Boycott Alizarin Crimson in Artwork (Pigment PR83)
by JL Farmer


Artists talking about the impermanency of red lake pigments (such as Alizarin Crimson, mentioned because it is likely the most popular) and advocating avoidance of their use is nothing new in itself. People have been talking about this issue since the middle of the 18th century, some of the work of the English artist Sir Joshua Reynolds being a case in point.

"Reynolds was repeatedly warned by his contemporaries about the impermanence of some of his pigments, yet 'lake' appears regularly in contemporary notes on the pigments he used (note 3). In March 1755, the poet William Mason, observing Reynolds at work on a portrait, recorded the presence of lake on the artist's palette, mixed principally with lead white for the flesh and alone for the sitter's crimson drapery. He noted that, while the flesh paint of the face soon faded, the lake used in the glaze of the sitter's crimson coat held its colour better. Criticising the painter's use of lake, he wrote: 'But using, as he did, that vegetable or animal pigment, the solving matter of which may be either Brazil wood or cochineal, on a white earthy basis, it is no wonder that they faded; for it is highly reasonable to think that those pigments, whose hue is either originally inherent in them, or fixed by fire... must be more durable than chalky or aluminous earths, to which a colouring dye is given by simple decoction... '(note 4) Although it has not been possible to examine the red pigment used in the painting of the Countess of Albemarle's flesh, analysis by high-performance liquid chromatography has confirmed the presence of the dyestuff obtained from cochineal, and the absence of brasilwood dyestuff, in the red lake used to paint the curtain. Mason's description of the subsequent behaviour of the lake in the two areas is fairly typical, as will be described below. Loss of colour in red lake pigments has often been observed. Reynolds was not the only eighteenth-century English painter whose work suffered from this defect: in Thomas Gainsborough's portrait ‘Dr Ralph Scbomberg’ (NG 684), painted in the early 1770s, the crimson glaze paint of the sitter's red coat has also faded. In this case too, the red lake contained cochineal dyestuff (note 5). pdf link, National Gallery, London.

©Bruce MacEvoy
alizarin crimson lightfastness samples (2004) © Bruce MacEvoy
after just 300 hours of sunlight exposure, the tints in all samples have completely faded:
(left to right) Winsor & Newton, Daniel Smith, Holbein, M.Graham, Rembrandt, Rowney Artists, Sennelier

Hilary Page also made a 300 hour lightfast test on Alizarin Crimson, the results of which can be viewed here.

The Pigment PR83 by Some Other Names

Rose Madder
Alizarin Violet Lake
Carmine (hue)
Brown Madder
Crimson Alizarin

There are many.... Full lists here:


Why to Avoid Alizarin Crimson (PR83) in your paintings

For any prominent artist to claim that Alizarin Crimson is an artists' quality color or to promote it as such is an absolute disgrace that needs to be corrected. It may be the go-to primary choice for many artists but an artists' quality color it certainly is not. Education is key here.

"Alizarin Crimson (PR83) is a fugitive pigment which undergoes a very large drying shift. By modern standards, the pigment consistently fails to meet the minimum lightfastness standards expected of professional watercolor paints. The ASTM (1999) lists it in a table of pigments "not sufficiently lightfast to be used in paints" and rates its lightfastness in watercolors as "poor."

Art companies continue to sell Alizarin Crimson only because of customer demand - a demand that is arguably encouraged by art teachers who have not taken the time to test their choice of pigments with regards to lightfastness. Some of these teachers then transfer their preference of Alizarin Crimson into published books which then further the use of this fugitive pigment.

"A few forward looking watercolor brands (Da Vinci, Kremer, Maimeri, Robert Doak) do not use it in any paint, and the majority of up and coming watercolor painters have concluded it is unacceptably impermanent and should be replaced by a modern synthetic organic alternative. A lightfast alternative to Alizarin Crimson is Perylene Maroon (PR179.)"

