Mercurial Red

Alexandra Loske on the loudest of colours.

Analogies between colour and sound are often drawn, and in one case it is a wholly appropriate association: red is the loudest colour. It can singlehandedly change the mood of a painting, a photograph, a moving image, a room, or a building. Reds can sing, shout, whisper, and they come in many guises, from earthy russet hues and the purple range to barely-there pinks in their lightest manifestation. In its purest form it is magenta, which is how it is usually used by printers, following the CMYK colour model (cyan, magenta, yellow and black).

Red, one of the true primaries, was chosen as the first heraldic colour because of its visual power. For the same reason vibrant reds have been used for military uniforms, on flags, and as the main colour of traffic signs and systems. Red lights! Fire engines! Stop signs! Red telephone boxes! Communism! If it demands attention and needs to be visible, paint it red. By continuation, this also applies to how we dress: when I want to feel confident and powerful, I put on a red coat or dress. Before the democratisation of dyestuffs in the mid-19th century, red dyes were among the most expensive ones to produce, which is why red came to be associated with figures of power and wealth, such as cardinals and royalty.

Red lies at the far end of the visible spectrum and consists of the longest wavelengths (as opposed to blues at the other end), which is why the setting sun creates spectacular red skies in certain conditions. Where red is no longer visible to the human eye it enters the infrared area. Infrared light rays can detect heat in the dark and make things visible that are not otherwise within our eyes’ range. Red is therefore a colour that both symbolises heat and can illuminate it.

Life, love and death: the symbolic power of red

Red is a primeval, elementary colour, which in some languages is synonymous with colour in general, or the attributes ‘colourful’ or ‘vibrant’. The oldest and most visceral associations of red are two elemental aspects of human life: blood and fire. These are forces that can signify life as well as death, love and passion as well as violence and destruction. The association with blood very clearly derives from visual similarities, and this, too, has been reflected linguistically: in some languages ‘blood’ and ‘red’ have the same roots, or the word ‘red’ literally translates as ‘like blood’. In 1896 the Sussex poet and suffragist Alice Meynell wrote: ‘The true colour of life is the colour of the body, the colour of the covered red, the implicit and not explicit red of the living heart and the pulses.’ Half a century earlier, Emily Brontë compared the colour of blood to wine and used this as a metaphor for a colourful mind. Her famous character Catherine in Wuthering Heights exclaims: ‘I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.’ And to return to Patrick Symes’ wonderful edition of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (published 1814 and 1821, which I mentioned in my last essay), his list of reds shows how much the colour is linked to the human body: he includes an ‘arterial blood red’ and the ‘flesh red’ of human skin.

It is not surprising that the symbolism of red is particularly potent in many religions. In Christianity, red can symbolise charity, earthiness, spiritual awakening, and sometimes also sinfulness (look out for medieval images of Mary Magdalen dressed in red). Most importantly, red represents the blood of Christ, which is one of the reasons communion wine is red. If you want to experience Christian colour symbolism in architecture, pay a visit to Basil Spence’s 1966 Meeting House at the University of Sussex, where you can bathe in the red light created by late afternoon sunshine falling through the red stained glass on the western side of the building. The colour order of the windows in the circular chapel represents Christian colour symbolism.

Red’s association with fire is less obvious, as fire is actually rarely red but more often orange, yellow or white. But the heat we associate with the colour tricks our mind, and makes us think of fire as red.

Historic red pigments: desirable, toxic, fugitive

The list of red pigments, both natural and artificial or synthesised, is almost as long as red light’s wavelength. Unlike blue, they are found in abundance in the natural world, in organic and inorganic form. Red ochres were among the first colours humans in palaeolithic times picked up from under their feet and used on the walls of caves. Given this essay’s limit of space, let’s look at just a few of the most exciting reds in history.

