Colour Warriors – Seeing Red


This blog focuses on one of my great passions …colour. I will bring you tall tales and tid bits about the origins and uses of  colour and how it impacts our world. Colour has held many great powers throughout the ages. It plays many a leading role throughout history. It has been a killer, a saviour and a revolution maker. I thank the pioneers of colour who continue to pursue inventive ways for how colour can improve our lives. It is because of them that we can all be Colour Warriors and stay bright beyond beige. Come join the amazing adventures of colour with me!


Seeing Red

The colour red has held it’s magic throughout the history of humans. Since those first cave paintings it has been the temptress of power, passion and life. It’s fiery past continues to dominate our world. With a reputation for speed, joy and revolutions, it’s no wall flower on the colour spectrum. It’s the high speed roller coaster in the fun park. It has always been tainted with a double personality. Like the red rose and its thorns, it can be beautiful and dangerous at the same time. Be it good or bad, red is full of drama. It’s demanding and it always wants your attention. So strap on your red shoes Dorothy, and lets see what wild adventures the colour red has taken throughout the ages!

Ruling since cave art

Identifying a particular colour is dependent on the language of that culture. The range of colours used and their identifying names can vary from one culture to another. A great deal of research has been undertaken in this area. From these studies it is understood that most cultures have a word for black (or dark) and white (or bright). If there is a third colour term in the language, it is for red. 

Which is why it is often stated that red is the first colour perceived by humans. In brain-injured persons suffering from temporary colour-blindness they start to perceive the colour red before they are able to discern any other colours.

Red rocks

Red Ochre claims the fame to being the oldest red used by humans. Neanderthals were using red ochre more than 250,000 years ago. Ochre is a naturally occurring pigment. The family of earth pigments these

 days is most associated with the yellow-brown pigment found in art shops and painting sets. but it is a red shade when it is composed of hematite. The ancient pigment was often applied to bodies as decoration, an adhesive or tanning agent to soften animal hides.

Neolithic people endowed the colour with life-giving powers and would place red ochre into graves of their deceased. Skeletons have been uncovered from this period embedded in up to 10 kg of red powdered ochre. Some experts argue this was simply to mark the grave, so no one mistakenly dug it up. Others believe it was used to colour the hair, skin or clothes of the buried – either way, it clearly played a significant role in ritual practice and demonstrated the belief that the colour red was was believed to retain protective powers against evil.

Objects, animals and trees were covered in red paint, warriors painted their axes and spear-catapults red to endow the weapons with magic powers. Some of the traditional Australian aborigines still maintain this custom. Neolithic hunters and germanic warriors used to paint their weapons and even themselves in blood of slain animals. Later, during the Upper Paleolithic period, early artists began employing the pigment as paint. The word “magic” (“Zauber” in German) translates to “taufr” in Old Norse and is related to the Anglo-Saxon “teafor” meaning “red ochre”. Images of animals in red ochre or iron oxide were used to conjure their fertility. The caves of Lascaux in France, Pinnacle Point in South Africa and the walls of Altamira in Spain dated between 20,000 and 14,000 BC are some of the oldest to be found.

Rock painting examples, from Tassili N’Ajjer, Algeria.

In Roman mythology, red was symbolic of blood, courage and great conquests. It was the colour of the god of war, Mars – and the colour of the army. Roman soldiers wore red tunics. Generals wore scarlet cloaks, and would have their bodies painted entirely in red to celebrate their victories. Roman gladiators drank the blood of their dying adversaries to take over their strength. Red was not only used to symbolise death, it was also used also as a sign of love and fertility.  Roman brides were wrapped in a fiery red veil, the flammeum intended to attract these elements.

The origin of the Red Rose

The red rose began it’s origin here too. According to the Greek legend, red roses represent the blood of Adonis who was killed by a wild boar on a hunt. A symbol for the cycle of growth and decay, but also for love and affinity. Red rose is dedicated to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and daughter of Zeus and also to Roman goddess Venus. In Christianity the red rose is associated with the Cross and the bloodshed.


By the time pharaohs ruled Egypt, the number of reds used in art making included cinnabar. Cinnabar is generally found in a massive, granular or earthy form and is bright scarlet to brick-red in colour. As the most common source of mercury in nature.  It was mined both as a pigment and for its mercury content.

This  mercury content made cinnabar highly toxic to human beings. Dangerous to those who mined and processed cinnabar, it caused shaking, loss of sense, and death. Overexposure to mercury, mercurialism, was seen as an occupational disease. Mining in the Spanish cinnabar mines of Almadén was regarded as being akin to a death sentence due to the shortened life expectancy of the miners, who were slaves or convicts.

