Alizarin Crimson


Myths and traditions seem to keep hold in oil painting for a long time. Some of these myths, recipes and traditions have been passed down for decades and even centuries.  I believe that since artists can be tied emotionally to their materials they sometimes weigh their feelings about a material they use as more important than the empirical evidence available .  One of these common misconceptions is that Alizarin Crimson is a “must-have” colour.  Almost any how-to painting book will have it listed as one of the basic colours for a palette. Usually the reasoning is something along the lines of, “If it was good enough for the old masters it is good enough for me.”  This is the logical fallacy known as “argumentum ad antiquitatum”, or “appeal to tradition”.  Just because something has been done for a long time, does not necessarily mean that it was the right thing to do.

The big problem with Alizarin Crimson has to do with its lightfastness.  Although at one time there may not have been other options for a cool red pigment with good lightfastness there certainly are now.    The pigment PR83 is classified as Lightfastness III in oil paint (one manufacturer gives it a rating of II but that is based on their feelings about how much pigment they put in their tubes rather than actual testing).  For those unfamiliar with lightfastness, basically it is how resistant the pigment is to change when exposed to light.  Each pigment is given a rating by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). They are as follows:

ASTM I — Excellent Lightfastness (greater than 100 years without noticeable change)

ASTM II — Very Good Lightfastness (50-100 years without noticeable change)

ASTM III — Not Sufficiently Lightfast to be used in artists’ paints (15-50 years without noticeable change)

As you can see, Alizarin Crimson, at LFIII is just not durable enough from a lightfastness standpoint to be argued for rationally. Despite this almost every oil paint manufacturer still makes an Alizarin Crimson paint due to demand from customers who just “have to have it!”  For those who care about longevity though there are plenty of options to use instead of Alizarin Crimson.  Most manufacturers also make an Alizarin Crimson Hue, which is typically a blend of pigments intending to mimic the mass tone, transparency and undertone of the original.  For all intents and purposes this should satisfy your need to fill this colour gap with a much greater lightfastness.  That said there is nothing magical about the properties of Alizarin Crimson. You can certainly fill the cool red part of the colour wheel with quite a few other single pigment paints.  When I see the argument online from people who say, “But I just can’t get the same hue from other paints” it makes me think one of two things. Either this person needs more practice mixing colours, or they don’t realize that it doesn’t matter if you get the “right” colour with Alizarin Crimson if that very colour is going to fade and be different in 15 years anyways.  All that to say I don’t a good craftsman would choose Alizarin Crimson when other options are available. Here are some other lightfast options that fill a similar part of the colour wheel:

PV19: Quinacridone Red

PR122: Quinacridone Magenta

PR177 : Anthraquinone Red

PR179 : Perylene Maroon

PR264 : Pyrol Ruby