Most artists were probably not surprised to read in a recent post on OutdoorPainter.com that painters go through a lot of white paint. But at one art-materials manufacturer, another, very specific color outsells whites.
It’s easy to come across fans of Rembrandt’s transparent oxide red. In fact, it’s not hard to find artists willing to gush about it. The paint, which works very well as a glaze and mixes cleanly with other pigments, is a transparent earth color that some artists use as a tonal layer for an underpainting or a plein air block-in. “It’s a very versatile color,” says Kyle Richardson, North American business manager for Royal Talens, the parent company of the Rembrandt brand. “It’s what Rembrandt is most well known for, and it is the only color we have that outsells white.”
It’s not a hue unique to Rembrandt. The color is similar to what some brands label raw sienna, or even the Venetian red of some manufacturers. And other companies have transparent reds, and they are likewise made from iron oxides. Why do people prefer Rembrandt’s version? According to Richardson, it is because of the way Rembrandt mills the pigment. The businessman and painter said he discovered all this when he started working for Rembrandt and researching the paints for marketing materials. “The body and transparency of Rembrandt oil colors is a different, and they knew this but didn’t know why.” Richardson’s investigations revealed the importance of the extensive milling of pigments.
“On the label Rembrandt says the paint is ‘extra fine,'” says Richardson. “That means it is triple-milled — ground finer than many other brands. Some of the pigments are ground for hours and hours, which results in what I’ve always known as the ‘buttery’ feel that Rembrandt oils have.” Additionally, because Rembrandt uses a synthetic iron oxide pigment to make the color, the company is able to get a very fine and consistent grade of pigment — it is not subject to the vagaries of a natural, mined color. Transparent oxide red features the pigment suspended in linseed oil. The smaller molecules help make the paint relatively transparent. “You have more space between the pigment molecules for light to reflect, and because the pigment itself is transparent, the light also refracts within the suspension of oil” says Richardson.
Kristen Olson Stone’s piece utilizing transparent oxide red
Transparent oxide red is reminiscent of earth colors favored by Old Masters. It was a popular underpainting color because of its relative inexpensiveness, and the versatility of the hue — and the transparency it often possessed. This fit nicely with the glazing techniques favored in Northern Europe and the United Kingdom. Transparent oxide red does indeed work well as a warm glazing note in flesh tones, and it mixes with ultramarine blue or indigo to make a rich black. “I add violet to it to depict shaded areas of skin,” says Richardson. “Rembrandt’s transparent oxide red does not have an intense chroma — there are more intense reds — but it’s a very rich earth red. And when mixed with other colors, its unique transparency allows more luminosity.”