That didn’t stop the the Romans loving the brilliant red pigment and it demanded high prices. Pliny the Younger wrote that cinnabar cost 15 times more than red ochre from Africa and was equal in price to the precious Egyptian blue. Gladiators who emerged victorious from the Colosseum might be smeared with the shiny red mineral and then paraded through the streets of Rome.

Cinnabar featured in many murals on the walls of upper-class villas at the time. Evidence can be still viewed in the Dionysiac Frieze in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii.

The frescoes at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii.

Cinnabar later became synonymous with the carved lacquer produced in China beginning in the 12th century. These elaborately patterned luxury items, which could be anything from vases to incense holders, were typically coloured with the powdery red pigment.

Chinese carved cinnabar lacquerware, late Qing dynasty.

Dragons blood

The tree, the Dracaena draco leaves showing dragon’s blood pigment at the base and the ground pigment.

No dragons were harmed in making this pigment. The rare red colour was taken from the trunk of the Dracaena trees.

The Pentecost in egg tempera on by Giotto di Bondone 1320-25.

Small flames above the heads of the apostle’s in Giotto di Bondone and his workshop, ‘The Pentecost’ used Dragon’s Blood.

Minium – Red Lead

Like cinnabar, minium (also called “red lead”) is a highly poisonous material. Scholars consider it one of the first synthetic pigments, with Romans heating white lead to extreme temperatures to produce the paint. Its eye-popping orange shade showed up well against marble and gold, and it was often used for inscriptions. Later, medieval illustrators would employ the pigment in their illuminated manuscripts.

Illuminated manuscripts using red lead.

It was popular with Mughal artists from India and Persia in the 17th and 18th centuries – so much so that their paintings became known as “miniatures,” after the minium that accented their works.

A miniature using red lead. Giv Charges into Battle against Piran, folio 185a from the Peck Shahnama, 1589-1590


The word “vermilion” was often used to describe the pigment made from grinding up cinnabar by ancient authors but it can also refers to the synthetic version of the colour, invented in China thousands of years before it was brought to the West by Arab alchemists during the Middle Ages. This vermillion was used extensively by Renaissance painters, including Titian, who is renowned for his luxuriant reds. Although the pigment is normally an orangey-red, when exposed to sunlight it can darken to black.

Portrait of Pietro Aretino by Titian 1545.

Vermilion increased in popularity in the 16th century. First in Venice, home to many artists, and later in the Netherlands and Germany. Even though it was less stable than minium and cost far more, its radiance won out in a battle of the reds as it started to appear on shelves everywhere from hardware stores, apothecaries and paint shops.

Carmine, the bugs blood of reds

The famous Spanish red dye was so prized for it’s secrecy that anyone found revealing the ingredients was punished by having a hand or two swiftly cut off.  Travellers from around the globe would enter Spain trying to discover the secret to no avail. The secret allowed the Spanish to rule the fabric world with its famous rich red hue that no one could match. Many would try to smuggle back the cactus on which they though the colour came from but failed to regrow the plant in the cooler countries away from the dry heat of the Spanish hills. What they didn’t know was that it was the little cochineal bugs that attached themselves to the plant that were doing all the work. These white, pellet-shaped insects would feed off the pads of the prickly pear cacti. The female insects eat the red cactus berries, which concentrates the colour in their bodies. Farmers would collect them off the plant and dry them. When crushed they produced a vivid red hue that would take Europe by storm. These Cochineal bugs were the third most valuable export from the New World in the 16th century, right behind gold and silver.

Originally just used as a dye, cochineal was soon transformed into a paint called “carmine,” which was favoured by artists of the 15th and 16th century such as Rembrandt, Anthony van Dyck, Rubens, and Vermeer. Often called carmine lake there are two varieties: Cochineal lake from the cochineal bug  and Kermes Lake from a bug that lives on certain species of European oaks and is processed in the same way as cochineal. If you were a European artist on a tight budget, you could procure your cochineal from shreds of dyed cloth, but fresh-ground insects yielded much better results. Artists usually combined their cochineal with a binder, creating a pigment known as a lake.

The Jewish Bride by Rembrandt 1669.

Madder Lake

Madder has been used since antiquity for dyeing textile materials and in paintings as well. The main coloring agents come from the roots of the madder plant. The chemical stability of all colorants contained in madder lake is not very high and it cannot be used in frescoes. Mixing madder lake with lead white prevents its cracking.

It was used in paintings from the 14th till the 19th century. It has been found in the work of Johannes Vermeer

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Vermeer 1656.

