What Does The Color Red Mean? History, Symbolism, and Use

Ardak Kassenova ZenART Colors 18 Comments

What does the colour red mean? A popular colour among artworks, fashion, and almost everything under the sun, red has made a statement for itself as one of the most important colours.

They say that red is the first colour that the human eye can perceive upon birth, next to black and white. This means that humans have had very strong feelings about the colour red symbolism since time immemorial. In mood colour meanings, red has a natural influence over us and our emotions. To further understand its uses, let us take a look at the history of red colour. A mesmerizing pigment that carries so much meaning and history within.

Discovery of the pigment

“Red,” writes historian Michel Pastoureau in Red: The History of a Color, “is the archetypal colour, the first colour humans mastered, fabricated, reproduced, and broke down into different shades.” It was such a strong element, dominating the different cultures for thousands of years.

History states that the first civilization of humans came from Africa. In the Southern part of the coast, evidence of late stone age people who scraped and ground ochre, a clay coloured by iron oxide (which we now know as rust!) was found.

An abalone shell and other ochre-related artefacts are among the many finds from Blombos Cave in South Africa (Courtesy Christopher Henshilwood/Craig Foster)

A plant they called madder, whose root could be transformed into a red dye, widely grew across Europe, Africa, and Asia. They also discovered a tiny scale insect called Kermes whose body was dried and crushed, resulting in a red tint. This is where the first versions of the colour red were derived.

Red in the ancient civilizations

In ancient Egypt, the colours were very limited; and thus the colour red symbolism was associated with a lot of meanings. They used it to symbolise life, health, and victory. Egyptians would colour themselves with red ochre during festivities. Women used it in cosmetics to redden their cheeks and lips, symbolising wellness. It was widely utilised as a pigment for wall paintings, particularly used as the skin colour of men.

An ancient Egyptian mural of Nefertari Playing Senet, with red used as the colour of men’s skin.

Yet, since red meant war, heat, and fire —  it also had its adverse associations. Red was the colour of the Greek gods of war — Phoebus and Ares. The colour had both positive and negative connotations. There is bloodshed, aggression, and conflict on one side; and love, warmth and compassion on the other.

Many Roman villas were decorated with vivid red murals. It was one of the finest reds of ancient times; the paintings have retained their brightness for more than twenty centuries later.

Found among the well-preserved remains of the ancient Roman “Villa dei Misteri” on the outskirts of Pompeii was a wall of the triclinium, traditionally interpreted to represent the stages of initiation to the cult. The mural shows a satyr playing the panpipes and a nymph suckling a goat; to their right, the initiate is in a panic.

In ancient China, artists used colour red symbolism to make pottery, as early as the Yangshao Culture period (5000–3000 BC). Like the Egyptians, they made a red dye from the madder plant to colour silk fabric, to be used for gowns and lacquerware.

Indians had the Rubia plant, and used it for centuries to make dye for the robes of Indian monks and hermits. The early Americans on the other hand, had their own vivid crimson dye, made from cochineal — an insect of the same family as the Kermes.

Monks at prayer, India.

Red colour in Chinese culture (and others)

Red clothing was a symbol of high status and wealth. It was worn not only by cardinals and princes, but also by merchants, artisans and townspeople. The quality of red clothing one had access to create a divide between the rich and the poor. To dye the clothing of ordinary people, they used a pigment made from the madder plant. This resulted in a colour leaning towards brick-red, which faded with constant washing and sun exposure.  The wealthy aristocrats wore scarlet clothing — dyed with expensive kermes insect. This produced a far more vivid and bold colour which lasted much longer, too.

In the Chinese culture, the colour red symbolism plays a very important part. It is embedded in them since ancient times. In cultural traditions, red is associated with weddings, with brides wearing red dresses. A red paper envelope called angpao is also used to wrap gifts of money or other objects. It is a symbol of love, health, and fortune. The Chinese discovered and used the cinnabar, from which the famous vermillion or “Chinese red” originated. For them, red also symbolised a badge of rank, and they chose it for the royal guards of honour as the colour to wear. 

Chinese lanterns in the Temples of Kaohsiung, China.

In Japan, red is a traditional colour for a heroic figure. For them – red denotes strength, passion, self-sacrifice, and blood.

Fun fact!

Here’s an interesting trivia about the colour red symbolism: most Japanese think that the sun is red! Their national flag is a white fabric with a big red circle in the middle. This represents the sun, as Japan is famously known as “the land of the rising sun”.

Most Japanese think that the sun is red! Their national flag is a white fabric with a big red circle in the middle. This represents the sun, as Japan is famously known as “the land of the rising sun”. Click to Tweet

In India, red has been regarded as a symbolic colour for married women. It’s the colour of wealth, beauty, and their goddess Lakshmi.

In ancient Africa, there is a rich history of the red colour, since the warriors rubbed themselves with red paint in celebrating victories. Since it is a symbol of life and health, sick people are painted with it in the hopes that they will come back to the best state of health.

