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The Harrowing History of The Color Red — Pastelists, Take Heed!
Valentine’s Day, February 14, is a day associated with romance. But the historical origins of the day are clouded in folklore with roots based in the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a pagan fertility celebration. In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius recast the holiday as a Christian feast day commemorating Saint Valentine.
The mystery remains as to which of the three Catholic Saint Valentines he intended to honor. In the 14th century, Chaucer solidified the holiday’s association to love when he composed a poem in honor of the engagement of England’s King Richard II. And, by the 18th century, the holiday had evolved into an occasion for the exchanging of handmade cards, a custom that spread to the American colonies.
Today, Valentine’s Day is a commercial success filled with many gifts linked to the romantic matters of the heart. Hence, the holiday’s connection with the color red — a color associated with seduction, passion, anger, danger and heat.
Red, along with yellow and blue, is one of the subtractive primary colors and, therefore, is of paramount importance to artists. Red ochre is considered one of the oldest red pigments, having been used in cave paintings.
Madder lake (alizarin), Carmine and Vermilion were also widely used until the introduction of cadmium red at the turn of the 19th century. Until recently, the artistic limitations of red pigment have been rooted in the general chromatic weakness of the highly permanent earth tones, the often-fugitive qualities of madder/alizarins and the toxic nature of cadmiums.
With the 20th century introduction of modern organic pigments, having names like Napthol and Quinacridone, which are made in laboratories from materials that have a central atom of carbon, the capacity of the artist to represent the full emotions of the color red has been greatly expanded. With that being said, working with this pigment can still leave artists, especially pastelists, seeing red — and no, not just literally, but figuratively as well.
Seeing Red in Pastel
Due to the nature of the medium, pastelists have had to pay considerable attention to red. Toxic pigments, such as cadmiums, can become airborne, which means they should be avoided or used with caution.
Additionally, mixing white into traditional mineral-based red pigments creates lighter tints that can produce chalky-appearing tones. And the fugitive nature of many intense red dyes can lead to chromatic deterioration.
What’s more, while the introduction of modern organic pigments greatly changed the wet painter’s palette, until recently it had proven difficult for these pigments to be formed into pastel sticks due to their composition.
However, pastelists shouldn’t discard red from your palette just yet. Today’s pastel manufacturers have devised ways of working with these intense, lightfast pigments, providing new pastel Valentines for those of us who wish to bring a blush to the cheeks of our models, make our roses a striking blood red and add that flash of warmth someplace in the landscape to complete the harmony of light.
Just like with love, it’s important to be cautious with red pastels. However, just like with love, once you master how to safely handle the pigment, you can create a beautiful masterpiece.
How do you use the color red in your pastel art? Tell us in the comments!
The Secret to Pastel Painting Success
Learn accomplished artist Richard McKinley‘s secrets to success by downloading the video workshop, Three Stages for Successful Pastel Paintings. Check out the preview trailer below for a sneak peek into how McKinley breaks up a painting into “The Three S’s” — sensitivity (concept), serendipity (underpainting) and solve (response and resolution) — for beautiful results.
Article features contributions by artist Richard McKinley