Favoured in later centuries, with artists including J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Gainsborough incorporating the paint into their works. Although carmine produced a rich crimson glaze, often used on top of other reds like vermilion. Unlike cochineal dye on cloth, which usually holds fast to its colour, cochineal pigments in paint tended to fade with exposure to light. This was especially true of watercolors. J. M W. Turner’s cochineal-reddened sunsets pale in comparison to what he originally set down. Turner is famously documented for his lack of consideration toward the permanence of his art colours. In a famous exchange between Turner and William Winsor, of Winsor & Newton, on the topic of colour permanence of the pigments he was buying, Turner is said to have told Mr. Winsor to ‘mind his own business’.

The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up by Turner 1838.

18th-century portrait painter Joshua Reynolds fell victim to this phenomenon; his subjects look pale and ghostly today.

Portrait of British General John Burgoyne by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1766.

A lake made with minimal cochineal, or cochineal of poor quality, faded in a matter of years. Even quality cochineal has dimmed over the centuries. Check out the pale jacket in Thomas Gainsborough’s Dr Ralph Schomberg.

Dr Ralph Schomberg by Thomas Gainsborough 1770.


Renoir’s 1883 portrait of Madame Léon Clapisson on the left and the right, a digital recoloured version.

Today, in a surprising turn of history, the cochineal market is booming again. See names like carmine, carminic acid, crimson lake, cochineal extract, Natural Red 4, or E120 on a label. Notably the red colour for Cherry Coke. It is used in other foods including frozen meat and fish, soft drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, powdered drinks and alcoholic beverages, yogurts, ice cream and dairy-based drinks, candy, syrups, fillings and chewing gum, canned fruits like cherries and jams, dehydrated soups, canned soups and tomato sauce. Thanks to contemporary demand for safe food and cosmetic colouring, bug guts are in fashion again. While the origin is not very tasteful, it is a natural, renewable resource.


It was not until In 1817, that a new red pigment surfaced. A German chemist discovered a new element, cadmium, which became the foundation for new shades of yellow and orange paint. The range of cadmium pigments, yellow, orange, red are cadmium yellow (cadmium sulfide) with some selenium added in place of sulfur (cadmium selenide). When heated with selenium becomes red. The scarcity of cadmium metal made this expansive. Cadmium red was not available as a commercial product until 1910 but it was radiant alternative to the traditional vermilion.

Henri Matisse was the first major champion of the new pigment, He tried in vain to persuade Renoir to make the switch. Loaning him a tube of cadmium red, Renior loyal to his Impressionists’ palette, commented … “It is very irksome to change,” and promptly returned the paint.

The Red Studio by Henri Matisse 1911.

Cadmium pigments are light fast which generally means they won’t fade for 100 years or longer. But in 2014 Sweden called for a ban on all cadmium paints over fears that when artists rinse their brushes in the sink, cadmium enters the water treatment plants, seeping into the waste sludge. That sewage is then spread on agricultural land and the Swedish government fears people will become exposed to cadmium through food.

Animal studies have shown that cadmium pigments can be potentially toxic if inhaled or eaten. The only organic alternatives – dubbed “cadmium hues” – largely fail to measure up to cadmium’s vibrancy. Of course the art industry went into defense mode. Currently it is not banned but many companies label the paint with a poisonous warning.

See more on the ban >

Make your own choice >


When the Art world centre moved to America in the late 1940s, experimentation with new materials and methods was in play. Jackson Pollock started splattering commercial house paint across super sized canvases painted on the floor. Rothko also dabbled with untested pigments throughout his work. In 1962, he incorporated two brand-new organic reds into his palette for a series of murals at Harvard University. One of these pigments, Naphthol, had no ill effects. It is often used as a substitute for Cadmium Red. Lithol red was also used. A low-cost ink used in the printing industry, Lithol red is highly sensitive to light and of course over time guaranteed that the works using this colour would fade. After several years hanging in the university’s penthouse dining room, Rothko’s deep reds and pinks had faded to light blue. By 1979, the paintings were so damaged that they had to be permanently removed.

Panel One, Panel Two, and Panel Three (Harvard Mural Triptych), by Mark Rothko’s with restored colours using light from digital projectors. © 2014 Kate Rothko.

What now?

One of today’s artist’s most well know for his use of red is English sculptor, Anish Kapoor. Born in Bombay, Kapoor has lived and worked in London since the early 1970s. His works are monumental installations that use the colour red to represent a number of emotions. His use of various materials, wax, powder pigments and high lacquer metallics have a great power when executed in great slabs of red. He uses red ‘on mass’. It is this quantity and richness of the colour that gives his work such power. He celebrates colour’s completely nonverbal nature. Colour functions as a direct and visceral route to metaphor. He lets the viewer decide what the metaphor is. Whether you decide to read his work as a connection to nature, humans, life or death, there is no doubt that the work has power. Be it a wax slab, his Olympic ‘Orbit Tower’ or immense piles of pigment, Kapoor forces us to address our humanity. It’s almost like he adds a pulse to the pieces. And it is this ‘life force’ that makes the works so disturbing and engaging.


