A is for Alizarin

Rubia tinctorum
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Look, it’s a plant. And like most plants it is green. You wouldn’t expect it to be the source of one of the most brilliant and beautiful reds artists have ever known.

This is the Madder plant, Rubia tinctorum (a native of Greece), which along with another in its genus, Rubia cordifolia, was the traditional source of the Madder pigments like Madder Lake and Rose Madder. The colour (Color Index International code NR9 – Lake of natural madder) was sourced from the roots and put through a process using a white inert binder or mordant (like chalk or white clay) to produce a Lake pigment. These lake pigments were fugitive and not very lightfast, however they have been one of the main sources of red colour in artistry and dyeing for thousands of years. The Madder pigment has been found in the tombs of the pharoahs…and on a lot of 18th century English soldiers – ever wonder where the red dye for all those red coats came from?).

So what does Madder have to do with Alizarin? Alizarin is one of two pigments found in the madder root. For many years the second pigment that makes up this colour red, pupurin, was unknown. But in 1868 some German chemists created a synthetic substitute for the madder pigment and christened it Alizarin Crimson. It was the first dye to be manufactured artificially.  But then in the mid 1900’s this pigment was again replaced by quinacridone, developed by Dupont (wait until we get to the letter Q for those wonderful colours) much more strongly lightresistant pigments.

Crimson swirls close up

Alizarin is one of my favourite colours in my paintbox. The above Crimson Swirls was made entirely out of Golden brand Alizarin Crimson Hue (with a little white and self-levelling gel). It makes stunning tints and a little goes a long way.

But recently when I started an art class, we were asked to provide a basic paint set (the usual one of each of the warm and cool primaries, plus black and white) and the cool red was listed as Alizarin Crimson. Which is all cool and groovy as I already had tube of it. But that tube I had bought previously looking for to duplicate the above colour from Golden over to my Matisse set. It is not the same colour.

Alizarin crimson

In the foreground above you can see my Matisse Brilliant Alizarin. In the middle you can see my Golden Alizarin Crimson Hue. The colours are not the same. The equal to Golden in Matisse is the Deep Rose Madder that I have equally fallen in love with. My watercolours by Windsor and Newton have followed the Matisse preference for colour. So which of these is truly Alizarin?

Truthfully, none of them. None contain the original Madder Lake pigment (apparently only Windsor and Newton produce the pigment nowadays in some of their artist quality paints). In fact all of these paints contain different pigments altogether.

  • Matisse Brilliant Alizarin – PR170 & PR122 (PR = Pigment Red) 170 is Napthol Red and 122 is Quinacridone red/Magenta, this is very much a mix.
  • Golden Alizarin Crimson Hue has very little information other than it is a mixture.
  • Matisse Deep Rose Madder – PR175 – Deep Scarlet (Benzimidazolone)
  • Windsor & Newton Cotman Watercolours Alizarin Crimson – PR206 – Quinacridone Burnt Orange

So what does that matter? A colour is a colour, right? Not really. Each pigment will have its own properties, like transparency/opacity, toxicity (if any) and lightfastness. Each will react with other colours in its own way.

But at least now I know the relationship between Alizarin Crimson and Rose Madder and why the two colour names get confused across brands. And I’m finding that it really helps to get to know my tools this way. It helps to know what kind of brush I’m using, but knowing the paints I’m working with and the properties and origins of the pigments I have found very useful.

Best wishes,

See all my Blogging A to Z posts here!


7 responses to “A is for Alizarin”

  1. Wow, that was an AMAZINGLY awesome lesson in ALIZARIN 🙂 Ok, sorry, I couldn’t resist it!! Thank you so much for the interesting background on my most used colour.

  2. Beautiful color!! What a great theme. I would love to take an art class, but, I don’t have an artistic bone in my body!!
    I’m visiting from the A to Z Blog Challenge
    Peanut Butter and Whine

  3. Alizarin, never heard of it before. Hey, I learned something new today! (gosh, that sounds sarcastic, but I don’t mean it that way). This was an interesting article and does make it sound hard for painters to get exactly what they want out of paint.

  4. Ha! All these years I’ve been listening to Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” and finally you teach me about Alizarin Crimson! (He seems to calls it Alizarian Crimson.) If you don’t know the song, here’s a link to it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5i0zq91Ocz0
    Thanks for a terrific post. And the photo of the swirls is a feast for the senses.
    (Visiting from the A-to-Z Challenge)

  5. Hi! Visiting from the A-Z Blogging Challenge! I am #137 on the list – and as suggested I’m dropping by #138! What a terrific theme! I love the variances of color – and learned a lot about Alizarin! A is for Awesome! Cheers!

  6. Great article, Liz! Alizarin was one of the first paint colours I fell in love with many years ago : ) I think I still have some of my first tube somewhere, but I can’t recall the brand.

  7. WoW!…The Alizarin piece looks quite like a fractal! – I wonder if you tried Matisse Rose Madder?…Its a S7 color though (A stunning deep cherry red sure also to make beautiful purples), though Matisse Brilliant Alizarin is beautiful also.