The Color Red

Homage to a Particular Pigment

From a scientific but also very much an artistic point of view, red is the color at the end of the visible spectrum of light, next to orange and opposite that of violet. Red is the complementary color of cyan, ranging from yellowish to blueish, which is to say from scarlet to burgundy. It is a primary color in the RGB color model and the CMYK color model. As part of this, the human eye sees the color red at a wavelength of about 600–700 nanometers. Optically speaking, red is evoked by light that stimulates neither the short and medium wavelength cone cells of the retina, combined with a fading stimulation of the long-wavelength cone cells.

The visible spectrum of light

The red sky at sunrise and sunset is the result of what is known as Rayleigh scattering. Meanwhile, Jupiter’s surface displays the “Great Red Spot” which is caused by an oval-shaped mega storm south of the planet’s equator. Elsewhere in the solar system, iron oxide is what makes Mars the “Red Planet”. Similarly, back on Earth, geological features like the Grand Canyon appear red in areas where red ochre is abundant. This is a mineral composed of clay tinted with hematite and is also the result of iron oxide. As yet another example of red in nature, certain autumn leaves are colored by anthocyanins. To bring it even closer to home, blood is made red by the presence of hemoglobin. Similarly, red meat gets its color from the iron found in the myoglobin and hemoglobin in the muscles and residual blood. The list just goes on and on. Red can be found in so many different places, including the art made by humans.

Sunset along the shore of Lake Superior
Jupiter’s great red spot
The planet Mars
Ming dynasty lacquerware

In academia, the Late Upper Paleolithic Model refers to the idea that although anatomically modern humans first appeared 200,000 years ago, they were not cognitively or behaviorally “modern” until around 50,000 years ago. This is wrong. The “Cognitive Revolution” actually began much sooner than most archaeologists and anthropologists realize. That is to say, art didn’t begin when modern Homo sapiens started to use cave paint tens of thousands of years ago. It didn’t even begin when archaic Home erectus started to use body paint hundreds of thousands of years ago. Regardless, technically speaking, the earliest evidence of people using ochre dates back to the Paleolithic, about 285,000 years ago, at an ancient human site in Kenya. Then, much later, the Neanderthals began painting their faces as well.

Neanderthal face paint

Of course, the prehistory of art encompasses much more than just painting. Human beings were singing and dancing long before they were making jewelry, and painters just emerged in the process. The point is that apes were the first animals on Earth to ever discover how to use the color red as a form of pigment. Granted, a primate can distinguish a red berry from a green leaf, but I’m talking about something more than that. Aesthetic value is greater than a mere preference for succulence. Art is about more than food and mate selection. However, the sexual attraction that a bird can have toward bright red feathers did help set the stage for the creation and appreciation of manmade artwork. This is why and how people began to paint.

Red face paint in Africa
Red face paint in North America
Red face paint in Papua New Guinea

The thing is that long before anyone ever valued the bright yellow shimmer of gold, people were drawn to the rather dull red luster of ochre. At least as far back as 100,000 years ago, red paint was being made from the raw mineral in abalone shells. This didn’t happen with blood, sweat, and tears. It was done with spit, and of course their precious ochre. Ochre was the most valuable mineral in the world at that time, and they honored it in every way they could. At Pinnacle Point in South Africa, about 100,000 years ago, Stone Age humans scraped and ground red ochre to paint their bodies with tribal spiritual markings. Meanwhile, people in Ancient China scattered red hematite powder around the remains at a grave site in a Zhoukoudian cave complex near Beijing. The precious powder was used to symbolize blood in an offering to the dead. On top of that, more than 75,000 years ago people were even etching designs into the chunks of mineral that they used.

75,000-year-old engraved ochre

By about 40,000 years ago, red ocher was being shaved off by hand, ground up in the mouth and mixed with saliva, and then spat out onto a surface. In this way, the very first taggers spray-painted the walls of caves with their own handprints, as if to say: “I was here”. The almost irresistible urge to write something like “Grod rules” is a human universal. Along with this, our ancient ancestors typically just painted what they saw, which was usually wildlife and landscapes. However, the animistic shamans often painted psychedelia, which might appear as tribal patterns of lines or dots within sacred spaces. Religious art then not only adorned skin but rock as well. The body is a temple, and a cave can be as well.

