Friday, August 20, 2010

Cadmium red and other red pigments

As I have said before, I learned to paint with real vermilion. That is pure mercuric sulphide, and deadly. I don't think it is available today, but when I choose a warm red I look for one that has the same qualities as vermilion. Cadmium red is only close.

Cadmium red light is an opaque, permanent warm red and cadmium red medium and deep are progressively cooler. Cadmium red deep is a cherry color, cadmium red light is a fire color. However I find that cadmium red is not as good a mixer as the vermilion was, it tends to give somewhat muddy mixes with many colors excepting cadmium yellow. I use cadmium red mostly to influence, or "step on" other mixtures. I have referred to doing this in the blog before, as smuggling red. A color that is good for stepping on other colors doesn't need pigmenting strength, but mixability so that it adds it's influence to the mix without blowing it out.

Cadmium reds are a standard on the artists palette, but they are expensive and they are a toxic heavy metal. I seldom use it these days as there are other reds out there which seem to be good substitutes. Most of the makers have a red with their own nameplate on it, such as Rembrandt red, or Sennelier red and I like those very well and they are often close to my vermilion standard.

Napthol red is a deep, intense, permanent, semi-transparent red that is somewhat roseate in hue. It has been in use for almost a hundred years and is a common replacement for cadmium red. It is less expensive than cadmium red and I think it gives cleaner mixtures. Nearly every maker sells a napthol red. Again, often these are labeled with the makers name. Sometimes the tube will say permanent red.

Azo is a weaker red and seems to have no advantages over the quinacridones and seem mostly to show up in the less expensive hues or student colors.

P.S. Several people have let me know where real vermilion can be obtained. Even though you can get it, you should not be using vermilion. It is highly toxic and can be absorbed through the skin. I own several old tubes that I keep just to remember what olor it really is. I am have often used lead white and I am willing to deal with that level of toxicity, but vermilion is too poisonous for anyone to use, in my opinion.


Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...


While I agree with pretty much all you say about the subject, genuine Vermillion can be purchased from both Michael Harding and Natural Pigments, in the US.

I have a tube of it from Natural Pigments in my studio bought last October. Good stuff. A friend has the same from Michael Harding. Also good stuff, although less dense out of the tube.


Bob Carter said...

They’ll probably have to take the cadmium red deep out of my cold, dead hands, but your comments on vermillion substitutes may push me to try one. Being a Rembrandt afficionado, I went to the Talens web site to see what they are offering. They don’t have anything that is literally named Rembrandt red, but they do make a “vermillion”, which is pyrrol orange (PO73) and looks from the color chart to resemble cadmium red light. They also make a permanent red light, which is a two-pigment mix of PO73 and PR255 (perlene red BL). I’m not a fan of mixed pigment paints, so I lean toward the so-called vermillion. Which would you suggest?

Hope you intend to show us some cute pictures of those anteater puppies. said...

As you know red is one of those colors I can't get enough of. Some women have excess cones in their eyes that allow them to see reds more intensely and with more subtly. This may be my problem..or may I say ONE of my problems. I love the cadmiums but sometimes thier opaqueness and heavy handedness in mixing and dulling with white isn't a good fit for the effect I am going after. My new favorite red to play with is Perylene Red. Its transparent , the color of med red cadmium but it warms up with white to a color like cad red light( unlike the quinacridones which head off toward cools.)

and here is another red pigment I have come across which sort of acts like the Perylene, and that's Anthraquinone. So
many reds; so little time.

But really, with all these great reds happening does mercury vermillion really need to be used. What makes it indispensable.

jeff said...

Pyrrole Red is another new red that can be a replacement for Cad Red light. I still use cads however as I like them. Maybe I should ween myself off of them.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks Thomas.
I keep an old tube around so I can remember what it looked like. But I think vermilion is too toxic for regular use.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think I am using the permanent red light. I like that pretty well.The vermilion sounds too hot, but I would like to try it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have liked perylene red too.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think other reds mix cleaner and are cheaper and nontoxic. Some are also transparent.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...


True, vermillion is one of the more toxic colors still available to us today, but it is not terribly dangerous to use when handled with respect and care. And yes, we contemporary artists do have the modern carbon compound reds at our disposal -- such as the perelyne, napthol, and the quinacrinones, but those are all transparent and do not handle overpainting in the direct painting method you clearly favor, as the cad red or vermillion does

So hey, we must make choices and make do with what we have, eh?

Keep painting and blogging. I enjoy seeing your work.


Unknown said...

I am a middle school teacher in NC and came across your site while researching some information about the periodic table for my chemistry class this year. I just wanted to thank you for the great information.

We would love it if you could write a few articles for us, but I understand if your busy so a link to some of the current articles would be very helpful as well to help us spread trusted resources to other teachers. I have included a link to our page about cadmium and its toxic effects in case you would like to help us out by linking to it, tweeting it, or adding it to your Facebook profile.

Thanks and keep the great resources coming

Bre Matthews