Red in history

The colour red symbolism was largely practised in history. World leaders have used red clothing as a way of showcasing their power. Artists chose this colour to portray the power of royalties in their paintings. Royal dresses, robes and hats were decorated with deep scarlet hues. This sends an unequivocal message of their political and moral strength. The colour was also taken up by Revolutionaries around the world to symbolize new liberties and freedoms.

What does the colour red mean in the Bible? (and in other religions)

The Roman Catholic Church used colour red symbolism to represent the blood of Christ and the Christian martyrs. The Pope and the Cardinals wore this colour and still do up to this day. There was a story of a Roman soldier named St. George who refused to renounce his Christian faith and was eventually martyred. During the First Crusade, the banner of the Christian soldiers was a red cross on a white field, which they then called St. George’s Cross. This cross became the Flag of England in the 16th century and is now part of the Union Flag of the United Kingdom.

Madonna and Child with Six Saints, tempera by Sandro Botticelli, c.1470.

When the Protestant came into reformation, people also began to view the shade as gaudy, even immoral, and its preeminence began to fade.

In Isaiah (1:18), it says: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” Red also represents sin, and is the liturgical colour for Pentecost.

In Islam, red is the colour of sacrifice and courage. The history of red colour and symbolism shines forth in Buddhist aesthetics in the type of paintings known as red thangkas. It is also the colour of powerful rituals and deeds.

The Thangka, a Tibetan painting using ground mineral pigment on cotton or silk, functions as one of the principal meditational tools in Buddhist practice.

Red in the modern era

Throughout the history of fashion, different designers have unveiled their own timeless takes on red. What set apart esteemed designer Christian Louboutin is his specific shade colour of choice – the Chinese Red. In 1992, he unveiled his red-bottomed shoes, which quickly became his brand’s signature style. He has trademarked these red soles and now, they are seen as a sign of luxury and elegance; this is a great example of the colour red symbolism.

Christian Louboutin New York Fashion Show, Fall/Winter 2017.

Parisian cafes are filled with crimson awnings and chairs as accents; London has red buses, phone booths and post-boxes. Red, of course, is traditionally the colour of the political left, too. The colour has a life of its own, moving and breathing as we bear witness to every day. Even when we think we have made our minds up on red and what it means, still it waves on and creates newer and deeper meanings for itself. Red leans towards romance, glamour and character altogether.

Color Red in Art

Red was widely used by artists in the Paleolithic age since it was easily obtainable in nature. A perfect example is the prehistoric cave paintings in which they used red ochre is in Altamira, Spain, dating between 15000 and 16500 BC. The most famous one is the bison painting.

Bison Painting – UNESCO World Heritage, Cave of Altamira, Spain.

Red was also prominent in ancient China, with early examples of black and red pottery dating between 5000 and 3000 BC. Traces of red ochre were even found on a painter’s palette inside the tomb of King Tut in Egypt.

Cinnabar Vase, detail, China, 18th-19th century.

In the context of today

When using red in art, one must keep in mind that there are different types of red. More hues have been discovered over the years, and they can be divided into two main categories: the warm reds and the cool reds.

Through the years, artists have used striking red hues in their artworks to depict mood colour meanings or to send a strong message. Here are some very famous paintings that showcase us of both warm and cool hues of the colour red.

Warm Reds

Warm reds are the spectrum of reds that lean more towards the yellow and orange side. When you have a true red colour and you add more yellow hues, you get a resulting warm range of reds. These are often used when painting skin tones, lips, as well as depicting the reds found in nature; Vermillion is a well-known example of warm red. Warm reds tend to be more vibrant and create a more sunny disposition.

The dessert (Harmony in red), oil on canvas by Henri Matisse, 1908. The colour selection generates a feeling of warmth and comfort; The rhythms of the foliage pattern on the tablecloth and wallpaper are repeated in the window in the background, uniting the warm interior with the cool exterior.

Cool Reds

Cool reds, – are the spectrum of reds that lean more towards the blue and purple side. They are darker, and give off a bit more serious feel. When you add more blue hues to your true red colour, you get resulting cooler shades of reds that you can use to paint veins, roses, and depict the colour of blood. Crimson is one of the most popular colours of cool red.

Second Version of Triptych 1944, Oil and acrylic paint on 3 canvases by Francis Bacon 1988. This artwork is commonly considered as a reflection of the atrocious world into which we have survived (after the Second World War). Bacon identified his distorted figures with the vengeful Greek Furies, while the title places them in the Christian context of the crucifixion. In this version, painted in 1988, Bacon changed the background colour from orange to blood red. 

Here’s a fun fact!

Did you know that red artworks fetch the highest prices at auction? Click to Tweet

As we have stated in the examples above, the colour red symbolism takes on many shapes and forms. It has been pervasive in art and textile since the ancient times. Now, let us take a look at some of the most important shades of red that are widely used in art and everyday life. If you are looking to go in-depth, The History of the Color Red: From Ancient Paintings to Louboutin Shoes is a comprehensive look at all things red.

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In their palettes, ZenART Supplies chose different hues of red that range between both warm and cool colours. You can incorporate them in your artworks, because of their flexibility and versatility.

