Red is the attention getter of the color world. In visual psychology, it is an advancing, expansive hue that looks heavier than others. It has the longest wavelength of any color in the spectrum. This, together with its associations with fire, life blood, and energy, makes it symbolically the strongest color.
On the other hand, red is one of the most positive of all colors in worldwide symbolism because of its associations with festivity, vitality and life itself.
It is representative of luck in China, where it became the emblematic color of the Chou dynasty (1045-256 BCE). As the color of blood and life, red is sometimes used with protective symbolism. The red beauty spot worn by some Asian women has this meaning. Some Chinese wedding guests take baskets of red-dyed eggs to the newly married couple to wish them luck in starting their family.
The darkest reds, such as burgundy and maroon connote rich, stately feelings. Red’s positive keywords are stimulating, exciting, energetic, powerful, dramatic, beautiful, passionate, sensual, vigorous, diligent, appreciative and reviving.
Christian theology envisaged nine angelic orders. The ones nearest to God were seraphs, usually painted red. Artists imagined them bearing six wings. In his thunderous warning of the wrath of the Lord to the kingdom of Judah, the prophet Isaiah informs us of the red dye technology of the Holy Land in the eighth century B.C.
Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
Here, these hues, scarlet and crimson, are used in the ancient text to evoke blood.
In the Middle Ages the color was called kermes, from the Sanskrit word kirmidja, “derived from a worm.” The Hebrew name for it was tola’at shani, “worm scarlet.” The red compound is extracted from a wingless scale insect Kermes vermili that dwells on the Scarlet Oak in the Near East, Spain, southern France, and southern Italy. The dye is extracted by crushing the resin-encrusted kermes insects and boiling them in lye. Kermes is the linguistic root of the English crimson and carmine and the French cramoisie.
Cochineal, (Coccus Cacti) an insect native to Mexico and Central America, was imported to Spain by the conquerors. For centuries, the secret was kept under threat of death for anyone revealing the source, as the Spanish profited from the vivid colored textiles this insect allowed. Finally, the British defeat of the Spanish Armada enabled Queen Elizabeth’s navy to carry home the prized cargo captured from the Spanish. It took the invention of the microscope to assure scientists that Cochineal were insects, not seeds. Cochinealwere imported to Texas for the purpose of controlling the over supply of prickly pear cacti. A similar program was very successful in Australia. It takes about 70,000 tiny insects to make up a pound, but a cupful will dye a pound of wool. Fresh insects make the brightest color.
Dactylopius coccus is a scale insect, from which the cochineal dye is derived. D. coccus itself is native to tropical and subtropical South America and Mexico. This type of insect, a primarily sessile parasite, lives on cacti from the genus Opuntia, feeding on moisture and nutrients in the cactus sap. The insect produces carminic acid, which deters predation by other insects. The carminic acid can be extracted from the insect's body and eggs to make the red dye.
Cochineal is primarily used as a red food coloring and in cosmetics. The cochineal dye was used by the Aztec and Maya peoples of Central and North America. Produced almost exclusively in Oaxaca, Mexico by indigenous producers, cochineal became Mexico's second most valued export after silver. The dyestuff was used throughout Europe, and was so highly valued that its price was regularly quoted on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges.
Today, the highest production of cochineal is by Peru, the Canary Islands and Chile. Current health concerns over artificial food additives have renewed the popularity of cochineal dyes, and the increased demand is making cultivation of the insect an attractive opportunity in other regions, such as in Mexico, where cochineal production had declined again due to the scale insect having numerous natural enemies.
Negative red connotations are brutal, lecherous, prejudiced, harsh, bullying, obstinate and dishonorable. It is the color of blood, which is associated with the emotions and is, therefore, symbolic of both love and hate.
To the Chinese, “Red eye disease” is their description of an envious person’s malady. Red, the color of sovereign power among the Romans has a similar meaning in the dress of Catholic cardinals. Red was used as a symbol for martyrdom during the Roman persecutions.
