Why Is Red So Hard to Paint?

Red subjects have a bad reputation for being difficult to paint. But if you take time to identify its attributes, you can easily learn how to paint red well.

How to paint the color red

Have you ever tried to Cosplay Sabastian from The Little Mermaid? It’s no easy feat. Sabastian is a red crab, and you are a human. In order to really get that crabby-looking skull, you will need to use red makeup, and lots of it, to manipulate the forms of your face.

In short, you will have to learn how to paint form using the color red.

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Often, cosplayers are successful changing the appearance of the shapes of their skulls by using dark and light values. For example, if you place a very dark eyeshadow under your cheekbones, they will look really sunk in. This effect can be further enhanced by adding white on top of your cheekbones. Together, the light and dark areas make the cheekbones look like they are protruding from the face much further than they actually are in reality. A general rule is that dark values will create an indented or concave feel, and light values will create a protruding, convex feel.

But Sabastian is red. And red has a notoriously challenging reputation to work with. 

Why is red so hard?

The difficulty lies in the main attributes of the color red. Imagine, if you will, Sabastian-the-crab red. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this character, Sabastian is approximately the color of a bright red stop sign.

Let’s analyze this version of red together. Like all colors, stop-sign-red has three attributes, a value, chroma, and hue.

The hue (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple) is perhaps the most obvious. It’s red.

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Red is dark in value.

The value (how light or dark the color is) of stop-sign-red is actually fairly dark. If we compare this color to a value scale 1-9, with 1 being the brightest and 9 being the darkest, stop sign red is a 5 or 6. Compare that value to the value of an average bright yellow, which is closer to a value 2.

This attribute – having a dark value – makes red difficult to pin down. When colors are very light or very dark, it makes it more difficult to discover one of their other major attributes – chroma.

Red is chromatic.

Stop-sign red is also a very chromatic red. If an artist wants to paint a stop sign on canvas, the most chromatic red in the paintbox is likely needed. You cannot make a color more chromatic by mixing it. In fact, mixing any color will automatically make it less chromatic than colors available out of the tube. So in order to paint stop-sign-red, a very chromatic tube of red paint is needed.

How do you proceed?

Now, let’s pretend that we are cosplaying Sabsatian and need to paint our face to look like the head of a crab. As mentioned earlier, in order to achieve the perception that you have a crab head instead of a human one, light and dark values are needed to trick the viewer into thinking the skull is a different shape.

Overall, the color for our Sabastian cosplay needs to look stop-sign-red. But we also need to make it feel lighter and darker in order to pull off an authentic Sabastian look. Remember, we want to trick anyone looking at our face that we are a crab, using mastery of paint as our weapon.

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Avoid the pink!

Because stop-sign-red has a dark value, about a value 5 on a 1-9 scale, it seems counter-intuitive to use it to paint the parts of the face that would be receiving light (like the top of the cheekbones in our earlier example). But this is exactly what is needed. If you add white to red to lighten it for a light area, it is no longer red – it becomes pink. Instead, in order to preserve the accurate chroma of stop-sign-red, we must paint the light areas with our most chromatic stop-sign-red paint, even if it is a value 5.

If you are painting a chromatic subject, the darks are chromatic too.

The shadows also create unique problems when painting a stop-sign-red face. This is because Sabastian is so chromatic. A common solution to making a color darker is to add black. But black is a very neutral color, and it will sap away the chromatic intensity of our red. Instead, we need to find a chromatic red that is darker than our stop-sign-red paint. Often, Alizarin Crimson is used for this purpose. It is much darker than stop-sign-red, but still very much a chromatic red. It is a chromatic red that is darker in value.

To paint a stop-sign red crab skull without losing its most obvious attribute (it’s chromatic bright red color), cosplayers cannot depend on adding white and black to show light and dark areas. Instead, the effects must be created by preserving chroma and changing hues, from a warm, bright stop-sign red to a colder, darker, but still intense Alizarin Crimson.

Other chromatic colors work this way too.

This method can be used for many very chromatic potential Cosplay characters. Avatar? Get the most chromatic light and dark blues you can find to create the effects instead of relying on black and white to show the forms.

Making up a new neon-pink alien to cosplay? Keep away from that white paint and find chromatic pinks that are different values!

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What are you waiting for?

I hope this example helps you to understand the challenges specific to painting red. Happy chromatic cosplay painting, and I look forward to seeing many elevated examples on my social media feed. Send your links in the comments below!

Want to learn more about color mixing? Check our our free art lesson plans here.

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