red" paints you can buy for your artwork. Some artists suggest having one or two "warm" reds (like cadmium red or Winsor red) on your palette, and three to four "cool" reds (like alizarin crimson or quinacridone rose). Pay attention to the pigments used in your favorite reds to get an idea of the combinations and mixtures to look for in the future.

Common Ways to Use Reds and Crimsons

Red and crimson paints are versatile. Lighten the tone of red by adding water, darken it by adding a deep violet, or mix it with another color to create a new hue. While on a basic level reds are usually considered either yellow-based or blue-based, art supply manufacturers and chemists have created hundreds of red pigments to choose from:

Cadmium reds are known for their ability to cover (strong opacity) and their strong, warm tone. Cadmium reds may blacken if mixed with copper pigments. Cadmium was discovered in 1817 and became commercially available for use in paint two decades later. Interestingly, cadmium is toxic and there have been some movements to ban the use of cadmium in paint pigments. Artists balk at the idea of cadmium being banned, though, and argue that the main danger of cadmium comes from cadmium batteries, not artists rinsing of paint in the sink.

Scarlet lake is bright with a blue undertone, exceptional for glazes and washes. Scarlet lake is also known as toluadine red, bright red, and vermilionete.

Alizarin crimson is dark and cool, with undertones of blue and purple. Alizarin crimson is a good color to use with another red to darken the red color. Because alizarin crimson is a transparent color, it is a good choice for adding depth through glazing or washing without hiding other colors underneath. Alizarin crimson was synthesized in a laboratory in 1868, making it the first natural dye to be synthesized.

Vermilion is intense and made from sulfur and mercury, but tends to blacken in sunlight. Vermilion is known for being more expensive than other red pigments.

Rose madder, made from the rose madder root, is a popular color that is a transparent red.

Quinacridone red, also known as permanent red and red rose, can be mixed with ultramarine or gray to produce beautiful violets and dull purples. Quinacridone red is bright and transparent and some artists prefer to cadmium red because it is not too blue nor too yellow.

Venetian red is an earthy red that can look orange at times, as it is made from natural or synthetic iron oxide. Venetian red is also known as red ochre or light red.

Napthol red is a relatively new red, gaining popularity in the 20th century, which is intense yet transparent.

Indian red is another earthy red made from iron oxide, and it creates a cool toned color when mixed.

In a basic sense, mixing red and blue will create purple, mixing red and yellow will create orange, and mixing red and white will make pink. But, mixing different shades of red with different shades of blue and yellow expands the color palette immensely.

Tips for Using Reds in your Watercolor Painting
  1. Organize your palette so that your red tones are closer to the complimentary colors to avoid "muddy" colors.
  2. Adding white to red will make the color pink, rather than lightening the red tone. To lighten red without creating pink, try using water or even a transparent yellow.
  3. Reds have a tendency to draw the eyes to it, so balancing red against another color, like a green, will really make it stand out. Also, because of the way our retinas perceive the color red, most people see red as almost moving forward. Keeping this in mind can help you to create interesting paintings with depth and also avoid hectic and discordant color combinations (unless that is what you are trying to do).
  4. Before choosing your red, think about what you want to paint. If you are painting a vibrant scene, or an apple, or a sunset, you will want to use a different red than you would if you are painting a landscape or a portrait.
  5. Get to know the designations of red colors. Reviewing your favorite brand's color wheel will help you become familiar with how the red tones are described. It is also important to remember that a particular red pigment may look one way on your computer screen and then an entirely different color when you view it on paper.
Reds and crimsons are essential colors to have on your palette, and experimenting with color mixtures, dilutions, and the placement of red in your art will allow you to fully experience the power and potential of red. Art is subjective not only because beauty is subjective, but because the very elements that make art - specifically, color and form - are themselves subjective. Variables of light, surroundings, and context can change the color red in a painting from one person to the next, and even the same person can see the color red in multiple ways depending on those variables. Take the time to learn about the interplay of light and air on watercolor paint, the chemistry behind paint pigments, and even the history of watercolor painting itself to gain a deep understanding of all the colors on your color palette.

Red is a primary color most children are able to identify by age three (after all, red is the international color for "stop"), but for many artists, the shades and tones of red are endless. Red can stand for anger, chaos, energy, fire and danger, much like it did in ancient Egypt, but it can also evoke feelings of warmth, strength, and love. Red is an emotionally charged color that has the ability to evoke strong emotions when used in art. Learning how to mix the various shades of red and crimson with other colors will enhance your artwork and provide you with a seemingly endless color palette. Every artist's color palette includes at least one shade of red, and gaining an understanding of the different ways reds can be mixed, diluted, and applied will help you become a better artist. To get the perfect shade of sunset or the light blush in someone's skin for a portrait, the artist needs to be able to mix his reds together effectively.

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