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History, Symbolism and Secret Powers of the Color Red
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. Red is the first color the human eye perceives after black and white. It’s primary, 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 History of a Hue
Red is one of the most historic colors. It’s timeline stretches back to prehistory, with the first red made of ochre back 40,000 years ago. According to author and color expert Michel Pastoureau: “Red is the archetypal color, the first color humans mastered, fabricated, reproduced, and broke down into different shades, first in painting, later in dyeing. This has given it primacy over all other colors through the millennia.”
Paints and Dyes
After black and white, red is the first paint and dye that man made. Red paints and dyes came from all manner of sources over the centuries. It has come from red madder (a plant), kermes and cochineal (insects), cinnabar (a mineral–one of many), dragon’s blood (a resin), and Sappanwood and Brazilwood (trees) to name a few.
Alizarin was the first synthetic red dye made in a lab by German chemists in 1868 and completely replaced the reds that had been until then created from the red madder plant.
Red’s Worldwide Symbolism
Red is prominent in the art and cultures of both the East and the West. From religion to sports to the military to weddings, red plays a part depending on where (and when) you are.
A color as old and far-flung as red comes with baggage both good and bad. It is both the color of valentines and cupid as well as gunshots, hell fire and the devil himself.
In a positive column, red stands in for love and courage, energy and desire, excitement and stimulation. Physical love and the emotional intensity of love are both painted in red. It is a color associated with winners and royalty, prosperity and luxury. Red’s vitality is expressed in the form of fire and blood.
In the negative column, red connotes rage and aggression, danger and violence. Blood spilled or shed is another of red’s slightly sinister associations.
In China, red equals good luck and wishes for prosperity. South Africans associate the color with mourning. In the United States, red stands for the red carpet, VIP status and patriotism when grouped with blue and white. Married Hindi women sometimes put a stripe of red sindoor (a cosmetic powder) in their hair to show their status. Roman Catholic cardinals are outfitted in robes of red. Red was the color of revolution in Russia as well as China and Vietnam.
Secret Powers of a Color
Red is the color that stimulates us the most physically. It makes us react more strongly and more forcefully than any other, though that spike is short-lived according to experts. It heightens your blood pressure, enhances libido, increases respiratory rates, spikes your metabolic rate, increases enthusiasm, produces higher levels of energy, and increases confidence.
Men wearing red are also ahead of the game if looking to attract female stares. Studies show that men in red are “more attractive, more powerful and more sexually desirable to women.” Women associate red-wearing men with higher statuses and better livelihoods than men in other colors.
Red is associated with a higher probability of winning according to an article in the journal Nature. But if you are taking a test, red can cause you to falter because people associate the color “with mistakes and failures.”
When in a Painting…
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 turban, I’d hazard a guess that this man is 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.
…Handle with Care
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, note how cool blues look alongside it as well as pinks, oranges, and yellows. Some colors make it pop while others dull it down. It is all in how you mix it. Green and red can come across as too seasonal when put together though they are complements. 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!
Hone In On What You Love
Color might just be the most powerful asset an artist has. Discover more of the capabilities of red–and every other color–with Exploring Color Workshop. A book that will kindle your creative passions and celebrate what many of us love most in our art — sumptuous color!