A handprint in northern Spain
South African cave art
Brazilian cave art
European shamanic cave art

Artists have been painting the town red ever since towns first emerged more than 10,000 years ago. As a more recent example of this, in the 15th century BCE, the Minoans made use of red columns in much of their Old World architecture. Similarly, the Mayans often made use of red facades on their New World structures. There were even big red doors on enormous European cathedrals.

Minoan pillars in Knossos
Mesoamerican facade
The doors of a gothic cathedral

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, red was adopted as a color of majesty and authority by the Byzantine Empire, as well as the Roman Catholic Church. That is to say, red was the color of the banner of the Byzantine emperors, and it symbolized the blood of Christ and the Christian martyrs. Emperor Charlemagne had a red palace and he even wore red shoes to his coronation. Then, outside of Paris in the early 12th century, Abbe Suger rebuilt Saint Denis Basilica, and he added stained glass windows to the building in the process. As part of this, the color red was achieved by tinting the glass with copper. Soon stained glass windows were being added to cathedrals all across Europe, including in France, England, and Germany. Reclaimed glass from Ancient Rome and elsewhere was taken to Medieval Europe and melted down to be recycled into stained glass, some of which was red.

A section of stained glass

Colors also began to take on greater symbolic meanings around the world. Beginning in 1295, Roman Catholic cardinals began to wear red colored garments. Along with this, as with modern art, in medieval paintings red was used to attract attention to the most important figures. For instance, Christ and the Virgin Mary were commonly portrayed wearing red mantles. Red was used to draw the attention of the viewer. In Venice, Titian was the master of fine reds, particularly vermilion. He used many layers of pigment mixed with a semi-transparent glaze, which let the light pass through it, to create a more luminous color. A few centuries ago, red was the color of blood among the Aztecs and the Catholics alike. They both believed that bloodshed could redeem and renew the world, just in very different ways. About 450 years ago, “El Greco” painted The Disrobing of Christ, which depicts Jesus in a crimson garment. In this way, the artist was able to chromatically indicate the ultimate human sacrifice, without actually having to include any of the bloody details of the Crucifixion itself.

The Disrobing of Christ

After the traditional use of ocher for red came that of cinnabar, which gave rise to the color vermilion in Medieval Europe. In the Renaissance, pigments came to the West from the East by way of the Ottoman trade route. Outside of Venice color was only thought of secondarily by European artists, but in Italy red went through a revolution. At the other end of the route from Italy was India, where cinnabar powder was used to create the traditional red dot, or bindi, on the forehead of Hindus and Jains. Along with this, in many Asian countries, red is the traditional color for wedding dresses. It symbolizes joy and good fortune. In India, brides traditionally wear a red sari, called the sari of blood. In India, as well as Pakistan, some brides also traditionally have their hands and feet painted red with henna to bring happiness and signify their new status.

A red bindi dot
A red sari garment
Bridal Mehendi henna designs

The color red is a kind of human universal. In line with this, in antiquity, a popular red pigment and dye called brazilin was made from the Sappanwood tree in Asia and the Brazilwood tree in South America. These red lake pigments were also an important part of the palette of Venetian Renaissance painters. A lake pigment is a pigment that is made by precipitating a dye with an inert binder, usually a metallic salt. Unlike vermilion and other pigments made from ground minerals, lake pigments are organic. In contrast to this, red lead has been used since the time of the Ancient Greeks. The inorganic pigment was also commonly used in the Middle Ages for the headings and decoration of illuminated manuscripts.

Text from a Middle Age manuscript

There were guilds of dyers who specialized in red in prominent Europeans countries like Italy. Rubia produced the brick red color of merchant and artisan clothing. Whereas kermes was used to make the garments for nobility. The merchants of Venice even manufactured their own signature color. Venetian red was the most expensive and brightest color in Europe, and the secret ingredient was arsenic. Then, the North American cochineal dye was discovered by the Spanish in the 16th century. The Aztec Empire had developed the brightest red in the world. The Mexican paint of the New World was ten times stronger than the Polish pigment in the Old World. That’s why it was used by almost all of the great painters of the 15th and 16th centuries, like Rembrandt and Rubens. Plus, by the beginning of the 17th century, carmine crimson became the preferred luxury red for the clothing of cardinals, bankers, courtesans, and aristocrats. Then, as the Industrial Revolution spread across Europe, manufacturers sought new red dyes that could be used in the large-scale manufacture of textiles. One popular color imported into Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries was Turkey red. Beginning in the 1740s, this bright color was used to dye or print cotton textiles in England, France, and even in the Netherlands, where there are red rooftops everywhere.

