Best Red Pigments for Painting

Red unfailingly provides focal points to a painting, particularly when placed alongside a cool color such as green. But red can appear garish if overdone. Yet even within the most subtle hues, red is present. What are the best red pigments to include in the artist palette?

Which Red for Art

Splashes of red will create eye catching art, but in excess can appear gaudy. Just a touch will often suffice. In its purest form, red can be found within lots of subject matter from birds, butterflies and beetles to flowers, ripe fruit and toys. But with so much that bears this color, what are the best pigments to use in oils or acrylics? Well the answer is simpler than one might think.

Types of Red Pigments

The notion that red is a primary color firstly needs to be dispelled. Red is in fact a secondary color (orange is a tertiary color.) True primary red is one that resembles the ‘red’ of printing ink which is in fact magenta. In terms of oils or acrylics, it is the tube labeled ‘permanent rose’ that most resembles the magenta of printing ink, and therefore would be a vital inclusion in the artist’s palette. Mix permanent rose with yellow and red will result.

Color Temperature of Red

As with any other color, there are two chromatic directions this ‘primary red’ can go, and that is warm or cool. Permanent rose is a sharp, almost acidic hue, and which therefore is the ideal component for mixing violet colors. Ultramarine blue, being biased towards red, would result in a clean violet color. Permanent rose, therefore is a good hue to use for cool reds.

A useful warm red can be found in a few oil pigments which might be cadmium red, scarlet lake or cadmium scarlet. I use cadmium red. This red being biased towards yellow is the ideal component for mixing orange or gold colors.

Great Reds for Art

Other red pigments are worth exploring such as alizarin crimson, carmine red and quinacridone. These reds have high tinting strength and are ideal for use in oil painting glazes, to increase color saturation of the color beneath. Alizarin is almost blood-like in appearance and adds depth to any color mixture. Carmine has incredible tinting strength and requires the smallest amount in color mixtures.

But there are a lot of red pigments that are either superfluous (as the aforementioned provide color mixes they provide) or are redundant. Flesh tint, Winsor orange and permanent magenta to name but three.
Articles on Colour Mixing

My youtube clip explaining why red is not a primary colour

How to Use Red in Paint Mixing

Permanent rose is the ideal red counterpart to any purple color mixture which might be blueberries, petunias or the violet tint of a clear sky near sunset. On the other hand, cadmium red can be used for warm reds, such as poppies, ladybirds, tomatoes or robins’ breasts. Add a little burnt sienna (and white if necessary) into this red and a warm, rustic red will result. This can be used for bricks or terracotta pots.

Subtle Use of Reds

Reds can be tempered with a little earth color. Burnt umber is ideal for cooling down and tempering cadmium red to express (with a little white) shadows in sand dunes. A little green or green-blue will nudge the red into the realms of neutral colors which can be seen on misty horizons or in stone.

Colors to Darken Red

Shaded areas in poppies, for example can be expressed by introducing a little cool color into the red. This might be burnt umber, a little ultramarine or viridian. Cool shadows in the red object can be created by mixing permanent rose and a little pthalo blue into the red mixture. Warm shades in red objects can be brought about by adding a little burnt sienna or ultramarine into the red mixture.

Ideal Red Pigments for Painting

There are a lot of red pigments which are not really necessary to the artist. On the most basic level, I include just two reds in my palette, between them, producing cool reds and warm reds. These are permanent rose and cadmium red. Other red pigments are worth exploring, such as alizarin and carmine. With these few reds, a multitude of different reds can be achieved by the introduction of other colors which might tip the color bias a little more or temper the red. Ultramarine, burnt sienna or viridian will create interesting color mixes when introduced to red.