Comparing similar colors – part 3

How can you choose which red paint will work best on your palette?  What qualities should you look for in the paint that’s right for your purposes?

In this final blog of the year I hope help you find answers to these questions, once again using two of my favorite brandsWinsor Newton Professional Watercolors and Golden’s QoR Modern Watercolorsas examples.  I’ll be looking at several popular reds to try to illustrate some of the differences among them.

Qualities I’ll be considering are whether they are staining or not (whether they can be easily lifted off the paper), whether they are permanent or fugitive (having a tendency to fade or change color over time), how transparent or opaque they are, their comparative chroma (how “pure” or muted each color appears), and whether they have a warm or cool bias in comparison to other similar reds.


Comparative chart - redsPermanent alizarin crimson is a more recent replacement for the cool, traditional but fugitive alizarin crimson (PR83).   Permanent rose also has a cool bias and is good for mixing purples. Like most quinacridones, quin red is very transparent, excellent for glazing.  The warm-biased Scarlet lake, cadmium red, pyrrole red, and permanent scarlet have very similar chroma, but slightly differing transparency and staining power. The brown madder/quin burnt orange (same quinacridone pigment) reds are transparent and have a lower chroma.  Although Indian red is based on the same pigment, PR101, as two of the transparent browns (see part 1),  this paint is extremely opaque. 

As you may have seen in part 1 (on browns and yellows) and part 2 (on blues), the same pigment may be used for a variety of colors, dependent on the processing method used.  Different manufacturers frequently use different names for the same color, or the same name for very different colors, so rely more on the pigments used than on the name, although the name may offer some clues.  As a general rule (obviously with exceptions) although the coloration may vary, other characteristics of the pigment will generally tend to be pretty consistent.  Many traditionally used pigments, such as the plant-based madders (PR83), tend to be fugitive, while the more modern pigments have been developed to replicate them while remaining more permanent.

Such reformulated colors are often (though not always) referred to on the label as “hues.”  (Some “hues” are also formulated to replicate colors that traditionally relied on pigments that are either very expensive or are no longer available.)  Other terms in the name, such as “permanent” or “new,” usually indicate that this formulation replaces a similar but more fugitive color.  So if you see a color labeled as “permanent,” it’s wise to avoid paints using the same name without the “permanent” designation unless you know that, like quinacridones or phthalos, the pigment used is indeed permanent.

I generally prefer to avoid cadmium colors, but have included one here among the reds.  Several manufacturers, including Winsor Newton, have recently introduced some cadmium-free formulations as alternatives to their traditional cadmium colors.  I have been content with my existing palette so haven’t felt a need to try them out yet.  If you’re interested in them, you may want to do some of your own comparative testing against similar colors already on your own palette.

The paints compared in this series of blogs are limited examples of only two brands of watercolor.  Similar colors of other brands will vary, depending on the pigment(s) used, formulation, and processing.  Read the labels or manufacturers’ information sheets for clues regarding transparency, permanence (lightfastness), and whether they are staining or non-staining.  Only direct comparison will determine temperature bias and chroma as related to similar colors.

-Lightfastness is often noted as ASTM I, II, III, or IV (the lower the number, the better—look for ASTM I or II), but not all pigments have an official rating.

-For clean mixing of colors (to minimize “mud”) look for transparent paints.

-For glazing, look for transparency, which allows underlying layers to shine through.  (Take note of how well underlying marks show through the paint in the chart.)

-Many organic pigments (quinacridone, phthalocyanine, indanthrone, etc.) tend to be transparent and have strong, staining characteristics.  Many (though not all) also tend to be more lightfast.

-Inorganics, such as cadmiums and earth colors (ground stone) are generally easier to lift off the paper but, because they are often granular, they tend to be somewhat less transparent.  But don’t expect any paint to lift entirely off the paper without leaving some color influence behind.

Only you can determine which qualities are most important to you and your working methods.  I hope these comparisons and tips help you in making wise selections for your own palette through the coming year.

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