Red’s Color Properties
“Red spells passion, power and pizzazz. Clear is the message, unmistakable the impact. Red is stop lights, fire engines, blood. Everyone understands exactly what to expect from red; it attracts attention, it creates drama. Simply looking at this color stimulates the body into an adrenalin rush, in preparation for danger. Physiological studies indicate that red lighting leads to a rise in blood pressure, body temperature and rate of breathing. Little wonder that red is considered a hot color since it really does create heat. Saturated red has the longest wavelength of any color in the spectrum visible too humans, and invisible infrared waves, next to visible red, actually are heat waves.
Unrestrained and vital, red is always a stimulating visual pleasure. Many people are as timid about using red as they are about using orange and caution is often advocated. Red need not be fire-engine scarlet, harsh or glaring; red can be moody or voluptuous, as sensuous as silk velvet. Red is altogether too lively and energetic to be treated as the rebel or outsider in color schemes. Those who genuinely shy away from its dynamism might first try using it as an accent and gradually learn to love it.
Red has always been associated with position, importance and riches. The red button on the hat of a mandarin of the first class, or the red hat of a Catholic cardinal indicates their importance.
In his desire for this significant color, man once went to extraordinary lengths to obtain it and such were the difficulties involved that it was always expensive. One important book about the pursuit of cochineal dyestuff is The Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield. She weaves a fascinating story of how empires rose and fell because of this color.
In the search for this beautiful color, many things were tried. One source was the bodies of dried cochineal insects, another was the dried roots of plants like madder, a third, dyewoods like brazil-wood. The insects had to be gathered, the plants cultivated and harvested, the trees felled and chopped before the lengthy process of preparing the dye could even begin.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the development of aniline dyes based on coal tar brought red within everyone’s reach. Many expressions and color names remain as echoes of its natural origins. Another insect, Kermes vermilio, the source of the most ancient recorded dyes, gave its name to carmine, crimson and vermilion, and red tape derives from the tape used to bind legal documents together, formerly colored with a dye obtained from safflower.
According to W. B. Yeats in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, ‘Red is the color of magic in every country. The caps of fairies and musicians are well-nigh always red.” Red, warm and exciting, has certainly long been associated in interiors with entertainment or theatre. Walls draped in red damask, red velvet curtains, the red light of the brothel, all captured the dramatic.
The British National Trust range of paints, based on original colors from early properties, includes Picture Room Red, Eating Room Red, and Book Room Red, indicating the wide ranging domestic use of this color over the centuries.”
The quote above is from Nori and Sandra Pope’s gorgeous book Color in the Garden
COLORS: The Story of Dyes and Pigments -
A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield
The Etymology of Red
A color as expensive and precious as red has dozens of shades and tones, each with its own name.
Auburn: red-brown; from the Latin alburnus; in the 15th century, a whitish brown color; later, by association, a red-brown.
Brazil: red; probably from the Spanish brasa, glowing coals; the color obtained from the dyewood of the same name.
Burgundy: wine red; named for the wine from the Burgundy region of France.
Carmine: a deep crimson; related to crimson, from kermes, from the Arabic qirmizi.
Carnelian: burnt-orange red; from the Latin carn-flesh; originally a chalcedony stone with a deep red or flesh color.
Cerise: a bright red with purplish tones; from the French word for cherry.
Cinnabar: a warm red; red mercuric sulfide dye (the same material as vermillion); from the Greek kinnabari, from an older Oriental word.
Coquelicot: poppy red; from the French word for poppy.
Cresol: a brownish red; from the chemical name for coal tar, from which the aniline dye is made.
Crimson: a deep red tending toward purple; from the medieval Latin carmesinus or kermesinus, a red dye made from kermes; kermes derives from the Arabic qirmizi, red dye…
See pages 46-147 for the complete list
A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield
Inspired by Red
by Barbara Boothe Loyd
This attention-getter of the artists’ palette,
an advancing, expansive color with the
longest wavelength of the color spectrum,
it connotes blood universally.
Ages ago the Greeks linked it with their
war god Ares’ power and strength.
Today, they dye Easter eggs this
hue to symbolize eternal life.
Picture Poinsettias’ ablaze against mud-brick
houses along the roads in Mexico.
The contrast of this vibrant color
And neutrals kindles our eyes.
Teeka powder enlivens the
faces and hair of
Nepalese brides, as their
Female attendants powder
Them in joy, symbolizing
The rosy future wished for.