Almost every artist I’ve talked with uses Alizarin Crimson. It’s one of the most popular colors ever.
So, what’s the problem?
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The original Alizarin Crimson is considered fugitive. What does fugitive mean? It can fade from a beautiful red hue to a pale off-white when exposed to ultraviolet light (both sunlight and indoor lights).
Although we’ve known about its fugitive nature since the 90s, a lot of artists still use it. It’s hard to paint without it. And, when used full-strength or added on top of other fully dried paints, it doesn’t fade nearly as much. When mixed with white, including lead white and other particular colors, it begins to fade within years.
Is there a good alternative? Yes! Let me tell you how I first learned about the woes of Alizarin, and then I’ll tell you what to use instead.
A painful lesson I learned from Richard Schmid:
An art show announcement in Southwest Art magazine in Sept. 1993 showed a masterful Richard Schmid painting of his wife Nancy in a red velvet dress that sold quickly for $150,000.
Five years later, I was in a show at the Bennington Center For the Arts. Richard came and gave a lecture where he described the severe cracking of the Alizarin Crimson paint that he used to create the red velvet dress and how he and art conservators were doing their best to save it.
It wasn’t necessarily fading, probably because the paint was used full strength rather than mixed with other colors, but cracking was also part of the fugitive nature of the original Alizarin color.
Robert Gamblin then came up and spoke about the new ‘Permanent Alizarin Crimson‘ they had just formulated, which was made with PV19, PR149, and PB29. That ‘new’ formula was eventually changed as well to PR177.
Today, most major brands use pigment PR177 instead of the original Alizarin pigment PR83 for their Permanent Alizarin.
The pigment name for PR177 is Anthraquinone Red.
Most brands label their version Permanent Alizarin Crimson or Anthraquinone Red, but you might see names like Michael Harding’s Alizarin Claret or Old Holland’s Alizarin Crimson Lake Extra. They are each made with PR177.
They all state emphatically that their version is perfectly lightfast. But is it?
The problem with PR177 is found in Virgil Elliott’s window tests:
The strips of paint were kept in his California south-facing window for 6 years. PR177 faded almost as badly as PR83. The nice thing is that it did not crack like the PR83.
Interestingly, PR 83 and PR177 are both from the Anthraquinone family. I’m not sure why so many otherwise reputable brands label PR177 as ‘permanent’.
It turns out that the ‘Permanent Alizarin’ I’ve been using and recommending does not seem to be permanent at all when mixed with white.
Did you notice that PV19 performed much better? What is PV19? Well, it depends on the brand. Gamblin calls it Quinacridone Red. Michael Harding, M Graham, and Rembrandt call it Quinacridone Rose. To make matters more confusing, the colors can be quite different from one another, one slightly darker, another leaning toward a touch of blue.
I love Quinacridone Rose (PV19). It is as close as I’ve found to one of my early favorites, Rose Madder Genuine by Winsor & Newton (NR9). The problem with Rose Madder Genuine is that it is also fugitive. It is one of the Madder Lake colors they tried to improve on with PR83.
At the time of its invention, the new synthetic Alizarin Crimson (PR83) was considered the permanent lightfast solution to the Madder Lakes (NR9).
It turns out that PR83 is even more fugitive than the Madder Lake colors like NR9 unless PR83 is used as a glaze over completely dry paints or grounds. Natural Pigments and several other brands continue to make an original version of Alizarin Crimson with PR83 while noting the fugitive nature of the pigment.
Something to keep in mind is that the colors of Norman Rockwell’s are well documented. He is one of the greatest colorists I know of. I could not find one article discussing any fading of his colors. Here is Rockwell’s palette:
Norman Rockwell’s painting palette contains Alizarin Crimson.Three other remarkable colorists used Alizarin Crimson (PR83) or Rose Madder (NR9) without one article discussing the fading of their paintings: John Singer Sargent, Lawrence Alma Tadema, and Danielle Green.
You can see the palettes of these and other artists in the 6 Week Course video “Oil Paints Buying Guide” (remember, all membership levels, 6 Week Course, and Lifetime Package owners have access): https://masteroilpainting.com/6-week-course-videos/
Another pigment companies like Rembrandt use as an Alizarin substitute is PR254 – Pyrrol (or Pyrrole) Red. Several varieties of red are created from the Pyrroles. Rembrandt calls their Alizarin substitute made from PR254 Permanent Madder Deep (probably because Alizarin Crimson was the replacement for Madder Lake in the 1800s).
I experimented with Rembrandt’s Permanent Madder Deep recently as a possible replacement for Alizarin. It is not an Alizarin Crimson replacement. It more closely resembles Transparent Oxide Red or Burnt Sienna. Only recently did I look at the pigment – PR254. It has a distinct yellow or brown tint when mixed with other colors.
Madder Lake was popular for centuries, but in most paintings, it faded completely. Unless you were Franz Hals, he seemed to know how to use it so it would not fade.
Here is an excerpt from a book written by Maximilian Toch that I found on Natural Pigments’ site:
“Madder (NR9) or alizarin (PR83) may be mixed with Indian red, forming a color known as Tuscan red, which is perfectly permanent. It may also be mixed with burnt sienna, burnt ocher, burnt umber, etc., but is fugitive when mixed with raw ochre, raw sienna, or raw umber. The chemical colors like flake white (white lead), zinc oxide, chrome yellow, Naples yellow, and chrome greens all bleach it, but colors like quick silver, vermilion, cadmium yellow, and all of the blacks do not affect it.”
A good example of the fading of Madder Lake colors is Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. How do we know the colors faded?
A replica created by one of his apprentices was kept wrapped in a dark fabric. The colors are stunningly different!
Variations of the Pyrrole Red PR254 and PR255 pigments are excellent as Cadmium Red replacements, like Rembrandt’s Permanent Red Light and Medium.
Most pigments like PR177, PV19, or PR254 have multiple variations that can be distinctly different from one another in hue, so it pays to experiment and not look only at the pigment that’s used.
Gamblin makes their Chromatic Black from PV19 (Quin Rose) and PG36 (Phthalo Green). I’m thinking those may be my new go-to’s for mixing the base for my dark shadow colors.
Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you about what to use for an Alizarin replacement, I’ll try to sum up where all of this is leading me.
I don’t know.
I tried a mixture of PV19, Quinacridone Rose, mixed with a bit of Ultramarine Blue, and it’s a nice dark crimson, but it is not identical to PR177, Permanent Alizarin.
Maybe it doesn’t matter.
Since I just learned about the fading of PR177 while writing this email, I haven’t had a chance to conduct in-depth experiments with alternatives. I will do that going forward.
In the meantime, I’m not sure it’s something to be overly concerned about. Yes, our paintings may fade over the years, but when kept indoors out of direct sunlight, it can take decades or longer.
I’ll probably at least use up what I’ve got and let the chips land where they may. If my paintings fade, I will certainly not be alone.
If a collector comes to me in 40 or 50 years and complains about fading colors, I will touch up the painting or replace it. But, considering the hundreds of paintings I’ve sold over the past 40 years without a single collector asking for a refund, that’s not likely.
Do you use PR83? Is Permanent Alizarin Crimson on your palette?
What colors have you used that you later found out were fugitive?
Send me a quick email if you’d like, and I will use your stories in an upcoming blog post about fugitive paints.
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