Hands down, I’ve never worked so hard to prepare for a blog post as I have for this red watercolor comparison. There are a LOT of red watercolors on the market, but that doesn’t mean you should paint with them. Many reds should be avoided because they can be highly impermanent or ultra finicky during use.
When I reach for a primary red, I want a solid performer that can hold its own. I don’t want a weak or washy red with low tinting strength that’s easily overrun by stronger colors. But I also want a red that mixes well and allows lifting, so it can’t be highly staining.
Very early into my watercoloring days, I tried Pyrrol Red which is comprised of red pigment #254 (or PR254*) and it suited me so well that I’ve used it as my primary red ever since. I’ve tried many other reds, but any attempts to replace my staple Pyrrol Red have never worked for me or my palette.
I share this so you’ll know that before we explore red watercolors, I’m set on my primary palette red and don’t plan to change a thing. I’ve loved it for years, so if I constantly proclaim the benefits of Pyrrol Red, you’ll understand why.
But just in case my beloved red isn’t yours, I entered into a scientific study of scarlet (feeling a nerdy bit of Sherlock Holmes here) to help you find the best red watercolor for you. So let’s compare red watercolors** to help you find a red that makes your heart race!
*If you’re confused by terminology such as PR254 and PV19, I explain more about pigment names and numbers in this article.
**To keep things simple, this comparison is only about primary reds made with red pigments, or PR colors. I’ll save pinks and violets (e.g. PR88/122/187/202/233/etc) for another day. If you’re interested in earth reds/oranges, please see my PR101 comparison article and video.
[Article contains affiliates.]
Fugitive & Finicky Reds
Probably more than any other color, reds struggle with staying power. When sorting through red watercolors for this article, I decided to omit any red pigments that are listed as fugitive or iffy in lightfast tests.
For example, it’s long been documented that Alizarin Crimson (PR83) quickly fades to a barely-there pink when exposed to sunlight.* Even with very limited UV exposure, PR83 has about a 10 year lifespan, so I highly recommend artists avoid this one and opt for more permanent options like Da Vinci’s Alizarin Crimson (PV19) which looks and behaves nearly identical to PR83.
The good news is that there are plenty of stable reds to choose from. Probably the least finicky reds are those that are semi-transparent to semi-opaque like Cadmiums, Pyrrols, and Perylenes. Highly translucent reds abound, but they also tend to be highly staining and prone to blossoming and streaking. Because of red’s boldness, these qualities can make translucent reds harder to handle and use.
In regards to lightfast issues, here are the known red offenders. To help you spot these, I included a few common brands that contain these pigments, but please note that this list isn’t exhaustive.
These colors are proven to be rapid faders and are best kept out of any artwork that you hope to preserve.
PR4 - This pigment has nearly disappeared from artist paints but older tubes may contain it. White Nights/Yarka Scarlet is the only current product that I’ve found.
PR23 - Holbein Crimson Lake is the only current product that I’ve found.
PR83 - Alizarin Crimson (authentic); widespread usage among many watercolor manufacturers.
PR106 - Often labeled Vermillion. This pigment is no longer in production but older sets and tubes may contain it.
The longevity of colors ranked as iffy may vary from brand to brand and possibly tube to tube, so be sure to perform your own lightfast tests with these.
PR112 - Commonly labeled Naphthol. ASTM ranks it as “fair.”
PR149 - Handprint reports that this pigment may actually darken instead of fade. Found in Daniel Smith Perylene Scarlet; MaimeriBlu Crimson Lake.
PR170 - Another Naphthol pigment. Found in Daniel Smith Permanent Red and Permanent Red Deep; Da Vinci Naphthol Red.
PR177 - Often labeled Anthraquinone (authentic). ASTM ranks it level II but states that the lightfastness of this pigment highly depends upon manufacturing and application. Found in MaimeriBlu Permanent Red Deep; Daniel Smith Anthraquinone.
PR264 - Widespread usage among many watercolor manufacturers. Found in M. Graham Permanent Alizarin Crimson; Daniel Smith Pyrrol Crimson; Winsor & Newton Winsor Red Deep; Schmincke Ruby Red Deep.
*Kudos to Daniel Smith for performing in-house lightfast tests and sharing full disclosure. Learn more about Daniel Smith’s processes here.
The Scoop on Cadmium Reds
Many artists avoid all PR108 pigments, or Cadmium reds, due to fears over toxicity issues. I am also highly concerned about toxins in my environment, and I work hard to live a life with a low toxic footprint. I don’t paint my nails or dye my hair. Heck, I rarely wear makeup. I make most of my own household cleaners and eat very few packaged foods. I am careful about what I put in and on my body and what I bring into my home.
But I do paint with Cadmiums… and Cobalts, Manganese, Nickels, and Ceruleans which are all pigments that usually come with warning labels here in the U.S. Cadmiums are some of the most stable, beautiful colors in existence, and I would hate for you to miss out on the joys of painting with them over unfounded fears.
