– Bob Bahr reporting, Editor PleinAir Today –

A recent e-newsletter from an art materials manufacturer shone the spotlight on alizarin crimson, a paint that’s on many artists’ palettes, but one that is known to be fugitive. What does that mean, and how can a painter avoid having a piece discolor over time?

Lead Image: Gamblin’s illustration of alizarin crimson paint

Sarah Sands wrote in a Just Paint e-newsletter from Golden Artist Colors, “If a single color embodies the dividing line between pigments considered suitable for permanent works of art and those that are suspect and poor in lightfastness, alizarin crimson (PR 83) would be it. And yet it is still used by many artists who are drawn to it in spite of its many problems. Some of that is driven by tradition, habit, and a sense of something special and unique about its color, a feeling that it exudes a natural earthiness and that more permanent substitutes can often appear too ‘clean,’ or too high chroma, to be a perfect replacement.”

Indeed, think of how many painters you know who use a split-primary palette. For them, the warm red is often cadmium red. The cool red is almost always alizarin crimson. So what should those who worry about their work holding up over time do about alizarin crimson’s fugitive nature?

Scott Gellatly, at Gamblin Artists Colors, says his company offers a very simple solution, one that parallels that of Golden Artist Colors: formulate a lightfast or “permanent” version of the hue. “Alizarin crimson is the only color on the contemporary palette that is not lightfast enough for permanent painting,” says Gellatly. “Alizarin crimson, being a useful bluish transparent red, has served artists well, but no longer meets our standards for lightfastness. We keep it in our line because it is a historically important color and still on so many oil painters’ palettes. Knowing the shortcomings of alizarin crimson, yet appreciating its beauty and relevance in color space, we felt compelled to offer a lightfast alternative. Our solution is alizarin permanent. Alizarin permanent is formulated with an anthraquinone red pigment and a small amount of phthalo emerald. Slightly cooler in tint and tone, alizarin permanent beautifully matches the smoky transparency of alizarin crimson. Alizarin permanent has an excellent lightfastness rating (ASTM I) compared to the far more fugitive alizarin crimson.”

Gamblin’s alizarin permanent
Gamblin’s alizarin permanent

Over at Royal Talens, the folks who make Rembrandt, Cobra, and several other brands of paints offer quite a bit of information on pigments on their website, including an area with a quite enjoyable exploration of interesting pigments. Kyle Richardson, the head honcho for North American sales of Royal Talens products, sees the fugitive nature of alizarin crimson — and the solutions for its lack of lightfastness — as an indication that there’s never been a better time to be an artist, in terms of materials.

“Pigment technology has greatly advanced since the days of the great masters, particularly in recent times due to new developments related to the industrial market and specifically the automotive industry,” says Richardson. “While we would all like to believe that these advances could be attained solely for the benefit of the artist, we are actually receiving these due to larger industries that drive the small group of pigment manufacturers to create lightfast pigments that the world has never seen. We are truly living in the golden age of pigmentology.

“Despite these advances, there are still those who yearn for an era when certain pigments had very distinct behaviors that some feel cannot be produced using modern pigments; such is the case with alizarin crimson. An interesting story about our watercolor line is that we still have a fugitive alizarin crimson (color number 326, pigment number PR83), which we are told by some professional watercolor painters is absolutely essential to their palette because of its unique properties. The sentiment is understood from Royal Talens and we produce this pigment because we believe that the most important element is that we create what the artists wants to embody their vision, but also that we fully explain the obstacles and limitations of the materials being used.”

Richardson continues, “For the other 99 percent of artists who are happy to use a lightfast version of alizarin crimson, we offer permanent madder deep, which is a rich, deep, and transparent modern version of alizarin crimson (using PR264), as an alternative that takes the properties of the origins of alizarin crimson (which started as a dye and then a ‘lake pigment,’ based upon the root of the madder plant, harvested in the south of Holland). In most of mainland Europe, this color is still known as madder lake, in its permanent form, while in the UK, U.S., and Canada, most artists are still accustomed to speaking of alizarin crimson, based on its UK origins.

“While it’s up to each artist to understand the materials they are working with, it’s also up to each manufacturer to educate about the materials being used. From there, a choice can be made. That being said, no artists throughout history have had access to the materials and education that are available today, and I would tend to believe that the great masters would be like today’s masters, pushing for advances in materials sciences, and would embrace the most cutting-edge technology when it comes to their art.”


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