‘Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew;
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.’ William Shakespeare, Sonnet 98
I was inspired to write this post by the colours of the flowers at our local botanical garden, where I was testing my new camera. The roses are all in bloom, in their rich panorama of colours, and dozens of visitors have been out enjoying their beauty.
The colour red has a complicated history. It’s said to be the colour of love, but also of anger, seduction and temptation. Our blood is red, giving rise to the association of red with life and vitality in many cultures, as well as courage and sacrifice – and danger.
Many fruit turn red as they ripen, attracting birds and mammals to partake of them and scatter their seeds for natural propagation.
Red is one of the three primary colours, which in combination produce all other colours we can see. On the visible spectrum of light, red sits next to orange in the longer wavelengths (at the far end from the ‘cooler’ colours of blue and violet).
For humans, unless you have red-green colour-blindness, red draws attention. If you want to make a conspicuous entrance into a room, wear red. There’s a reason that Jessica Rabbit was drawn with a slinky red gown.
I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way. Jessica Rabbit
For that same reason, red is used for warning messages – stop signs and stop lights, fire engines, biohazard labels.
The ubiquity of red as a warning colour means that people with colour blindness may be considered ineligible for certain jobs, like pilots and machine operators.
Certain animals can’t see the colour red. Primates can, including us, but dogs and bovines (cows, bulls) can’t. Bulls in an arena don’t respond to the colour of the red flag, just that it’s being waved at them. Crickets don’t see red, which is why, when I was a university student studying insect biology, my cricket population was set up under red lights so that I could watch the critters go about their normal behaviours without disturbing them.
Some of my fellow students referred to my lab as the ‘cricket whorehouse’, illustrating another connotation of red: prostitution. Along with yellow, red was worn to distinguish women ‘of ill-repute’ from respectable ladies, creating both marketing and stigma at the same time.
From our ancient need for fire, some shades of red are associated with warmth and heat.
In the photo below, the reddish-brown walls of the dramatic dining room at Kylemore Abbey (once a grand country manor for Mitchell and Margaret Vaughan Henry) in Ireland make the room feel warm and cozy, while the scarlet of the chairs and napery is tempered by the white trim and the subdued pastels of the carpeting.
Sunsets and sunrises contain shades of red because during those periods of the day, when sunlight travels its longest path through the atmosphere to the eye, the scattering of the light particles eliminates blue and green components almost completely, leaving red and orange light.
Shades of gold to crimson in the sunset over the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya
Children tend to be drawn to bright colours, and “red” is a common favourite colour for that age group. According to According Educare Child Center, “Toddlers who love red are probably strong-willed. They are the ones who want what they want when they want it even more than most toddlers.” Red was my favourite colour growing up, all the way through my teen years, and I’ve often been characterized as strong-willed, so there you go 😊
Interestingly, in my adult years, I grew to love the colour grey – for foggy days, moody skies and storm clouds. I still like the colour red, but in small doses, and as a symbol of Autumn, my favourite season.
Leaves turn red and gold in autumn from pigments, called anthocyanins and carotenoids, that are produced towards the end of summer. As certain deciduous trees prepare for winter, they shed the chlorophyll that gives their leaves the normal green colour, leaving the red anthocyanins and orange carotenoids for us to enjoy as we go leaf-peeping in cool weather.
Over centuries, artists searched for ways to portray the colour red in their paintings and other creations.
The earliest artists, painting in caves tens of thousands of years ago, made red pigment from ochre, a natural clay colour.
In ancient Egypt, where red was associated with victory, life and health, people would color themselves with red ochre for celebrations.
During ancient Greek and Roman times, a toxic form of red pigment known as minium created a bright orange-tinted red. It was also commonly used in the Middle Ages for the decoration of illuminated manuscripts.
Cinnabar red, another highly toxic pigment, was a natural derivative of mercury sulfide. Its brilliant red was loved by both Egyptians and Romans, and commanded a very high price. It was smeared on victorious gladiators as a tribute, and painted into the murals of upper-class villas. Centuries later in China it became synonymous with the carved lacquer used to create a variety of beautiful decorative items.
Vermilion originally referred to the pigment made from grinding up cinnabar, but Arab alchemists brought a synthetic version, invented in China a long time previously, to the West during the Middle Ages, where it eventually became glorified by Renaissance painters such as Titian.
Red was used in Renaissance artwork to draw observers’ attention. Belying its association with harlotry, artists of the period often used red for part of the clothing of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, and it continues to be seen in stained glass windows throughout history.
Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. – Isaiah 1:18
Red could also be obtained from plants and insects. If you’ve ever dropped a red beet on yourself, you know how vividly it stains cloth. Cochineal red is derived from a strange little bug; when my hubby and I were on a dude ranch in Arizona, our hiking guide instructed us to swipe some white foam off prickly-pear cacti and rub it between our fingers, whereupon it turned a vivid red colour from the critters hiding inside. (This same red is also used as food colouring, just fyi.)
In the 16th century cochineal bugs became the third most valuable export from the New World after gold and silver. Cochineal red was soon transformed into a paint called “carmine,” which became an important tint on the palettes of many 15th- and 16th-century artists, including Rembrandt, and Vermeer.
Another insect that provided red colour comes from the genus Kermes, and that shade of red was used in biblical times to produce a scarlet tint for robes. Popular into the Middle Ages, pure kermes scarlet was the colour of choice for luxury and regal textiles many parts of England and Europe. The rich red was favoured by Queen Elizabeth I when she was younger and less weighted with the cares of her office. You can see it in the painting below.
Following the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Mexican cochineal, which produced a stronger dye, began to replace kermes in Europe.
Red lac was another pigment sourced from an insect, Kerria lacca, found throughout Asia from India to China. It was harvested from the wild but also cultivated, and it yielded soft, deep reds to purples.
Cadmium red came along in 1817 when a German chemist discovered a new element. Cadmium is a natural element found in tiny amounts in water, soil, and rocks. It’s also highly toxic. Henri Matisse was one of the artists who embraced its use.
To this day, red is an iconic colour in uniforms, flags and other public displays. According to Insider magazine, the famous red tunic of the Royal Guard in London was chosen back in more militant days because it didn’t show blood from injuries — very practical of them.
As writers, we have an enormous catalogue of ways in which to describe the colour red, in the shades of flowers, the heat of a blaze or a blazing passion, in rich Renaissance colours, in blood and death.
There are so many legends and associations with the colour red that they can’t all be included in a single blog post. Look for more about red in September, when its various shades begin dancing across the autumn landscape as part of Nature’s last vibrant celebration before winter sets in.
Designers want me to dress like Spring, in billowing things. I don’t feel like Spring. I feel like a warm red Autumn. Marilyn Monroe
All photos are by me, unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus You may enjoy looking at them, or share this post, but please don’t use my photos for your own purposes without my express permission.