Tour of the Palette: Cadmium Red Medium

Note: this is part of a series of technical posts I'm writing which detail the colors I use on my palette. These will be published once a week (more or less), and each will focus on a single color. To read the overview, click here. Where possible, I link to the Handprint site. Although it is specifically geared towards watercolor, the discussions of the characteristics of each pigment are extremely useful.

The fourth color on my palette, cadmium red medium (pr108), is an opaque paint, and the first monopigment I've covered, which is to say it is not composed of a mixture of other pigments. It's offered in an array of values from a very light near-orange to a deep scarlet. Personally, I use a medium-value pigment, from which I can usually mix in either direction I need to go. By the way, Handprint's commentary on Cadmium Red is particularly useful, and I recommend you follow the above link and read his discussion.

If I had to pick let's say half a dozen pigments that appear on nearly every modern artist's palette, cadmium red would almost certainly be on that list. It's lightfast, strong and pure, holds up well in mixtures, and proves it's versatility over and over again.

That said, I actually don't use it much at all. It's completely opaque; now that I'm starting to incorporate more glazing into my work, that makes it less valuable to me (opaque paints actually can be used for glazing, but this requires a deft touch). It also has a tendency to be overpowering. In mixtures, strong opaque colors always have to be treated with skill, otherwise the result can easily be either mud (I find pinks mixed from cadmium reds are particularly ugly) or a chemical harshness. This is true for the cadmium yellows and oranges as well. Frequently when I see a glaring color mixture, particularly in a beginner's work, I suspect that a cadmium pigment is to blame.

The tendency towards harshness can be ameliorated somewhat by purchasing from better manufacturers. I personally like Michael Harding's cadmium red (I tend to think he's one of - if not THE - best paint makers I know of). His product has a mellow richness to it.

So, although I don't use it much, when I really need it, I'm glad it's there. It will remain on my palette indefinitely. Next time, I'll discuss a quite similar pigment - pyrolle red - which I use much more frequently.

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