AnneLawsonArt Botanic Art My art work

Cadmium red

I have only recently added cadmium red to my palette, previously using Windsor red as my warm red. My recent rose is the first painting where I have experimented with it.

The cadmium pigments were part of the range of pigments that came into use during the 19th century, as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The Impressionists and other artists loved their richness. Monet used the cadmium colours, and I presume that he used cadmium red in this vibrant work.

Claude Monet Autumn Effect at Argenteuil [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Windsor and Newton is the leading paint brand, and on their website they describe cadmium red as:

…… a very strong, warm and opaque red and in the early part of the 20th century became a natural replacement for the distinctive but toxic vermilion.

The article goes on to say, with a safety message further down:

The production of modern, high performance cadmium red is an expensive and lengthy process requiring only the purest raw materials to produce the best possible colour.

Transforming the cadmium metal into a usable pigment means it undergoes several carefully controlled chemical reactions and procedures using various ingredients including mineral acids, sodium sulphide flakes, water, and selenium. Towards the end of the process heating takes place to create the pigment and it is in this heating process that the quality and hue of the final pigment begins to form. The emerging pigment is then ground down into tiny particles – these grinding processes affect the way the pigment interacts with light. Fine particles have a good diffused reflection and produce a colour that is very strong and vibrant.


Cadmium itself is a heavy metal and is toxic but cadmium pigments are not classified as dangerous for use in line with EC classification. The level of soluble cadmium in the pigments is so low that no hazard warnings are needed and they pose no greater risk after swallowing or breathing in than other pigment types. Cadmium pigments are restricted for certain applications but this restriction does not apply to artists’ colours.

The part about the EU is interesting, as apparently the use of cadmiums in paints are under review, and may be withdrawn.

I did a colour chart of sorts to work out my tonal values. (Note to self: more attention to the colours in the ext rose!)

First wash on the lips of the petals, with my version of a colour chart. (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson)

The finished first wash.

(Photo and image copyright: Anne Lawson, 2016)

The final work (which has just been put into my Etsy shop)

The finished painting (Photo and image copyright: Anne Lawson 2016)

So, what did I find?

  • It was a much softer colour than I anticipated. However, I was using it as a wash, and colour in a wash dries lighter. As well, I was careful not to overdo the intensity and controlled the amount of pigment I was using. Another factor could be that it was brand of paint, Holbein, that was new to me. The same labelled paint can be quite different across brands. This was Cadmium Red Light which could be another factor.
  • I loved the softness of the rose, but it lacked oomph. The cad red wasn’t able to give me that, so I added a glaze of quinacridone magenta in parts. You can see it most clearly in the central shadow, just above the leaves. Also, it was difficult to get an intense dark.
  • I was pleased that red washes helped to cut back the intensity of the yellow that you can see in the middle photo. The glow is still there, but not quite the eerie alien glow it was before. That tells me that it is possible to fix up mistakes in watercolour!
  • I was delighted at how well the paint mixed on the paper. usually I make up a mixture of the paint I am going to use, and I did do this for the green. However I wanted to experiment with dropping in French ultramarine to darken the red. Often, on the damp paper I washed in the red, dropped in some French ultramarine and then more red over the top. I think it worked well. It allowed the watercolour to do its magic.
Letting watercolour work its magic! (Photo and image copyright: Anne Lawson 2016)

Yellow will be my next rose colour. I do very little work in yellow, which has a reputation as being a very difficult colour to paint. So, more learning ahead!

7 replies on “Cadmium red”

I’ve always loved the cadmium colours, for their richness and intensity. I love that it has not a hint of blue and a purity and brilliance at full saturation. Your work with washes is beautiful and very delicate, far beyond anything I’m capable of. I probably lack the patience to hone my skills in any case, preferring to perform my personal fireworks with fabric!


The cadmiums are wonderful. No wonder the Impressionists and others were able to create such masterpieces. They were able to express their vision of the world in a radically new way.

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