Cadmium red hue

In 1817, a German chemist uncovered a new element, cadmium, which became the foundation for new shades of yellow and orange paint. But it wasn’t until 1910 that cadmium red was available as a commercial product. It is a full red that leans more on the warmer side of the spectrum. The artist Henri Matisse was one of the first major champions of this new shade of red.

Alizarin crimson

This shade originated from the madder plant in Egypt and was later on called alizarin crimson. It is a dark, transparent, cool red with a slight tendency towards blue/purple. Add to other reds to darken or deepen them. Good for transparent glazing or washes as it will add depth without obscuring any details.

ZenART Supplies Essential Palette includes Cadmium red hue and Alizarin Crimson. 

Vermillion

The Romans liked bright colours, and they loved to decorate many of their villas with vivid red murals. To do so, they used a pigment called vermilion – which was one of the finest reds of ancient times.  In Venice, a famous artist named Titian was a master of fine reds, particularly vermilion. He used many layers of the pigment, which let the light pass through, creating a more luminous colour.

Naphthol Red

This 20th-century discovery is an intense, transparent hue of red that leans towards the warm side. It goes from mid to deep colour. Naphthol reds are used in producing colour plastics, automotive finishes, and architectural paints. It is also used in making pencils, crayons, printing inks, and artists oil paints and watercolours. When mixed with Zinc White, Naphthol Red can appear almost fluorescent.

ZenART Supplies Portrait palette includes Vermillion and Naphthol Red.

Rubine Red

This certainly unique shade of red was derived from the colour ruby – the colour of the cut and polished gemstone called ruby. It comes in shades of red or pink. You can use this pigment to colour certain areas of your work that needs little to full blush tones rather than an overpowering red.

ZenART Supplies Impressionist Palette includes rubine red (on the right top).

Using red in your artworks

By this point, we are now beginning to understand where red came from and what its implications and symbolism are. We must also consider its mood colour meaning that may affect our work later on. Diving further into it, we can ask ourselves: what does the colour red mean? What does the colour red provoke?  

Let’s have a rundown of some of the representations of red:


Energy: Red boosts our level of physical energy and increases our heart rate and blood pressure. It prompts the release of adrenalin in our bodies.

Action: Red promotes action, strength, movement of our bodies.

Desire: When we encounter red, the levels of desire in our bodies rise. Our desire for speed, for love, for intimacy, for consumption.

Passion: Red increases the passionate feelings and beliefs in us. It makes us engaged in passionate love and hate. Red stimulates negative feelings that are forms of negative passion. 

Colour theory

In terms of colour theory, we must combine red with the colours that are in harmony with it. The basic ones are complementary, analogous, and triadic colours.

Complementary colours are those that sit across each other in the colour wheel. Red opposes green, therefore we can say that they are harmonious. You can see a lot of this colour combination during the Christmas season!

Analogous colours are three hues in the colour wheel that are placed beside each other. In the case of red, it is analogous with orange and yellow. They basically derive from the same root colour (red), with a few shades lighter or darker added in between.

Triadic colours, on the other hand — are any three colours that are equally apart on the colour wheel. For example, red, yellow and blue. Coincidentally, these three triadic colours are also the primary colours of the wheel.

Red and Green, complementary colors.

The colour wheel.

Red colour meaning in Feng Shui

Red is a very special colour. It is a strong force that will surely grab anyone’s attention. When incorporating the colour for interior design — you may use red sparingly as accent pieces. Some quaint houses also paint their doors red, with lots of flowers and plants accompanying it. You can also use red as accent colour for chairs, windows, and kitchenware.

Feng shui-wise, use colour red with most moderation in children’s rooms, freely in the living room, the dining room and the kitchen. For the following areas, limit the colour (as it also symbolises the fire energy) —  East, Southeast, as well as West and Northwest areas. Being a Fire feng shui element colour, red is excellent to use in the South Feng Shui Bagua area.

There is still a long list on the history of red. We have discussed a few basic ones that are essential in our daily use of colour. With this article, we hope you got a better understanding of the colour red symbolism. You can now make use of it more skilfully, mindfully, and effectively.


How did you find this article from the #zenartcolors series? What is your favourite variation of red? Which colour would you like to learn about next? Your feedback is so important to me! If you have any questions or concerns, do not hesitate to leave a comment down below. I am so excited to hear you out!

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 MEET THE AUTHORS 

Ardak Kassenova, ZenART Supplies co-founder, @ardak_zenartArdak Kassenova is mother, artist and ZenART Supplies co-founder. “My heart and soul were always with Art, and since my childhood as long as I remember myself, I was dreaming to be an artist. I was painting after work, when I had time, and teaching myself through the books, videos, visiting art galleries and museums. I’ve been very curious about different techniques and styles, and therefore accumulated knowledge and experience on a variety of mediums”. 

After 20 years of a successful corporate career and with becoming a mother to two wonderful girls, she decided that it’s time to make drastic changes and link her life with Art. She started to paint again and decided to create her own art supplies brand that would help artists to fulfil their creative dreams and achieve their best results since the beginning using high-quality art materials without wasting their precious time and money. Say hello to @ardak_zenart on Instagram!