Two intense reds that were used by ancient cultures such as China, Egypt, Rome and Greece, are highly toxic: mineral vermilion, an opaque red that conjures images of Chinese lacquer and hipped roofs in the Forbidden City, is in its natural form made from cinnabar, which is a mercury sulphide. Its synthesised version is also highly toxic. The walls of the magnificent Music Room of the Royal Pavilion, which attempts to evoke China, are painted with what is described as ‘Chinese vermilion’ in early 19th-century account books. Whether or not it actually came from China, the pigment gives the room its chromatic intensity. JMW Turner was so enchanted by vermilion he even wrote a poem about it and called it The Alpha and Omega in a Painter’s Hand.

The other brilliant toxic red used since antiquity is realgar, an arsenic sulphide that was also used as medicine in Ancient Greek and Chinese culture. Realgar is particularly prominent in medieval and Renaissance painting. The great advantage of these mineral reds was stability and permanence.

Less toxic early reds are usually organic: derived from plants, insects, or molluscs. The price you pay for transparent cochineal, lac or kermes reds (all made from parasitic scale insects that live on other plants), is that they are messy to make, require large amounts of raw material, and have a tendency to fade quickly. In European art, organic reds were often used to create a pale flesh tone over an underpainting of green. Next time you look at an Old Master in an art gallery, examine the sickly faces of some of the figures. The organic red top layer may have disappeared, leaving visible the mineral green underpaint. Cochineal red is also the top layer of red on the vermilion walls of the Pavilion’s Music Room, adding a shimmering finish reminiscent of lacquer.

Red pigments in Peter Messer’s studio. Photo © Alexandra Loske

Reds in art

Artists have always been aware of the visual and symbolic potency of red, so examples of red in art are numerous, and I am sure every ROSA reader has a tale to tell about an encounter with the colour in art. I first became acutely aware of the power of red when as teenager I set eyes on George Grosz’s vision of a large city in the midst of war. His Metropolis from 1916-17 is one of several images of Berlin where he depicts houses, streets and people soaked in an apocalyptic glow of red. Of course, red yet again symbolises bloodshed and destruction, and one almost hears the colours scream.

Even when used sparingly in a work of art, red can get under your skin, especially when used in contrast with an otherwise subdued palette. One streak of paint, barely five inches long, triggered in me an uncommonly strong emotional reaction: blood seeping through the gown of Rembrandt’s Lucretia . The garment is white, the background is dark, the image is bleak, showing the wronged Lucretia seconds after having stabbed herself. Blood and life are draining quickly from her, yet she is still upright and statuesque. I would argue that this is the most moving streak of red paint in Western art.

A Sussex painter’s reds

The last time I dropped into Peter Messer’s studio in Lewes I spotted his small working shelf of reds. Intrigued by the relatively large variety, I asked him how he uses them, and which pigments he prefers. Peter is a painter who tells very Lewesian pictorial stories with his colours, preparing small batches of egg tempera paint daily, which is why he needs to use raw pigments. Many of these he has inherited from other painters.

He tells me that, given his realistic (sometimes hyper-realistic) style and subject matter, he doesn’t use large quantities of red (in great contrast to say, Grosz, or Matisse) in his work. But when he does, red becomes an exclamation mark, often in the form of a figure dressed in red. This is red as a contrast, red as a focus, as something that pulls a composition together and draws the eye into it. We talked about that well-known true story of Turner adding a single daub of vermilion to the otherwise tonally dull seascape Helvoetsluys on Varnishing Day, at the Royal Academy in 1832, where it was displayed near a large and overworked painting by John Constable. The red daub was a buoy in the water, Turner noted, but for Constable it was much more than that: ‘He [Turner] has been here and fired a gun’, he lamented. With a red bullet, one imagines.

And what of the pigments Peter uses for his red exclamation marks? He benefits from the wide range of artificial and synthesised pigments that have been developed since Turner’s time (for example cadmium and alizarin red), many of them less toxic, some just as dangerous. He shows me a vintage jar of real vermilion, of the mercury type, and tells me that nothing really compares, but he uses it very sparingly. The smallest amount scooped up with the tip of a palette knife will be enough to fire that shot.

Alexandra Loske is a curator at Royal Pavilion & Brighton Museums and the author of Colour: A Visual History (Tate, 2019).