Concerning Permanent Alizarin Crimson: "If you want to make a one for one substitution, then there are five pigment substitutions for alizarin crimson currently offered in commercial watercolor paints: (1) benzimida carmine (PR176), quinacridone pyrrolidone (PR N/A), pyrrole rubine (PR264), anthraquinone red (PR177, a chemical cousin of alizarin), and a few relatively dark and reddish varieties of quinacridone violet (PV19). (These paints are typically offered under marketing names such as alizarin crimson hue, azo alizarin, quinacridone alizarin, permanent alizarin crimson, etc.) All these paints are semitransparent and don't lose intensity or shift to brown when they dry, making them satisfactory color alternatives for alizarin crimson. However they all have marginal lightfastness (6,7 in my tests), which is still far better than the average lightfastness of alizarin crimson (1,5)."

A true red primary color is Pyrrol Red (PR254) which is very lightfast and has a small drying shift of around 15%. W&N "Winsor Red", M Graham "Pyrrol Red" (LF1), Rembrandt "Permanent Red Deep" and D Smith "Pyrrol Red" scoring top marks on the lightfast scale, in this respect.

Quoted comments from Bruce MacEvoy

Thank you, Bruce for all of your research on this subject.

Bruce's extensive watercolor pigments guide is here:

"Shouldn't painters have the right to use whatever materials they choose? Well, obviously! Paint with food dye on latex, if that is your pastime, and enjoy! But artistic preferences become a public concern as soon as artists receive payment for their work. Then it is no longer a question of "exercising artistic freedom," but a question of business ethics. Selling a painting that will fade within a few years, with no warning to the buyer of that fact, can be considered a form of fraud, pure and simple.

Artists could easily advise buyers at the time of sale, "This painting [print] is made with one or more pigments that have been found by independent testing to fade after moderate exposure to light," and let buyers decide for themselves, at least forewarned they must mount and hang the work appropriately. Yet most artists who use impermanent pigments say nothing about it to their buyers.

Why not? Because the artists deny there is any problem. This denial takes many forms, but the two excuses I've heard most often are I have never seen any problems myself, and the paints I use are lightfast enough. (Lightfast enough for what is never explained.) Usually, these excuses are strung together: I have never seen any problems, so the paints must be lightfast enough. The first claim is certainly naive, if not cynical (one year framed in the studio or gallery is not ten years on a buyer's wall, and you know that). The second is muddled thinking: see for example Jeanne Dobie's comments on rose madder genuine (NR9).

In fact, I know a few watercolor painters who have developed the opinion that I'm not going to be intimidated by the lightfastness police, and one or two others who have told me flat out: once I sell the thing, it's not my worry. A few, candidly, feel they are not getting paid enough anyway for the labor they put in, so the buyer can have no complaints. And I wonder whether these artists are not the most honest, and speak for many others.

Which brings me to the primary reason for my concern with this issue: continued use of fugitive pigments by some watercolor painters depresses the price all can command for a fine painting. It poisons market confidence in watercolors and reinforces the entrenched belief among informed buyers and professional curators that watercolor paintings will fade. Not just some paintings, or possibly will fade, or will fade after extreme exposure to light: they fade, dude. This prejudice, in turn, justifies the practice: paintings are gonna fade sooner or later anyway, so why not use whatever paints I want?

Amazingly, despite common prejudice and beliefs, watercolors can be more permanent than oil paintings if the artist uses today's lightfast pigments and archival papers. I look forward to the day when a watercolor artist can command $2,000 rather than $200 for a superb full sheet painting, and when watercolors are considered the equal of oils or acrylics in the gallery and museum marketplace. That won't happen as long as talented, ambitious, otherwise responsible artists continue to assert that alizarin crimson or rose madder genuine are "lightfast enough" to clinch that sale."

Articles on the Subject of Alizarin Crimson

"Alizarin Crimson: Now You See It….." by Sarah Sands, Senior Technical Specialist, MFA Yale University. Prior to Golden: Instructor, NY Academy of Art; Associate Professor of Painting, Indiana University; Business Manager/Technical Specialist, Williamsburg Oils

"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."

