What is it about Red?

Art color Colour Red

You might have heard that the colour red in art instantly makes it more attractive. Red has certainly been used by important works over the ages to draw attention or signify passion, blood, revolution, and life.   Does this have any science behind it? It turns out it does but even without the science the “story” of red is very interesting.  

A bit of Red History

We are not talking about just one red here.  There are many.  All reds are not created equal however and through history there have been several pigments of red that have been popular.  Their use overlaps and is not as neatly segmented as my writing below would suggest.

Red Ochre

Use of red dates back to prehistoric art and this is simply because it was an easy colour to find. Soil that is rich in iron was used to make Red Ochre – a pigment first used 250,000 years ago.


Cinnabar, an extract of mercury, was used around the time of the Pharaohs in Egypt.  It was very toxic as you would imagine.  It was a favourite of the Romans and can be seen in the homes of the rich in Pompeii.  It was also smeared over the bodies of victorious gladiators.

Rose Madder

This won’t make you go mad – nothing to do with mercury or lead. Rose Madder is an extract from the root of the common madder plant Rubia tinctorum.  It has been used in some form or other since the time of the Pharaohs


Also called Red Lead.  You guessed it – an extract of lead and also highly toxic. The Romans used it and so did medieval artists.  The term “miniature’ comes from paintings done by Indian and Persian artists in the 17th and 18th centuries that used this pigment.   Minium lightens as it is exposed to light which provides problems for the works of Van Gogh who was a keen user of the pigment.

Cochineal or Carmine

Fast forward to the 1500s and Cochineal became the favourite red pigment. It has such a strange story that you’d wonder how it ever became known at all.

It comes from the Cochineal insect which is ONLY found on the prickly pear or Nopale cactus in Mexico.  The insect itself is white but it produces the strong red powder when ground.  140,000 insects will make 1kg of pigment.  It was so sought after that the main imports from the 'New World' in the 1500s were; 1. Gold, 2. Silver, 3. Cochineal.  According to Artsy, “RaphaelRembrandt, and Rubens all used cochineal as a glaze, layering the pigment atop other reds (like red ochre) to increase their intensity.”  It is non-toxic and is still used in makeup today.

This is an interesting watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aY5P2Gsvj9I  


Invented in China and bought to Europe in the 16th Century. Vermillion also changes when exposed to light – it darkens! But it was significantly cheaper than minium and became the new favourite.

Cadmium Red

In 1817 a German chemist discovered the element cadmium and almost 100 years later paint pigments were commercially available using it as a base. Matisse was a big fan of this new red and it seems most artists now are with Windsor and Newton listing it as the most widely used red.

Is Red more saleable?

An expert at Sotheby’s contends that the price a painting will fetch can be largely determined by whether or not it contains red. He admits it has no basis in science but says “It varies from artist to artist, but I think red is probably the most desirable colour you can get in art, full stop.”

Why do we like Red?

There is some science behind us favouring Red

It is the first colour we see as our vision develops in us as babies. Red has the longest wavelength of all the colours and will appear closer because of this. That is why it draws our attention and that is why it is used for important signals (such as the stop light).

It has been discovered that red can trigger our flight or fight response in our nervous system - not even involving our brain!

Is Red just Red?

Most people can see 1 million shades or tints of a colour.  The ability to distinguish red is in the X chromosome. Women can do this better than men because they have two X chromosomes as opposed to male singular chromosome. This gives females more distinction at the red-orange end of the spectrum. So maybe this is why my mother speaks of (and seems to have strict definitions for) plum, wine, rose, ruby, burgundy, fuschia, maroon, and crimson while I stubbornly say it is red!

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