‘Svayambh’ 2007 by Anish Kapoor. Wax and oil-based paint, track and mechanical system, installation at the Royal Academy, London.



Orbit sculpture, left, before its official unveiling at the Olympic Park, London, Friday May 11, 2012. The steel sculpture designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond stands 114.5 meters (376ft) high, 63% of of the sculpture is recycled steel and incorporates the five Olympic rings.


Installation view of ‘Destierro, Argentina by Anish Kapoor 2017.

Learn more > 


Hot headed monorities

Merida, the character from the movie ‘Brave’.

While red may be a favourite colour for national flags, there is one area in which red is a distinct minority. Only 1-2% of the human population has red hair. The colour is produced by the same pigment, pheomelanin, that makes our lips red. Redheads have a higher level of that, and less of the dark pigment eumelanin.

Queen Elizabeth I by unknown artist 1575.

And like the pigment, those characters donning those fiery locks (and I speak from personal experience here), are tagged with a feisty personality to match. Determined, stubborn and driven, we seem to be a bit of a dangerous mystery to those who are not. We have been regaled and reviled throughout history. Already a minority, that never stopped the mob trying to irradicate us. A good burning or drowning was usually in order. Or perhaps we had a reputation in the red light district. I still remember standing in front of a Toulouse Lautrec image of a red head woman and the tour guide loudly announcing that red heads were the prostitutes of the time, as I just looked for that hole to crawl into. Even today we are the last hair colour type that is ok to criticise in public. We are the iconic symbol for bad hair days and those who shouldn’t see the light of day. Just ask Time Minchin. And we are always the funny or feisty characters, from Lucille Ball to Merida in Brave, from Queen Elizabeth 1 to Ygritte in Game of Thrones. We are always a bit of a handful.

Ygritte from Game of Thrones, Prince Harry, Donna from Suits, Lucille Ball, Ed Sheeran and Tim Minchin.

We have a higher tolerance for pain but this also means we need more anesthesia to knock us out (yes we really need 20% more). This energy can be used for good though, and thanks to some new red heads on the scene we are slowly showing the world that we can be a positive attribute to society. Thanks to the likes of Ed Sheeran, Prince Harry, Donna from Suits and Tim Minchin our oddities have become fashionable (well, at least acceptable).


The evidence tells us that red is forever destined to have a racey reputation. The colour has dominated visual culture for centuries, but it can symbolise very different things across different cultures.

In Western cultures red is used to illustrate excitement, energy, passion, action, love, and danger. In countries such as Russia It is associated with communism and revolution. Red painted amulettes or red gems, such as ruby or garnet, were used as charms against the “evil eye”.  Wearing a red ruby was supposed to bring about invincibility. Red bed-clothes were customary in Germany up to the Middle Ages as protection against the “red illnesses”, such as fever, rashes or even miscarriages.

Arnolfini Wedding by Jan Van Eyck 1434 illustrates the red bed sheets of the time.

Greek, Albanian and Armenian brides wear continue to wear red veils to attract love and fertitlity. In Asian cultures red is an important good luck colour, representing joy, prosperity, celebration, happiness, fortune and a long life. Chinese brides wear red wedding gowns and are carried to the ceremony in a red litter. The bride walks on a red carpet and is greeted by the groom who lifts her red veil. Neighbours bring red eggs to the couple after a child is born. Red envelopes containing money are given out during holidays and special occasions. Chinese New Year celebrations are always bursting with red.

Traditional Chinese wedding dress and reception celebrations for a Chinese wedding.

With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, red got a bad wrap and people began to view the shade as gaudy and immoral. Today, both blue and green surpass red as the West’s favourite colours.



From the earliest cave paintings to Anish Kapoor’s piles of pigment, there is no doubt that red and drama are partners in crime. Demanding of our attention, there is no a lot that is subtle about its character. Where ever it surfaces, red has proven to be a high maintenance colour. Statistics tell us that red artworks still fetch the highest prices at auction. It continues to seduce us. One of the fiestiest hues on the colour wheel, it has no plans for moving out of the spotlight just yet. Rumblings for new reds lead us to believe technology will be the driver. One thing is certain, red will continue to go to great lengths to make sure we never ignore it!


A red hot read


Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire

by Amy Butler Greenfield

A great read on the history of red involving intrigue, empire, and adventure in pursuit of the most desirable colour on earth.



Vibrant red works

So it turns out that red artworks do sell. Here’s a couple I created that have found new homes.




Veils & Vices


Red artworks still available:


Morning on Milans



Torrox Blooms




A Spot of Tea


All the tea in China


Colour Warriors is a monthly blog, written and produced by Visual Artist and Arts Educator, Kristine Ballard on
© Kristine Ballard 2018