I will always be completely honest with you to the best of my ability, and I’ve done quite a bit of research on this topic. Unfortunately, if you’re highly concerned about avoiding all toxins in your life, you probably shouldn’t paint. Or eat.* All paints are a chemical concoction, and manufacturers use many ingredients—synthetic and natural—whose biological and ecological effects are largely unknown.
If you choose to paint, I highly encourage you to research the facts and treat all chemical compounds with common sense—don’t ingest paints, point or clean a paint brush with your mouth, or inhale pigment particles. And don’t panic: Splashing paint on your skin (ATSDR reports that dermal contact isn’t really a risk) or accidentally dipping your brush into your coffee mug won’t hurt you.
For more on this topic, see these articles.
Several years ago, manufacturers, distributors, and artists in Europe lead a campaign to fight a proposal to ban cadmium in artist paints. Jackson’s Art was one of the companies who successful fought the ban. There’s plenty of information along with scientific testimonies about cadmium’s safety at Jackson’s blog.
The highly respected Bruce at Handprint shares a brief overview regarding toxicity in paints. Since Bruce compiled this article, current research has negated the risk of skin exposure.
In regards to concerns about paint disposal, this study found that the quantity of cadmium from artists’ paints in soils is negligible.
A bit about cadmiums and their lack of toxicity at Winsor & Newton.
*Cadmium occurs naturally in the environment and most of our daily exposure comes through plant-based foods and shellfish. Cadmium is also in tobacco smoke and a natural component of ocean water and wetlands. [Cadmium: Potential for Human Exposure, CDC/ATSDR]
Comparing Red Watercolors
While the information in the sections above is extremely important, we’re finally into the good stuff! I’ve divided this red watercolor comparison into three categories—neutral/cool reds, neutral/warm reds, and deep reds—and share my top 3 picks in each category. Deep reds can be either warm or cool, and though they rarely work as a primary red in a palette, they are wonderful for creating depth and/or softness in paintings.
Some artists prefer to keep a red from each category in their palette, while some artists (like me) keep only one primary red but also use violet and earth red/orange pigments like PR101. Also, many primary reds will easily mix to a dark red, but the option of several red choices in a palette can be highly convenient.
All of my top picks rank well in lightfast tests, and I share more on their painting characteristics below. You can see what reds I keep in my own palette here, but when it comes to your own personal palette, the only rule is this: Choose the colors that you love and use!
Note on swatches: Though I’ve made all attempts to be accurate, colors are extremely difficult to scan; please make allowances for monitor differences. All colors were swatched on Kilimanjaro #140 CP. Where applicable, I’ve included links that share more color information, additional swatches, and current pricing; some links are affiliates.
Top 3 Cool Primary Red Watercolors
I lean towards neutral to cool primary reds because they mix easily into violets, purples, and deep blues, and their blue undertones also balance out warm earths in a palette. Also, a cool primary red easily switches to a warm by adding a touch of yellow. In no particular order, here are my top three watercolor picks for a cool primary red.
Da Vinci (Pyrrol) Red (PR254)
As you already know, PR254 is my #1 pick for a primary red and has earned a top spot in my Scratchmade Da Vinci palette. Pyrrol is a perfect, middle-of-the-road neutral red whose bluish tones are only evident when situated next to a warm color. It’s semi-transparent to semi-opaque but isn’t prone to muddiness, dilutes beautifully, and has a moderate flow rate with very little drying shift. PR254 is very consistent throughout brands, but I’m partial to Da Vinci for price and performance. (Da Vinci Red was the only red used in the landscapes for this post.) For more on this color along with how it performs in mixes, see my video below.
Daniel Smith Perylene Red (PR178)
PR178 is a muted, cool red that dilutes beautifully to a soft pink, but it’s deep enough in masstone to easily read as “red” in a painting. Daniel Smith describes PR178 as a “brilliant red-orange,” but I’m calling it as I see it, and I see blue undertones in this one. (You may see color differently, and that’s a-okay.) PR178 is somewhat rare in the artist world. I’ve also tried Schmincke Perylene Dark Red, also PR178, which is exactly the same color but it suffered from performance problems—blossoming, hard edges, and binder separation. However, Daniel Smith Perylene Red paints and mixes flawlessly.
Da Vinci Quinacridone Red (PR209)
Quin Red is a highly transparent coral red that has a knack for shifting from semi-warm in masstone to cool in dilution, which is kinda nifty. But fair warning: This color is a massive stainer with a very active flow rate, so it can be tricky to handle and finicky in some mixes. Botanical artists love PR209’s transparency combined with its high tinting strength and ability to mix clear violets, so if you also value these characteristics, PR209 may be worth a try.