Catholic cardinals
Netherland rooftops

Dragon’s blood is a bright red resin that can be obtained from different species of a number of distinct plants. It was used in ancient times as a dye and varnish, among other things. The tiny female cochineal insect of Spanish Mexico was crushed to make crimson colored costumes in the Renaissance. This was also known as kermes and was used from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. Of course, despite its yellow greenish flower, the roots of the madder plant produced the most common red dye from antiquity to modernity. However, in the 19th century traditional red dyes began to be replaced by synthetic ones. Alizarin was the very first synthetic red dye, created in 1868. It duplicated the colorant in the madder plant but was cheaper and longer lasting. So, by the 19th century, there were whole new palettes of color for artists to work with. This brought about the use of red in art to create specific emotions, not just to imitate the natural and supernatural worlds. A revolution occurred with the systematic study of color theory, particularly the study of how complementary colors such as red and green reinforced each other when they were placed next to each other. These studies were avidly followed by artists such as Vincent van Gogh. Following that, 20th-century artists made use of red in very modern ways.

Branches of an Almond Tree in Blossom (1888)
Suicide (1916)
Head: Red Light (1926)
Sylvia von Harden (1926)
Study for the Homage to the Square (1972)

In the 21st century, the color red is being used very creatively in many new ways. For instance, Jordan Eagles uses real blood in his work. As a perfect example of what I mean, Blood Mirror was created in two phases between 2014 and 2016. It’s a sculpture and collaborative project, which was created with 59 different blood donations from gay, bisexual, and transgender men. The rather unique piece advocates for equality and protests the American government’s stigmatizing and discriminatory blood ban. As part of this, the blood in the sculpture is encased in resin and fully preserved, archiving the life-giving fluid and ensuring that the organic material will not change over time. Plus, the piece is interactive. That is to say, viewers can enter the sculpture and see themselves reflected in blood that could have been used for life-saving purposes but was rejected instead.

Blood Mirror

It’s also interesting to note that the face paint of the modern world is makeup, and it’s important to understand that cosmetics have been around since antiquity. For instance, Ancient Egyptian women used red ochre to redden their cheeks and lips. Along with this, they used henna to color their hair and paint their nails. Nowadays, this sort of thing usually requires an azo dye, like Allura Red, just as one example. This was originally manufactured from coal tar, but now it’s mostly made from petroleum. The EU approves Allura Red AC as a food colorant, but member countries’ local laws regarding food colorants are preserved. Thus, the product is banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, and Switzerland. In contrast to this, here in the US, Allura Red AC is approved by the FDA for use in things like red lipstick and tattoo ink. However, azo dyes may actually be harmful. On June 30th of 2010, the Center for Science in the Public Interest called for the Food and Drug Administration to ban Red 40. Since the public outcry has increased regarding the possible health risks associated with synthetic dyes, many companies have now switched to using natural pigments such as carmine from the cochineal to make non-toxic scarlet colorants instead.

Red eyeshadow and lipstick

Red is a really provocative color. It carries the strongest reaction of all the colors. The color red tends to attract the most attention too, so it’s frequently used in advertising. The Coca-Cola logo is a perfect example of what I mean. Of course, this is true of political propaganda as well as marketing. Long ago, Rome was the global superpower and they proudly displayed the color red in their flag. Then, Germany tried to spread the Nazi flag far and wide through violent conquest. Soon, China will become the next global superpower and their flag is red as well. The point is that companies and countries use red images like these as a display of power in an effort to make people more allegiant to their products and policies.

The Coke logo
The Ancient Roman Republic flag
The People’s Republic of China flag

The thing is that none of this changes the fact that the color red is a thing of beauty, being seductive, alarming, and mysterious, at the same time. You see, the alchemy of red pigments may have changed throughout the years, but the aesthetic value of the color itself is deeply ingrained in our souls and it will always be with us. In many ways, color is the basis of culture itself. Red is all around and within us, making the world lovely, angry, scary, and so much more. Ultimately, the color red is a vital part of who we are and the way that we see the world around us. So, let us rejoice in the color that is red.

An Eclectic Autodidact Polymath Writer and Researcher

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