How to Mix Red

I’ve never taken a painting class that teaches how to mix Red. If the class covers color theory at all, they teach that red is a primary color and that you can’t mix it from other colors.

This isn’t true. You can mix red with just two colors; Quinacridone Magenta, and Hansa Yellow Medium. This is not a new idea. In fact, magenta and yellow have been used to make red in the printing industry for over 100 years. All of the reds that you see in newspapers and magazines are created this way.*

Above is an example of two circles that I created in Adobe Illustrator. I set the blending mode for both circles to “Multiply” which creates a result that is equivalent to printing two transparent colors on top of each other. The areas where the magenta and yellow circles overlap creates red.

As far as painting is concerned, I’ve mixed red with acrylics, watercolors, and gouache. It should work with other painting mediums, as long as the pigments are transparent.

How to Mix Red with Acrylic Paint

Mixing red is very simple, just add yellow to magenta. The only part that you have to pay attention to is the proportions. It’s best to start with a pile of Quinacridone Magenta and slowly add the Hansa Yellow Medium to it until it shifts from magenta to red. The proportions are about 80% magenta to about 20% yellow.

The exact proportions will depend on the brand of your paints and the tinting strength** of each color. It also depends upon if you want your red to be biased towards orange or magenta. You’ll have to experiment with it to find the shade of red you prefer.

Mixed Red Compared to Cadmium Red Medium

After mixing the purest red that I could achieve with magenta and yellow, I thought it would be a good test to compare it to a standard red. Cadmium Red Medium is probably one of the more popular reds, so I chose it for comparison.

It’s a very close match. The main difference is the mixed red is more transparent then the Cadmium Red Medium, as you can tell by the slight streaks in it.

A comparison of mixed Red with Cadmium Red

The mixture of Quinacridone Magenta and Hansa Yellow Medium is on the left. Cadmium Red Medium is on the right. They’re very similar, the main difference is the mixed red is more transparent–Cadmium Red Medium is a very opaque pigment.

Mixing Red with Watercolors

For the watercolor demonstration, I used the QOR brand of Hansa Yellow Medium and mixed it with Quinacridone Magenta. The transparency of these colors is important because opaque versions of yellow or magenta will result in a weaker reds.

Mixing Red with watercolor paints from Magenta and Yellow.

The red in the middle is a mixture of Hansa Yellow Medium and Quinacridone Magenta.

Golden recently replaced their QoR Hansa Yellow Medium because the lightfast testing revealed that it didn’t live up to their standards. It’s been replaced with Benzimidazolone Yellow, which produces similar results when mixed with Magenta.

I also tried mixing Quinacridone Magenta with Aureolin Modern. When I squeezed it from the tube I noticed that it was slightly duller than the Hansa Yellow Medium. However, when I diluted it with water, it produced a fairly bright Yellow. If you mix Quinacridone Magenta with Hansa Yellow Medium it also produces an acceptable red.

The top photo is a mixture of Quinacridone Magenta and Aureolin Modern. The bottom is a mixture of Quinacridone Magenta and Benzimidazolone Yellow, which is the replacement for Hansa Yellow Medium.

Red Isn’t a Primary Color

The concept that red is a primary color is something that I learned from science teachers, in art classes, and from books.

Primary colors are the base colors for mixing all other colors. If a color can be created by mixing other colors, then it’s not a primary color. So by applying this principle, we can conclude that red is not a primary color.

The true subtractive*** primary colors are cyan, magenta, yellow, and black or CMYK. The belief is that there’s RGB for working with light, CMYK for printing, and RYB (red, yellow, blue) for painting. It’s as though CMYK doesn’t apply to painting, when in fact it does.

Even though the CMYK color model is not popular in painting classes, it’s use in painting is not new. Many of the photorealist painters from the 1970’s used an airbrush to layer cyan, magenta, yellow, and black to create paintings that looked like photographs.

Some will argue that this only works because they layered the transparent colors on top of each other instead of mixing them. However, I’ve demonstrated that red can be mixed with paints. It’s not a special result that can only be obtained by layering transparent inks on top of each other.

Should I Change My Color Palette to CMYK?

I’m not suggesting that you should replace the red on your palette with magenta and yellow, or switch over to using a palette of the printing process colors. There are a variety of reasons why an artist may use a red paint instead of mixing it from magenta and yellow.

Color mixing with paint is a lot more complicated than mixing colored light on a computer using either the RGB or CMYK color models. The pigments that are used in paints are mined from the earth, or are created through chemistry. Each pigment has unique properties that you have to consider when choosing a color palette.