Top 3 Warm Primary Red Watercolors
Many artists prefer warm primary reds and often substitute a warm red for an orange in a palette. Warm reds can be great neutralizers and mix a wide range of rich oranges, dusky violets, and warm earths. Warm reds are excellent for depicting vivid landscapes like southwestern desert scenes. In no particular order, here are my top three watercolor picks for a warm primary red.
Da Vinci Permanent Red (PR188)
PR188 is a Naphthol pigment, but it has a better ASTM lightfast rating than other Napthols. It’s a beautifully warm red that’s semi-transparent and mixes well. When I first tried it, I didn’t like how PR188 tended to blossom uncontrollably. (Just check out that cauliflower in the swatch!) Despite its quirky nature, the beauty of this color eventually won me over and I highly recommend it for a transparent, warm red.
MaimeriBlu Pyrrole Red (PR255)
This was a hard choice because MaimeriBlu isn’t a brand that’s common in the States and is rather expensive, but I wanted to try this brand and really fell hard for this color. It’s very similar to Daniel Smith’s PR255 (Pyrrol Scarlet) albeit softer and more transparent. PR255 dilutes to a peachy red that’s lovely for skin tones, florals, and landscapes. If you prefer a bolder and more affordable option, Daniel Smith’s version is also a fine choice.
Da Vinci Cadmium Red Light (PR108)
Cadmium Red Light is a stellar warm red that dilutes beautifully, flows and mixes effortlessly, and performs flawlessly. Bright and bold, it’s gorgeous in autumn landscapes, and I often use it as an orange. I think Da Vinci’s version is less opaque than some brands, showcasing semi-opaqueness in masstone but quickly becoming semi-transparent to nearly transparent in dilution and as it dries. Plus, Da Vinci’s Cads are some of the most affordable on the market. Though Cads are gorgeous, they do have a tendency to go muddy, so respect the paint and be careful to not overwork this color.
Top 3 Deep Red Watercolors
I mainly use Da Vinci’s Alizarin Crimson as a deep red in my palette, but that color is actually a violet pigment so it doesn’t officially qualify for this post. However, there are some astounding deep red pigments to choose from, so many that I had trouble deciding between two colors so I decided to share them both. In no particular order, here are my top three (and really four) watercolor picks for a deep red.
Winsor & Newton Perylene Maroon (PR179)
Perylene Maroon is a beautifully rich, warm red that softens rather dramatically when it dries, and it’s a great color for everything from landscapes to lips. It’s also a stable mixer; combined with Phthalo Green (PG7), it produces a gorgeous range of darks, or try it with Raw Sienna (PBr7) to gain a lovely earth orange. Despite being labeled as staining, Winsor & Newton’s version lifts surprisingly easy. This is a pigment that I’d like to try in more brands, so stay tuned!
Schmincke Cadmium Red Deep (PR108)
As I mentioned above, this was a hard choice. I adore Da Vinci Cadmium Red Deep which is a gorgeously rich blood red, but I finally decided to give this spot to Schmincke’s version which is the darkest Cadmium Red that I’ve found. My scan doesn’t do this beautiful color justice. It’s similar to Perylene Maroon but not as warm. Instead, Schmincke Cad Red Deep is a true red with no hint of pink or brown. It behaves and mixes very well and settles nicely on a page—a true winner! For a more affordable deep red that also showcases no pink or brown, I share a swatch of Da Vinci’s version in the info on Cads above and in my red comparison video.
Winsor & Newton Permanent Alizarin Crimson (PR206)
I almost nixed PR206, also known as Quinacridone Maroon, because it’s prone to streaking and speckling. (Check out that left side of the swatch.) But I kept coming back to it because Winsor & Newton Permanent Alizarin Crimson is rather unique and one of the few deep reds that’s both transparent and lightfast. PR206 usually has a brown or orange cast, but Permanent Alizarin Crimson has beautiful blue undertones that are difficult to find in a deep red. [Note: Check labels on this one. Prior to 2015, WN may have used a different formula for Perm Alizarin Crimson.]
Video: Comparing & Mixing Red Watercolors
In this video, I swatch out my top picks from all of the reds above along with simple tips and ideas for using primary red in mixes.
Seeing Red: Hahnemühle’s 2019 Calendar
For a bit of red painting inspiration, check out the winners of Hahnemühle’s 2019 calendar. The contest theme for 2019 was “red” and more than 900 artists from 38 countries entered for a chance to be featured. The 12 winning entries are displayed at the link, and I think June is my favorite although all are phenomenal. If you’d like to join in the fun, Hahnemühle’s theme for their 2020 art calendar will be announced in February so keep an eye on their website.
Leave me a comment and let me know if you have a favorite red color or painting. I’ve always been smitten with the Dutch Golden Age palette red, which was more than likely Vermillion, a rich red with a fiery orange undertone that must be glazed to avoid degradation. This pigment is no longer produced commercially, but Cadmium Red Light (which wasn’t yet available when Vermeer and Rembrandt were painting) is pretty close!