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Inspiration What Does the Color Red Mean in Art and Symbolically

Ardak Kassenova

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

They say that red is the first color that the human eye can perceive upon birth, next to black and white. This means that humans have had very strong feelings about the symbolisms of the color red since time immemorial. In mood color 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 the color red. A mesmerizing pigment that carries so much meaning and history.

Discovery of the pigment

“Red,” writes historian Michel Pastoureau in Red: The History of a Color, “is the archetypal color, the first color 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 colored by iron oxide (which we now know as rust!) was found.

Red art - An abalone shell and other ochre-related artefacts are among the many finds from Blombos Cave in South Africa

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 color red were derived.

What does the color red mean in the ancient civilizations?

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

Red art - An ancient Egyptian mural of Nefertari Playing Senet

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

Yet, since red meant war, heat, and fire —  it also had its adverse associations. Red was the color of the Greek gods of war — Phoebus and Ares. The color 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.

Red art - wall of the triclinium, traditionally interpreted to represent the stages of initiation to the cult

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, the color red was used by artists when they made pottery as early as the Yangshao Culture period (5000–3000 BC). Like the Egyptians, they made a red dye from the madder plant to color 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.

Color red 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 created 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 color leaning towards brick-red, which faded with constant washing and sun exposure.  The wealthy aristocrats wore scarlet clothing — dyed with expensive kermes insects. This produced a far more vivid and bold color which lasted much longer, too.

In the Chinese culture, “What does the color red mean?” is a recurring question as it is a heavily used color that is full of symbolism and plays a very important part in their beliefs. It has been 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 symbolises a badge of rank, and they chose it for the royal guards of honour as their color to wear.

Red art - Chinese lanterns in the Temples of Kaohsiung, China

Chinese lanterns in the Temples of Kaohsiung, China.

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

Fun fact!

Here’s an interesting trivia about the question, “What does the color red mean?” – 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, and Japan is famously known as “the land of the rising sun”.

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

In ancient Africa, there is a rich history of the red color, the warriors rubbed themselves with red paint when celebrating their 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.

Color red in history

The symbolism of the color red was largely practiced in history. World leaders have used red clothing as a way of showcasing their power. Artists chose this color 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 color was also taken up by Revolutionaries around the world to symbolize new liberties and freedoms.

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

The Roman Catholic Church used the color red to represent and symbolize the blood of Christ and that of the Christian martyrs. The Popes and the Cardinals throughout history wore this color back then and 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.

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

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 color for Pentecost.

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

Red art - The Thangka, a Tibetan painting using ground mineral pigment on cotton or silk

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

What does the color red mean 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 color 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 color 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 color of the political left, too. The color has a life of its own, moving and breathing as we bear witness to it every day. Even when we think we have made our minds up on red and what it means, still it flows on, creating 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. The prehistoric cave paintings are a perfect example, in which they used red ochre. It can be found in Altamira, Spain, dating between 15000 and 16500 BC. The most famous one is the bison painting.

Colour red art - Bison Painting - UNESCO World Heritage, Cave of Altamira, Spain.

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.

Colour red art - Cinnabar Vase, detail, China, 18th-19th century.

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

 

Color red in the context of today

What does the color red mean in today’s world? 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 color meanings or to send a strong message. Here are some very famous paintings that showcase us of both warm and cool hues of the color 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 color 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.

Red art - The dessert (Harmony in red), oil on canvas by Henri Matisse, 1908

The dessert (Harmony in red), oil on canvas by Henri Matisse, 1908. The color 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 color, you get resulting cooler shades of reds that you can use to paint veins, roses, and depict the color of blood. Crimson is one of the most popular colors of cool red.

Red art - Second Version of Triptych 1944, Oil and acrylic paint on 3 canvases by Francis Bacon 1988

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!

As we have stated in the examples above, the color red takes on many shapes and forms. It has been pervasive in art and textile since 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.

#zenartcolors

In our palettes, ZenART Supplies chose different hues of red that range between both warm and cool colors. You can easily 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 colors, 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 in 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 allowed the light to pass through, creating a more luminous color.

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 color. Naphthol reds are used in producing color plastics, automotive finishes, and architectural paints. It is also used in making pencils, crayons, printing inks, and artists oil paints and watercolors. When mixed with Zinc White, Naphthol Red can appear almost fluorescent.

ZenART Supplies Portrait palette includes Vermillion and Naphthol Red.

Rubine Red

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

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

Using the color 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 color meaning that may affect our work later on. Diving further into it, we can ask ourselves – What does the color red mean? What does the color 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, and the 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, and for consumption.

Passion: Red increases the passionate feelings and beliefs inside us. It spurs us on towards passionate love and hate. Red can also stimulate negative feelings that are forms of negative passion.

Color theory

When it comes to color theory, we must combine red with the colors that are in harmony with it. The basic ones are the complementary, analogous, and triadic color harmonies. Learn more about this topic, read Oil Painting Mixing Colors.  

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

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

Triadic colors, on the other hand — are any three colors that are equidistant from each other on the color wheel. For example – red, yellow and blue. Coincidentally, these three triadic colors are also the primary colors of the wheel.

Red and Green, complementary colors.

The color wheel.

 

What does the color red mean in Feng Shui?

Red is a very special color. It is a strong force that will surely grab anyone’s attention. When incorporating the color 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 an accent color for chairs, windows, and kitchenware.

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

There is still a long list on the history of the color red. We have discussed a few basic ones that are essential for our daily use of the said color. With this article, we hope you got the answer to the question – “What does the color red mean?” – that you’re looking for. With this better understanding, you can now make use of it in a more skillful, mindful, and effective way.

How did you find this article from the #zenartcolors series? What is your favorite variation of red? Which color would you like to learn about next? Your feedback is so important to me! If you have any questions or thoughts to share, do not hesitate to leave a comment below. I’d love to hear back from you! Have a great time exploring all the facets of the color red!

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— MEET THE AUTHOR—
Ardak Kassenova, ZenART Supplies co-founder, @ardak_zenart
Ardak Kassenova is a London based contemporary artist, co-founder and creative director of ZenART Supplies. Her visual style—contemporary impressionism—share similar aesthetic qualities with those by the French Impressionists. After 20 years of a successful corporate career, becoming a mother to two wonderful girls, and with the continuous development of her practice by taking private lessons from the best artists she could find; Ardak decided it’s time to align her life with her true passion, Art. Driven by this passion and her corporate leadership background, she co-founded ZenART.
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.” 
Read more about Ardak Kassenova in this feature. Say hello to @ardak_zenart on Instagram!
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