The colour red

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Photo taken from shades of red post by Wikipedia

After a conversation with my editor and some positive feedback from fellow artists, I have decided to write a series of blogs each dealing with a different colour. My current plan is to address one colour every month, but this is an experiment and I will be interested to hear readers’ views.

As most of you who read this blog are also artists it makes sense to start with the artist’s colour wheel, although I will also touch on the version used in TV and printing. As you know, the basic artist’s colour wheel comprises red, yellow, and blue so let’s start with the colour red.

Red has been long associated with danger and passion but being the colour of blood, it was associated historically with sacrifice and courage, too. It has also been linked (and in some cases, still is today) with sexual passion, anger, sin, and the devil.

Red pigment was one of the first colours used in prehistoric art. Made from ochre (a natural clay which contains a mixture of sand and ferric oxide), it can range in colour from yellow to deep orange and deep brown, too. Today the light brownish yellow is more closely associated with the name in painters’ palettes.

Believed to be the oldest crayon in the world, photo by Artsy

The red version of ochre was used by the Egyptians and the Mayans, who used it to paint their faces during ceremonies. In China the colour was of great importance to their culture, being used to colour early pottery and later, the walls and gates of palaces.  

Red lake pigments were an important part of the palette of 16th-century Venetian painters, particularly Titian, but they were used in all periods. Since the pigments were made from organic dyes, they tended to be “fugitive”, meaning that they become unstable and fade when exposed to sunlight.

photo by Base Creative

During the Renaissance only the wealthy could afford the red dyes used for their clothing which were made from Kermes or Cochineal, both types of insects. When dried, crushed, and mixed with materials such as aluminium or calcium salts, their bodies produce a brilliant red dye. This process was used until the first synthetic dyes appeared in the 19th century.

Being a primary colour in the RGB colour model used by artists; a secondary colour (made from magenta and yellow) in the CMYK colour model (the four ink plates used in colour printing), and being the complementary colour to cyan, reds can range from the brilliant yellow-tinged scarlet to vermillion to bluish-red crimson and all sorts in between. Varying shades are also found from a very pale red pink to a deep, dark burgundy.

There are many different versions of the colour red but there are also differences in saturations (hue or chroma), value, tone lightness or brightness and all variations within this spectrum. Value differences are also known as tints or shades (a tint being the addition of white to a colour and a shade being the mixing of black with a colour).

Image from

In optics, red is the colour evoked by light that stimulates neither the short nor the medium wavelength cone cells of the eye’s retina, combined with a fading stimulation of the long wavelength cone cells. The wavelength for red is 625-740 nanometres and is at the long wavelength end of the visible spectrum. The human eye sees red when it looks at light of this wavelength whereas many animals (including dogs) cannot distinguish the colour, a condition known as dichromacy. So, it is not the matador’s red cape that attracts the bull; it is merely the movement of that cape.

As most mammals cannot see red, there are several theories as to why primates have developed a sensitivity to it, and that is about being hunter gatherers. It is essential that we can differentiate between ripe and unripe fruit to ascertain what is safe to eat.

Image take from

In the early days of motoring in the UK, car drivers had to follow a man with a red flag. He would wave the flag to warn horse-drawn vehicles that a car was approaching. In motor racing today, the red flag is raised if there is danger to the drivers and in football (that’s soccer to the Americans) matches, a player who commits a foul or has been warned about their behaviour with a yellow card is then shown the red card and is ejected from the game.

Red is used internationally as the colour of stop signs and for traffic signals. This use was standardised at the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals. Red was chosen partly because it is the brightest colour in daytime (next to orange), though it is less visible at twilight when green is the most visible colour.

Red also stands out more clearly against a cool natural backdrop of blue sky, green trees, or grey buildings, but it was mostly chosen because of its universal association with danger and warning. The Vienna Convention also uses red for the margins of danger warning signs, give way signs and prohibitory signs.

In modern fashion red is used to make the wearer stand out in a crowd. It is also thought to make the wearer feel more powerful than those around them. Perhaps this is why many celebrities make it their chosen colour when they want to be seen.

Because red is so good at attracting attention, it is often used in advertising, although studies have shown that people are less likely to read something printed in red because it is more difficult to read red text on a white background than black on white.  

Red is still commonly associated with adultery (as evidenced by such expressions as “scarlet woman”) and prostitution. At various points in history, prostitutes were required to wear red to announce their profession. From the early 20th century, houses of prostitution were allowed only in certain specified areas, which became known as “red-light-districts”. In both Christian and Hebrew tradition, red is also sometimes associated with murder or guilt, as in “having blood on one’s hands”, or “being caught red-handed.

In China, red is the symbol of fire and the south (both generally and Southern China specifically). It carries a largely positive connotation, being associated with courage, loyalty, honour, success, fortune, fertility, happiness, passion, and summer. In Japan, red is a traditional colour for a heroic figure. 

In the Indian subcontinent, red is the traditional colour of bridal dresses, and is frequently represented in the media as a symbolic colour for married women. In Central Africa, Ndembu warriors (No, I’d never heard of them, either) rub themselves with red paint during celebrations. Since their culture sees the colour as a symbol of life and health, they also paint sick people with it. In other parts of Africa, however, red is a colour of mourning, representing death. 

In Christianity , red is associated with the blood of Christ and the sacrifice of martyrs. In the Roman Catholic Church it is also linked with Pentecost and the Holy Spirit.

So, all you ever wanted to know about the colour red but were too afraid to ask? Probably not, but I hope you found some of the information above of interest.

On a personal level I really love the colour red, though I don’t really dislike any colour other than what I think of as boring beige! I nearly always use red in my paintings, sometimes as the initial layers so that it may not be evident in the finished work, but it is normally there.

I do feel more attractive when wearing red. I suspect this is because people see the clothing and comment on that rather than seeing me. A little secret here, I often wear red at exhibitions because it makes me stand out in the crowd, but don’t tell everyone.

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