Choosing Reds

While preparing for this segment I took a moment to get out my basket of watercolor paints.  As I began to separate my red colors into groups it suddenly came to me that some of the tubes in my basket are older than many of you reading this blog!  My wife is constantly reminding me of the fact that the vast majority of my students are 40-50 years younger than me. So be it.  At times like this  I reflect on the blessings I have had to have been exposed to some of the finest teachers in American Art.  The sad part is that I often did not appreciate it until many years later.  What is my point?  Today most painters are bombarded with information regarding such topics as lightfastness, toxicity, etc.  While these are important issues I can’t help but smile as I recall that as young students we often trained and peaked our sable brushes by putting them into our mouths.  The saliva helped train and keep the point on those  treasured series 7 Kolinsky  sable  brushes.   At one point the manufacturer of the brushes and the paints sent out pamphlets with disclaimers warning all of us that they would not be responsible for any sickness or death resulting from anyone insisting on continuing the saliva bath practice.

Fading away 

So now to the present and the question of reds. What constitutes a good red?  I think it all depends upon how you plan to use it.

1. Are you painting florals or exotic birds?

2.Perhaps you are painting landscapes or portraits.

In each case a proper red may differ.  Thankfully there is a variety of reds from which to choose. Like any other color I think it is best for you to acquaint yourself with the color index.

3. I am speaking of designations such as PB,PR, PY, etc.

These index numbers will help identify the chemical composition of the paint you choose. If you cannot find an index number on the tube or chart choose a manufacturer that is willing to divulge the information. Take some time and go online with the search engine of your choice.  Pull up your favorite paint manufacturer and navigate or cruise to the color chart.  Examine the chart rather closely and you will most likely find a key or legend that will explain a number of things about the property and handling characteristics of each color.  You should be able to discern not only the lightfastness rating but the relative transparency /opacity of each color as well as the primary ingredients. Various sites  may be more informative than others.

Is fading the only issue?

No, a good watercolor paint has many considerations.  How does the paint behave when you use it?  Does it just sit on your paper like an inert lump or does it blossom and bloom on a moist field? As it dries does it retain its color or does it fade away?  While the loss of a bit of color or dry back is considered to be normal, too much is definitely not good.  So paint manufacturers have a number of challenges when they are seeking to develop the best choice at a reasonable price.  The bottom line is that there are pigments that will probably last for a thousand years but may not be suitable for our palettes for a variety of reasons. Thankfully today the painter has a much broader choice of suitable colors.

Not all pigments are created equal

Remember the old adage, “There is no free lunch”.  You could apply that philosophy to pigments and paints. Buy the best you can afford. When you are beginning that may be a bit daunting. That is one reason I urge you to experiment with various brands.

* Buy a smaller tube at first if you are not sure about a particular color or brand.

*Avoid discount store brands.

*Some student grade paints are pretty good, others are miserable.

Be careful when you purchase. The color red can be particularly testy.  Forgive me for bringing up the good old days but I want to make a point.  Many years ago as a beginning watercolor painter I fell in love with Alizarin Crimson. I had used it for years in oil painting so it was only natural to transfer that love to watercolor.  I had painted a snow scene that had found its way to a friend that lived on the New Jersey shore.  One summer, while visiting, I got to see the piece proudly displayed on the landing of the stairwell of this old Victorian home.  The setting was perfect and the light was wonderful. However, there was one major flaw; in a very short time the pale hints of Alizarin I had used had completely disappeared!  It didn’t seem that anyone else noticed but I did. The moral of the story is to be sure you know something about the colors you choose.  Always remember that colors that are lightfast in oils may not necessarily behave in the same way in watercolor.

Know your PRs 

The preceding story is intended to reinforce the need to be aware of the nature of pigments.  For hundreds of years certain ingredients have been used to make red paint.

* Vermilion, made from cinnabar, a mercury derivative, has been prized and very expensive. Not only is it expensive, it is toxic.

*The same is true for cadmium colors.

In today’s market we find a number of mixtures that are designed to perform like many of the old colors without the expense and the risk associated with them. This is not to say that you cannot find many of the old standards but in many cases you will be using a well crafted substitute.  If you study you will find that some of the old compounds suffer from exposure to air borne contaminates or pollutants.  This is an involved subject that I will not expound upon here. Feel free to research the subject.  There are excellent sources as well as guides written by various individuals concerning pigments and the story of color.  However, if you research do pay attention to the date on the material. There are new updates that render a lot of technical information obsolete.

Chart of Reds

Down below you will see a chart of red colors.  Do understand that I DO NOT use all of these colors at once or all of the time.  I have them and will use them if and when needed.

 In most cases I work with a fairly limited palette; usually no more than three or four colors. I make use of analogous as well as complementary color schemes. It all depends upon the effect I am trying to achieve.