"Red Artist's Pigments" by Tony Johansen

Alizarin Crimson PR 83   ASTM III
Chemical type and description
"Organic synthetic Anthraquinone. When first developed in 1868 it was believed to be more permanent than the natural madder it was to replace, stronger and generally thought to be better. Artist's ignored the fact that the pigment produced brittle oil films that had a strong tendency to crack with time because the color itself proved hugely useful and it became one of the universally recommended colors by generations of art teachers. Unfortunately while people believed it was good, it seemed no one thought to check the facts and there was general surprise when independent testing of pigments started in recent years it was revealed that not only was Alizarin no better than Madder, it tested as being less light fast. At ASTM III it is too impermanent to be recommended for artwork that needs to last and art materials manufacturers have been quick to introduce  more reliable 'permanent alizarin's', usually mixtures of one or two pigments in the search to find that same beautiful and useful color as Alizarin Crimson. My personal recommendation is the Pyrrole pigment mentioned above."

Peter Ward: "Alizarin Crimson - Pigment Red 83 (PR83)"

"The Color of Art Pigment Database: Pigment Red, PR"
Artist's Paint and Pigments Reference: Color Index Names, Color index Number and Pigment Chemical Composition

"Lightfastness and Permanency of Watercolors" by David Lex Rollins
"PR83:1 Alizarin Crimson not ASTM tested, Wilcox rating of IV
I am appalled that even reputable manufacturers still offer Alizarin Crimson, knowing full well that it is very fugitive. Perhaps it’s because many noted artists continue to recommend Alizarin Crimson in their books (which is as just as unethical as the paint companies selling it.)"


Discussion at Cheap Joe's: "Do you use alizarin crimson?"

Discussion at Cheap Joe's: "Lightfast replacements for Alizarin Crimson--What's Yours?"

Discussion at Wet Canvas "PR83 Fugitive to Permanent?"

Discussion at Wet Canvas: "Is Alizarin Crimson on your basic palette"

Discussion at Wet Canvas: "What is (real) Alizarin Crimson... and should I care?"

Discussion at Wet Canvas: "Alternative to Alizarin Crimson?"

Artists who advocate to AVOID the use of Alizarin Crimson
Well done, you guys!

Jane Blundell: "Avoid any watercolours with PR83 - this is a fugitive Alizarin Crimson pigment that will fade in sunlight so should not be used."

Jane Blundell: "Do not buy Alizarin Crimson, PR83, as this is a fugitive pigment, rated IV on the ASTM scale and you should only use ASTM I or II for watercolour paints. It is, unfortunately, a very common colour in many artists' palette."

Michael Wilcox: book: "The Artist's Guide to Selecting Colours" (1997) "Alizarin Crimson PR 83:1 "has failed all lightfast testing in all media"... in particular it fades when used thinly or when mixed with white...."

Michael Wilcox: book: "The Wilcox Guide to the Finest Watercolor Paints" page 102
"I would suggest that Quinacridone Red (PV19) would make the ideal replacement for this inferior pigment. It is bright, similar in hue, transparent and reliable...

Help to make Alizarin Crimson obsolete, it is well past its time and used in too many colours."

John Lovett: "Avoid the traditional Alizarin Crimson as it will fade over time"

Prominent artists who have claimed to use Alizarin Crimson in their work
Ignorance amongst known artists concerning the lightfast issues of Alizarin Crimson would appear to be rife. While many of these artists are brilliant artists in their own right, and much respected and held in high regard for their technique and artistic output, their publications which advocate the use of alizarin crimson may, arguably, be promoting the generational continuation of the impermanent pigment PR83. It is because of this sole possibility that these artists' use and advocacy of alizarin crimson places them in this list - and for no other reason.

And, of course, we've been getting complaints. So we will say this: if any artist mentioned below changes their mind about promoting the pigment PR83 in their written works, send us an email telling us that you no longer promote PR83 and that you agree that this pigment should not be promoted by artists and that PR83 should be avoided. We will then add the artist to the above list of artists who advocate to AVOID PR83 - alizarin crimson and its associated "colours."

Where books are mentioned (below), we have acquired many books that advocate the use of alizarin crimson so that you don't need to buy them, (if you don't want to.)

