I’m a late night painter, so when I share my new work, it usually appears well after dark and on my Facebook page first. Shortly after posting Tipping Point Geraniums last night, a flower friend asked, “Exactly what red did you use in your geraniums?” The answer: There are more reds here than meet the eye! In fact, there are some pinks and violets, too. A lot of what I love about geraniums, that keeps me revisiting these complex, addicting flowers, is their silhouettes. Once you get that undercarriage just right, you’ve solved the formula for what makes a geranium different from another cluster flower, such as a hydrangea. But back to those reds, how, exactly, do you get the best reds in your floral paintings?
Paint in layers, beginning with transparent color first.
I paint in layers, beginning with transparent color first. I dip into opaque color in the final step of the painting. I am generous in my use of transparents. I am frugal when using opaques. Transparent color is vibrant, clean, and less likely to turn to mud. If you’re not familiar with transparents vs opaques, there is no need to pull out the supply catalog and order new gear. However, if you just want an excuse to order more paint, that’s another thing entirely and I’m happy to enable! In your existing arsenal of colors, whether you’re working in oils, acrylics or watercolor, your pigments can be divided into transparents or opaques. How to tell which is which? Check out the square on the tube, or the web site for the brand manufacturer. If the square is black, the color is opaque. If the square is white or the square is white with a line through it, it’s transparent or semi-transparent. (For the record, I use semi-transparents as equals to transparents.) With acrylics, you will find a sliding scale of transparency vs opacity in many brands. And I would add, it’s even more critical to learn the difference between transparents and opaques if you work in watercolor.
When it comes to reds, there are two colors I find absolutely indispensable in oils and both are transparents: Alizarin Crimson (any professional brand) and Transparent Red Medium by Rembrandt. These two colors carry the load when it comes to creating the bone structure of a red geranium. I also use a bit of dioxazine violet in the deepest shadows, especially if I’m painting a dark ruby red flower versus a warmer, lighter value such as a peach or salmon color.
The challenge I see many students face when painting red flowers, is the over-application of cadmium red. Cadmium red is an opaque color. It’s beautiful, but it is also pervasive, invasive, and awfully hard to dig your way out of with successive layers of color. Its power, as an opaque, is to completely cover what lies beneath with a dense layer of color, as well as a healthy amount of pigment (thus the high price tag!). Using this color sparingly, and toward the end of creating the structure of the flower, is key.
Yet another challenge in painting reds, is the fact that cameras in general flatten red colors to orange. It’s hard to photograph a red flower and get the nuance in value and temperature you might see in person. When adding a highlight to a red flower, I often use a pale pink mixture for two reasons. This cools the color, which makes the highlight bounce against the heat of the cadmium red. It also lightens the value without the muddying effect of mixing white into cadmium red. White is the color killer. Add it to cadmium red light, and you get a chalky pink. Instead of adding white to a cadmium to create a lighter value, use Brilliant Yellow Light by Richeson (Shiva series) or Ice Blue by Richeson (Shiva series). Any time you have a color that looks chalky, the culprit is often too much white has been added. If you’re overseas and unable to order the Richeson colors, you can use Cool White by Gamblin, or mix white into Indian Yellow to get a similar mixture to Brilliant Yellow Light.
The secret ingredient in painting red is leaning into those transparents!
In closing, you can paint a red flower effectively without ever touching any opaque color. The secret ingredient in painting red is leaning into those transparents! I’ve shared one example, with the painting Drama Queen Poppy, below. If transparent colors are your superpowers, opaques are your kryptonite! If you’ve got a great tip for painting in reds, I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment and let me know what awesome new things you’re discovering in your studio. Want to know what all my favorite colors are? Check out my Favs here!
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