Like every painter I have my favorites.  One favorite that I am having to reconsider is Grumbacher Red.  If you check the ingredients you will see a combination of PR170 and PR188.  According to some individuals who have devoted much time to the study of the relative permanence of color; PR170 is not considered to be lightfast.  However, Grumbacher gives it a Class II designation which suggests that it has durability.

 One point to consider, some manufacturers will place conditions upon their lightfast designations.

For example,  Rembrandt will state that their ratings for durability are based upon the paint being displayed under museum conditions. So what does this mean?

Where and how your work is displayed will play a role in its longevity.

Certain types of florescent lighting as well as direct sunlight can bleach out a lot of color. My personal observation is that I have been using Grumbacher Red since 1962.  At this time I have not had an incidence of the color fading or dulling. There are those who speculate that when ingredients are combined such as PR170 (Napthol red) and PR188 that the mix is stabilized.  However, as you examine the chart you will see that there are other colors that come close to matching it.

Grumbacher Red has been a proprietary color for many years.  I often contrast it against Winsor Red since in my experience it is a little cooler than the warmer Grumbacher color.  I often use them full strength and that may account for the lack  of dulling. A lot of people swear by M. Graham’s cadmium red while others prefer Sennelier Red.  So try them all and settle on your favorites.

About the chart

OK.there are a few things that need to be said about the chart.  As stated earlier, this chart is no indication that these are the best or  only colors one should choose.  These colors just happen to be in my basket at this time.  Daniel Smith makes excellent color as does M.Graham, Holbein and others.  So just because they are not included should not be considered a negative indictment.

Starting from the top and working clockwise I am going to list 18 colors by brand and index number.  After that I’ll make some general comments. Top center : American Journey Fire Engine Red (PR108/PR19), Sennelier French Vermilion (PR242),  Winsor & Newton Permanent Alizarin (PR206),  Winsor & Newton Quinacridone  Magenta (PR122),  Grumbacher Thalo Crimson (PV19),  Winsor & Newton Perylene Maroon (PR179),  Sennelier Rose Magenta (PV19), Sennelier Permanent Magenta (PV19),  Winsor & Newton Rose Dore’ (PV19/PY197),  American Journey Pomegranate (PV19), Winsor & Newton Permanent Rose (PV19),  Rembrandt Red Deep (PR108),  Rembrandt Red Light (PR255/PY154),  Rembrandt Vermilion (PR255/PY154), Stephen Quiller Quinacridone Red (PR202), Sennelier Red (PR254) and Grumbacher Red (PR170/PR188).


As you look at the color chart keep at least two things in mind.  As with other charts I am attempting to demonstrate the relative transparency of each color. The top band was painted pretty much full strength while the second band was diluted with water to produce an approximate 50% value.  This is not a scientific rendition.  It is a painting attempt.  The swatches could probably be a little more uniform in places but that is not the primary issue.  Gaining some understanding  of each paint is a part of the process and objective.  I use the circles, even though they area bit of a pain,  because they fit well on a page. Look at the colors. Please keep in mind that you are viewing an electronic rendition.  Your results will vary depending upon the paper you use and how fully you load your brush.  You need to test the colors for yourself so that you can see with your eyes the results you get.

Analyzing the chart

As you look at the colors how many seem to be very similar if not almost identical?

Caution: remind yourself that you are looking at a computer screen. Real life observation may reveal very subtle differences.  Now with those suggestions in mind how many colors can you see crossing the thick black india ink band? Count them.

Would you say that almost half of them reveal some degree of opacity?  Since we are working with reds that should be no surprise.

However, take note that almost as many are quite transparent even at full strength.  This makes them likely candidates for beginning washes that need to be a bit transparent.  Be careful with reds they do like to bleed into other colors so you need to use them prudently.

Next: check out the ingredients.  Do you see similar ingredients being repeated in various areas of the circle?  At least five of the colors list PV19 as the main ingredient. Do you also notice other ingredients being listed in several locations.  For example PR108 has been rated as an excellent pigment for lightfast qualities.   Do you think it might be a good idea to research these ingredients since they currently appear so often?

Now that you have looked at the chart you can make choices from the display and /or hopefully seek out other reds. There are many out there. You will soon find that even though many may list the same ingredients the color and the handling characteristics may be different.

For example, I love to use Winsor & Newton’s Perylene Maroon. It is such a regal color and it blends well with other colors on my palette. ( My next installment will introduce a few examples.)  Sennelier Red is very smooth handling and provides vibrant color while American Journey colors provide a lot of powerful pigmentation.


In my next installment I’ll be introducing some neutral color combinations utilizing glazing as well as charging.  Meanwhile, now that you have studied the red chart think about how you can mix various reds with a differing yellow and blue in order to get a wide range of values.  I’ve have often used the term expanded primary system working off the basic premise of mixing red,blue and yellow.  There is a study of mixing various neutrals in Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Volume I available direct at

About masteringglazingtechniquesinwatercolor

Watercolor painter and author of several watercolor books on painting technique. Recent inductee/recipient of the Marquis Life Time Achievers Award.

Posted on July 25, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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