Spotlight on: Indian Red

A warm red pigment made from synthetic iron oxide, Indian red stems from one of the world’s oldest pigments and can be found in prehistoric cave paintings dating as far back as 40,000 years.

Originally an organic pigment, Indian red was made from natural oxides in red earth. Being one of the first permanent pigments, painters would search around the world for the right soil to find the pigment, which explains why it is also known as Venice red, Turkey red, Spanish red, Pompeian red, and Persian red. The version known as Indian red was made from the red laterite soil in India.

It is the iron oxide in the ground that creates the red colour. Unlike yellow and brown earth colours, Indian red does not contain water in its chemical structure, which gives it its deep red colour. Earth colours were among the most permanent pigments between the 15th and 18th centuries, so artists relied heavily on them, notably in Old Master oil paintings. The pigmented earth was dug up in sticks and used as makeshift crayons for drawing by artists such as Rembrandt and Michelangelo.

In the 18th century, Indian red became a synthetic pigment, also known as Mars violet, though this was a slightly more subdued pigment. This allowed a more consistent colour to be available for painters, rather than the variable pigment created from different soils. Indian red pigment has a blue undertone, while its yellow counterparts are known as English or Venetian red.

A reliable and essential colour for any watercolourist or oil painter, Indian red can be used for landscapes and portraiture alike. It is generally considered a standard pigment of a painter’s palette. Its opacity allows the painting of smooth, flat surfaces showing little brushstroke, as well as covering previous colours or washes. It has strong tinting powers and when mixed with other colours it creates cool mixes.