Some of the characteristics that artists are concerned with are; convenience, price, toxicity, opacity, tinting strength, and lightfastness. When it comes to watercolor painting you also have to consider whether the pigment is staining or granulating.

Below I describe the reasons why there are so many colors available to artists, instead of just CMYK.

Opacity
Transparent and opaque Red acrylic paints

To test the opacity of a color, paint a black line and allow it to dry. Then apply the color you want to test over the top of it. On the left is a mixture of Quinacridone Magenta and Hansa Yellow Medium. Cadmium Red Medium is on the right.

The red that I mixed is transparent and won’t work to cover over mistakes. In such a case, it would be more effective to use an opaque pigment such as Cadmium Red Medium.

Conversely, if you’re glazing over a section of your painting with red, it would be better to use a transparent red such as the one I mixed. The transparency of it will allow you to tint the area with red without blocking out any of the details from the previous layers.

Convenience

Some artists would prefer the convenience of squeezing red paint onto their palette. This is faster than having to mix a batch of red whenever you need it. If you’re working on a painting that consists mostly of red, this approach can be much more productive than having to repeatedly mix the same shade of red.

Price

Cadmium Red Medium is popular color but there are a couple of reasons why an artist would choose a different Red. Cadmium Red is more expensive than other pigments. At the time of this writing, a 2oz tube Naphthol Red Light is approximately $5.00 cheaper than Cadmium Red Medium. It’s also less toxic.

Toxicity

While the Cadmium line of colors are bright and opacity, some artists are concerned about the toxicity of Cadmium pigments. There are other red pigments that are available to artists, and Liquitex recently introduced a line of cadmium free acrylics. Their motivation was to replicate the performance of the Cadmium colors with a less toxic pigment. It appears that they have succeeded–these new pigments appear to perform as well as the original Cadmium versions. The toxicity of the pigment is just as important to some artists as the performance of the paint itself.

Lightfastness

As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, Hansa Yellow Medium didn’t perform well in the lightfastness tests that Golden conducted. They replaced it with a Yellow pigment that was more permanent. Hansa Yellow supposedly performs better with acrylics than with watercolor.

Granulating vs Staining Pigments

In watercolor painting, a granulating pigment has a tendency to clump together as it’s drying on the paper. Many watercolor artist find the resulting pattern desirable so they gravitate towards these pigments. Granulating colors are easier to lift by scrubbing them with a wet brush, or by blotting with paper towels.

Staining colors are usually the transparent modern pigments that have a tendency to stain the paper. These colors are nearly impossible to lift if you’ve made a mistake. The advantage is that they’re typically very saturated. Modern pigments have a brilliance to them that can be used to make your acrylic paintings more vibrant, which I describe in more detail in How to Make Acrylic More Vibrant.

As you can see from the above examples, painting is complex and nuanced. Regardless of which colors you choose, there will be limitations. There’s no such thing as a set of perfect primary colors that will work perfectly under every circumstance. This explains why there are so many different colors available to artists.

Why You Should Learn More About Color Theory

The reason why you should learn more about color theory is to improve your painting. There’s nothing wrong with using red, yellow, and blue for your palette. But to state that these are the primary color when two of these colors are actually secondary colors is confusing.

It’s frustrating to beginners when they try and mix a brilliant purple when they mix Cadmium Red Medium with Ultramarine Blue. That’s because magenta is completely absent from the RYB color wheel. The resulting purple is dark and dull. What they should be mix to achieve a brilliant purple is magenta with Phthalo Blue or Ultramarine Blue.

Take the time to learn more about color theory, and experiment with these colors yourself. With enough practice, mixing colors should become second nature–it doesn’t have to be frustrating.

Conclusion

Contrary to popular belief, red isn’t a primary color because it can be mixed. Primary colors are thought of as the base colors that all other colors can be mixed from. By this definition, red is a not a primary color in painting. Some artists use the printing process colors to make paintings. There are hundreds of pigments available to artists because they each offer some unique characteristics.

Continue to learn more about color theory so that you can mix colors intuitively and achieve the results that you want!

*Some printers use spot colors, but most publications use CMYK because adding spot colors increases the costs of printing.

**Tinting Strength is a pigments ability to tint a color. Pigments with a lot of tinting strength will have a strong impact upon a color mixture.

***Red is a primary color in the RGB color model works for mixing colors from light. TV’s, computer monitors, and theater lighting all use RGB.