Ron Ranson: book "Watercolour Painting: The Ron Ranson Technique" page 12:
"I use, and recommend my students to use, a very restricted palette of only seven colours. These are: Raw Sienna, Ultramarine, Lemon Yellow, Paynes Grey, Burnt Umber, Alizarin Crimson and Light Red..."

Ron Ranson: book "Watercolor Painting from Photographs" page 13:
"My seven favorite colors are: lemon yellow, raw sienna, burnt umber, alizarin crimson, light red, French Ultramarine and Payne's Gray."
Bob Henry: eBook: "How to Paint Like a Master (In Under a Year)" chapter 5: "If you're going to be a master, you need to have the materials of a master. Here is a good beginner's palette, many of which can be either a real pigment or a hue: An expanded palette would also include... Alizarin Crimson."

Kathy Collins: pdf article: "Step-by-Step Art Lesson" "Keeping in mind that a limited palette will help unify a composition, I restricted hues to these six: - Winsor & Newton Olive Green, - Ultramarine Blue, - Cerulean Blue, - Raw Sienna, - Burnt Sienna, - Alizarin Crimson"

Jerry McClish: book "Loose Watercolor: A Step-by-Step Painting Guide" page 94
"The diagram on the next page shows my complete palette of six colors. In the first row, you can see my three cold colors in their mass tones (full strength): Thalo Blue, Thalo Green, Alizarin Crimson."

Charles Reid: book: "Portrait Painting in Watercolor" page 134
"Alizarin Crimson: This color is very strong. It has a very great tinting power and tends to dominate a mixture if the other colors aren't also very strong. Alizarin is a must for mixing rich darks in darker complexions, clothing, hair, and backgrounds. Have it on your palette, but be careful when you use it in lighter complexions."   See also:

Judi Whitton: "I generally prefer to use artist's quality paints... here is a list of the pigments that are to be found in my little paint box today: ...Alizarin Crimson"    Quote from book "Loosen Up Your Watercolours."

Charles Evans: "The paints I use are all artists' quality: .....alizarin crimson" Quote from "Quick and Clever Watercolours."

Lucy Willis: 6 references to Alizarin Crimson use in book "Sunlight and Shadows in Watercolour: painting light from interiors to landscapes" 

Paul Jackson: "A more glaring problem: surely an artist and a publisher as experienced as Paul Jackson and North Light Books are aware of the lightfastness problems with alizarin crimson. Yet the paint is freely used throughout Jackson's examples, without any mention of how quickly it can fade, or of the paints that provide lightfast alternatives."

Paul Jackson: "Alizarin Crimson is very lightfast, staining, and transparent." (Signature paint, quote from Paul Jackson store)

Hazel Soan: 28 references to Alizarin Crimson use in book "10-minute Watercolours."

Joe Cartwright: 50 references to Alizarin Crimson use in book "Mastering Watercolours: A practical guide"

Catherine Anderson, signature member of the National Watercolor Society: "Mixing Greens"

Geoff Kersey: "Buy artists’s quality watercolour as much as possible as it generally lasts longer than student’s quality but only take home the colours you need to ensure you get the most out of your money. For example, here is a watercolour palette that we recommend for beginners, which balances warm colours with cool: ... Alizarin Crimson"

Colette Pitcher: "Watercolor Painting for Dummies"
"Armed with these six colors, you can paint the world. A bare-bones paint set would include ... alizarin crimson."

Tom Hoffmann: "Watercolor Painting."
"Now use very transparent primaries, like alizarin crimson..."

Peter McReynolds: "Watercolor Sketching for Travelers"
19 mentions of alizarin crimson in this book.

Peter Woolley: "How to paint misty mornings" in his book "Hills and Mountains in Watercolour" Colour Palette: Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Red, French Ultramarine, Burnt Umber, Prussian Blue, Alizarin Crimson. As promoted in the A&I online article.

What can we do to help?

Share the facts that you find with your artist friends and the Committee members of your Art Society, if you are a member. Let's bring an end to the production and marketing of this impermanent pigment via public education. It is likely that only when public demand drops will pigment producers stop Alizarin Crimson for art work purposes.

JL Farmer,
Sunday October 4, 2015

Aquarelle Maroc  Established January 2013