The Color Red | A Pastel Valentine

Valentine’s Day, on February 14th, is a day associated with romance. The historical origins of the day are clouded in folklore with roots based in the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a pagan fertility celebration. In the year 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius recast the holiday as a Christian feast day commemorating Saint Valentine. The mystery remains as to which of the three Catholic Saint Valentines he intended to honor. In the 14th century, Chaucer solidified the holiday’s association to love when he composed a poem in honor of the engagement of England’s King Richard the second. By the 18th century, the holiday had evolved into an occasion for the exchanging of handmade cards, a custom that spread to the American colonies. Today, Valentine’s Day is a commercial success filled with many gifts linked to the romantic matters of the heart; hence, the association with the color red—a color associated with seduction, passion, anger, danger, and heat.


A palette section of pastel reds.

A Primary Color:  Red, along with yellow and blue, is one of the subtractive primary colors and, therefore, of paramount importance to the painter. Red ochre is considered one of the oldest red pigments, having been used in cave paintings. Madder lake (alizarin), carmine, and vermilion were widely used also until the introduction of cadmium red at the turn of the 19th century. Until recently, the artistic limitations of red pigment have been rooted in the general chromatic weakness of the highly permanent earth tones, the often-fugitive qualities of madder/alizarins, and the highly toxic nature of cadmiums. With the 20th century introduction of modern organic pigments, having names like Napthol and Quinacridone, which are made in laboratories from materials that have a central atom of carbon, the capacity of the artist to represent the full emotions of red has been greatly expanded.

Red Pastels: Due to the nature of the medium, pastelists have had to pay considerable attention to red. Highly toxic pigments, such as cadmiums, should be avoided due to the ability for them to become airborne. The mixing of white into traditional mineral-based red pigments to create lighter tints can produce chalky appearing tones. The fugitive nature of many of the intense red dyes can lead to chromatic deterioration. While the introduction of modern organic pigments greatly changed the wet painters palette, it had proven difficult, until recently, for these pigments to be formed into pastel sticks due to the composition of the pigments. Currently, pastel manufacturers have devised ways of working with these highly intense, lightfast pigments, providing new pastel Valentines for those of us who wish to bring a blush to the cheeks of our models, make the roses blood red, and add that flash of warmth someplace in the landscape to complete the harmony of light!


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