Caution! Handle With Care

Portrait of a Man by Jan Van Eyck, 1433, oil painting on wood.
Portrait of a Man by Jan Van Eyck, 1433, oil painting on wood.

Vermillion, crimson, scarlet, fuchsia—the color red comes in so many different shades. And of all the colors in the spectrum or on the color wheel, it’s the most easily visible. It’s also the hottest of the warm colors and has even been proven to raise blood pressure and respiration rates. No matter the hue, if you paint it red, it will command attention.

The color red can tell you a lot about an object or subject of a painting. Take Jan Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man, for example. Yes, it’s a portrait of an anonymous man (possibly a self-portrait of the artist), but that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t know anything about him. Looking at the sitter’s expression, pose, and, most of all, that awesome, vivid red hat, I’d hazard a guess that this man was assertive, wily, and someone with whom you wouldn’t completely let down your guard. Although these are just observations, I’m guessing Van Eyck knew what he was doing when he was mixing colors for that hat. It embodies a power and force that goes hand-in-hand with what the color red is all about.

Not all artists take advantage of what red has to offer. Although the color is luscious, when applied thoughtlessly it can appear garish or even gory. It is the root of all the healthy glows and flushed skin that painters depict, but a little goes a long way. Keep in mind that in basic color theory, red projects forward to our eyes, so don’t use it for objects that you want to recede or items that are supposed to remain subtle and in the background.

When pairing red with other colors from the color wheel, note that cool blues will mute it and pinks, oranges, and yellows make it pop. Green and red can come across as too seasonal when put together. This may seem like basic information, but with red you can never be too careful, and to be forewarned is to be forearmed. I say use it with caution and care, but definitely use it!
Just like my musings on the color schemes surrounding red, the Making Your Mark in Watercolor Kit, is all about delving into the details of color, brushstrokes, and layering through sumptuous watercolor. From how to render volume to understanding wet-in-wet and more, this kit gives artists the in-depth knowledge of the techniques and methods we want to employ in our artistry. See if these top resources rekindle your creative passions—or if a new tool or technique catches your eye. What better way to celebrate ourselves than by honing in on what we love in our art?

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

5 thoughts on “Caution! Handle With Care

  1. Courtney, I really enjoy receiving these posts. This one, however, prompted me to leave a comment I feel is important to note regarding the third paragraph. Perhaps it is just a poor choice of words, but since green is the complement of red, according to the traditional color wheel, using the term “complement” when discussing pinks, oranges, and yellows paired with red may be confusing to anyone thinking in art theory terms.

    Also, I’d like to register an opinion regarding the “rule” of reds coming forward. This can also be misunderstood and constrain artists to follow a formula for painting–meaning all of their paintings look like the same setting, place, and time of day. For example, take T. Allen Lawson’s Winter Evening, 2009 (can be seen on his website The warm orange-red hill side sits back in the scene and the cooler blues and magenta tones come forward. What impact he would have lost had he chosen to follow a rule instead. He also paired the red with green. The knowledge to know how much to neutralize the greens is the key to pairing red and its true complement, green.

    Thank you for listening,
    Lori Putnam

  2. Courtney, I have read that the red hat was a common thing for Dutch artists to wear at that time–that is why they think it is a self-portrait of van Eyck. I love the power of red, and do agree that it is difficult to handle. Alittle bit goes a long way, but it is just so exciting and pretty that it is hard to put the brush down. I always enjoy your Artist Daily posts….Thanks,

  3. Hi Courtney,
    This is an excellent post. I would add 2 things:
    1) The compliment of red is green
    2) The most helpful quote Ive read about the color is attributed to Matisse:
    “A thimble full of red is redder than a bucketfull”.
    Thanks for your work on this fabulous site. Mark Beale.

  4. You sure are misinformed about RED………….and how adjacent colors effect it!

    Cool blues DO NOT sap red of anything except any cool blue that may be a constituent part of it, which makes red appear WARMER and in fact MORE RED!

    COLOR is very subjective to be sure but some things not only find universal acceptance, but may also be scientifically proven.

  5. Courtney—

    I join you in liking this portrait and in liking red just because it’s red.

    I keep wondering if Van Eyck named this painting or if some art historian dreamed up its title. This guy looks a lot like an older lady who lived next door when I was a kid. I’m old—but I don’t think it was Van Eyck who lived next door.

    Here’s another silly comment. Van Eyck’s use of red in this painting is smart because he didn’t use anything else but the colors of the face.There’s not much to compete with it. It is not as if the picture needed an accent to draw you to the focal point. What I think is magnificent is the use of red without it taking over the picture. This is achieved with values. The red is in the 65% range (in places in the 70% to 85% range) so it stays with the black background. Also, Van Eyck uses very little reflected light in the darks of the hat. this allows him to melt the reds into the background on the right side.

    To me, the fascinating thing about this picture is the composition— where the head and hat are placed. He has said what he wanted to say and lets the viewers imagination complete the lower portion of the picture.