Seeing red: the world’s loudest colour

Red: the colour of love and war. It has represented all things dramatic and passionate over the centuries, from famed romances to flags of the revolution. But what is it about red that draws our attention, and to what does red owe its daring connotations?

Join us as we explore the many striking facets of red through the centuries.

Bold beginnings 

The impact of red can be understood in its early influence across the world, as well as the immediate way in which humans perceive the colour. It has been used for decoration for millennia, and is the first colour humans see after black and white. It’s also believed to be the first basic colour term to be defined in most languages after the two, as expanded on in the Berlin-Kay Theory developed in the 1960s. Red ochre pigments were used to decorate caves in prehistoric times, notable in the ancient markings of an extinct species of lion, a thylacoleo, in the Djulirri rock art site in Australia’s Northern Territory. And it was frequently used in ritualistic ways, from marking gravestones to painting the skin of the deceased – examples found date back to the Upper Palaeolithic era, estimated at between 50,000 and 12,000 years ago.

The Aztecs and Mayans discovered red dye from a cochineal beetle as far back as 2000 BCE. This made red the first colour to be used for dyeing, and it was used in everything from murals to textiles and feathers. The impact of the tiny cochineal beetle was immense; when the Spanish later introduced the dye to Europe it led to widespread use of red cloth. The highly saturated, rich crimson hue was greatly valued as it shone brighter than the varieties available in Europe at the time – such as St John’s Blood, which was ten times less potent than dye produced by the cochineal. Dyes were mostly available in yellows, greens and blues – even purple, but genuinely vivid red was hard to come by. Dyers often used Brazilwood, lac and lichens, but its qualities were poor in comparison; a brownish or orange hue was produced, and it tended to fade quickly. By the 1570s, cochineal it had become one of the most profitable trades in Europe. It produced the colour we know as Carmine Red, which would be used by nearly all the great 15th and 16th century painters, from Rembrandt to Vermeer, van Dyck to Rubens with oil on canvas. Its popularity then endured into later periods, with artists such as Gainsborough and Turner. Often, Carmine was painted on top of other reds to give oil paintings a deep crimson glaze, but it also had a tendency to fade in sunlight. 


Rosalía Sámano, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons


As red as blood 
In the Christian faith, red is commonly worn by members of the clergy to represent the blood of Christ, but is paradoxically used to illustrate all that is unholy in many depictions of the Devil and the burning flames of Hell. Red has also long been the colour given to battle, leadership and warfare due to its connotations with blood and anger. Mars, the hot-tempered god of war in Roman mythology was depicted wearing the colour red. And in real battle scenes, warriors, samurais and soldiers across the globe often wore red uniforms, such as Roman gladiators who sported red tunics and cloaks. Away from the front line, red cloths were used to enrage beasts in bull fighting contests, and it is believed that the phrase ‘seeing red’ evolved from this sport, which we now deployed to suggest blind anger and rage in human emotion.  


Utagawa Yoshitora, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


The colour of love and luck  
There’s no question about it – red is known as the colour of love, passion and romance due to its connotations with the heart and the blood pumping through our veins. Think St Valentine and Cupid in red robes, or besotted paramours at the centre of narratives in literature, plays and operas, such as the ill-fated yet passionately in love star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet.  

Ford Madox Brown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Rijksmuseum, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Many romantic figures in paintings are depicted with red hues. In Jean Honore Fragonard’s 1778 painting The Bolt, a red curtain is draped over a bed where a young man and his lover are wrapped in a passionate embrace; Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride (1667) depicts a young woman in a vivid red gown in a tender pose with a man – his hands over her heart; and the painting Radha and Krishna Walk in a Flowering Grove (anonymous artist, circa 1720) shows the goddess of love Radha in a red sari, while a deep red sunset behind the romantic couple.  

In many cultures across Asia, particularly in India and China, the colour red is most commonly linked to luck, good fortune and happiness, and this is often apparent when it comes to weddings. Brides traditionally wear red in India and China, and in southern and eastern Europe many brides wear red veils. Red jewellery is often worn at wedding ceremonies, and in various Indian religious such as Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism, married women wear red bindi dots in the centre of their forehead. 

Monjurul Hoque, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons


On red alert

The way in which the human eye sees red has played a monumental part in how we respond to the colour. Where many mammals fail to tell the difference between red and green, early humans evolved a new cell in the retinas in their eyes that could help them hunt for foods such as red fruit in the jungle. Red has also been proven to generate more of an immediate emotional response than any other colour and is one of the most vibrant colours we see, thanks to its longer wavelength.

It’s no surprise, then, that in contrast to red’s fortuitous connotations, it is the colour used to alert, signal and warn people of potential danger, and also to prohibit or stop – from traffic lights to hospital signs, hazard labels to construction signs. If a pirate ship raised a red flag, it meant that no mercy would be shown, and when motorcars were a new commodity, red flags were waved to announce their presence to those driving horse and carts. It’s also the colour used most to draw attention – seen in celebrities lining exclusive red carpets and the thick, velvet curtains opening to a theatrical performance on stage. In studies, bright shades of red have even been found to reduce lethargy.  

As the perception of red began to shift towards that of warning, it came to represent amoral or adulterous motives – for example, during the Protestant Reformation in Europe. In the Bible’s Book of Revelation, the Whore of Babylon is described as wearing red and ‘sits upon a scarlet coloured beast’. Later, ‘Red Light Districts’ across European and Asian cities came to showcase the relationship between red and promiscuity. In literature, this is apparent in the scarlet-coloured ‘A’ that Hester Prynne is forced to wear in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 book The Scarlet Letter. The symbol is used to draw attention to the novel’s protagonist, as she is shunned from a Puritan Christian society by having a child out of wedlock.  


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Raising a red flag 

The red flags of the French Revolution played a huge role in the colour coming to signify liberation, freedom and left-wing political movements from the 18th century. Red became the colour of the people in many of the world’s communist and labour parties, specifically in France, Russia, Cuba, Vietnam and China – the red star flag being the most commonly used symbol of communism. The five-sided star is often understood to represent the five fingers of the worker's hand, or, in Russia specifically, the five classes that make up socialist society: workers, farmers, intellectuals, soldiers and the youth.

With radical liberal parties, red was everywhere. During the Russian Civil War, the so-called ‘Red Army’ fought on the side of the Bolsheviks for socialism, those in support of the Cuban Revolution wore a red and black armband, whilst communist revolutionary leader Chairman Mao, who founded the People’s Republic of China, started up the Chinese Workers' and Peasants' Red Army, and published what is commonly known as The Little Red Book. A compilation of Mao’s speeches and messages, the book includes many quotations highlighted for emphasis in a red type. Posters, badges and artworks of Mao depicted in red ink were mass produced and circulated around the country, many illustrating the phrase ‘Chairman Mao is the red sun in our hearts’.


Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


From love to war, passion to anger, safety to danger or organised religion to communism, red is a colour of stark contrasts. But on either end of the spectrum, whether associated with negative or positive energy, red has through the ages stayed true to its audacious nature. This, combined with our innate response to the colour, remind us that it’s no surprise we continue to employ red to make an impact, in more ways than one. 

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