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Simply Red

What do you associate with the colour red? Danger? Love? Lust? Revolution? Red is a colour that defines often contradictory ideas and it has fascinated us from our earliest times on this planet.

Red in tooth and claw

It’s very common to find red in the natural world and the colouration can be caused by a variety of things. Most obvious perhaps is our own red blood which is caused by the oxygenation of haemoglobin in red blood cells. Iron present in haemoglobin reflects red light making our blood seem red. It is very common for iron oxides to be the source of reds in the natural world, most prominently the planet Mars is red due to a coating of iron-based dust on its surface.

Plants get their red colouring from a pigment called anthocyanin. Anthocyanins are responsible for colouring plants red, purple, and blue, depending on their pH level. They give fruit and vegetables like tomatoes, raspberries, and strawberries their colour, and also influence the shades and hues of flowers such as poppies. Anthocyanins are used in photosynthesis just as chlorophyll is but it’s thought that by not giving plants green colouration it can keep herbivores away.

  • Ladybird, The red colouring of this ladybird wards off predators by telling them they're poisonous if eaten, Pixabay CC0
    The red colouring of this ladybird wards off predators by telling them they're poisonous if eaten, Pixabay CC0

It is less common to find red in the animal world, with many of the creatures we would label as “red” actually being orange in hue. There are, however, many insects, frogs, and snakes that have red exteriors. Often this is to warn off predators by highlighting the fact many of these species are poisonous either through their bites or when eaten.

Reudh, reudh wine

The connection between humans the colour red is one that is almost fundamental to our existence. Red is one of the three colours that make up the RBG model of how humans perceive the world (find out more about that in our blog on the topic). As red is at one end of the visible spectrum of light it is rare among mammals to be able to see it, many animals such as dogs cannot tell the difference between red and green for example. Primates, however, are capable of perceiving the colour which it has been suggested is so that they can tell if certain fruit has ripened enough for consumption.

Red is also one of the earliest colours to appear in human art with our ancestors potentially making use of it as far back as 700,000 years ago. An abundance of iron oxides in nature such as ochre and hematite, which are easy to find, means that even our most primitive of ancestors would have been able to produce red dyes with ease. Having ground these minerals into dust or pastes they would have coloured their bodies or used it to create artworks such as the cave paintings in the Cave of Altamira in Spain. 

  • Cave painting, Some of the earliest art in human history was made using red ochre, Pixabay CC0
    Some of the earliest art in human history was made using red ochre, Pixabay CC0

It might not shock you, therefore, to learn that red is an ancient word, its origins, in fact, being from the Proto-Indo-European word “reudh”. As the common ancestor of Indo-European languages, this meant “reudh” would have entered languages as diverse as Sanskrit, Manx, and English.

Red and dead 

As a vibrant primary colour, red often has important connotations in various religions across the globe. In the Shinto religion of Japan entrance gates to shrines called "torii" which are considered entrances to sacred and profane places are painted vermillion. It is believed to have the power to resist and expel evil which is a belief also held by the Buddhists of China who paint their temples red for just such a purpose.

  • Cardinal, Red is this cardinal's colour, Pixabay CC0
    Red is this cardinal's colour, Pixabay CC0

In Europe, red has become closely associated with the Catholic church with cardinals and the pope often adorned in red robes. This use of red is to remind congregants of the blood of Christ and the spilled blood of the martyrs of the early church. The connection to Christ likely led to the adoption of red by European royalty too. It is still common to see royalty adorned in red cloaks as a symbol of their legitimacy and power.

Talking about a revolution

In the past 200 years, red has become a colour often linked to revolution and left-leaning politics. During the French Revolution, red flags became a rallying point as a symbol of protest and a celebration of martyrdom. In the 19th century, socialists would adopt the red flag as their own and the anthem "The Red Flag" was penned by Irishman, Jim Connell, as a call to arms. These days it may be the case that politically we associate reds with communist revolutions in Russia and China, but left-wing parties in Britain and much of Europe retain their connection to the colour. 

  • Kustodiyev_bolshevik, Boris Kustodievâs work "Bolshevik" is an example of how the red flag is associated with socialist revolution, Public Domain
    Boris Kustodievâs work "Bolshevik" is an example of how the red flag is associated with socialist revolution, Public Domain

Rembrandt to Rothko 

Artists have long been fascinated by the colour red as it draws the eye and evokes such strong emotions. Red can evoke ideas of passion and love and yet for every positive connotation, there is a negative one. Passion and love can just as easily be viewed as lust and temptation or sin. Courage or bravery goes hand in hand with danger. Red robes, dresses, and blood can be seen throughout the canon of art history, but perhaps the most defining use of red in art comes from Mark Rothko's work in the 20th century. Rothko's work so often would take the form of a simple block of red paint, perhaps of a number of shades or hues, on a large canvas. For Rothko, colour was "only an instrument" he used "in expressing human emotions tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on." All of which are emotions one can express with red.

  • Rothko, For Mark Rothko, colour was "only an instrument in expressing human emotion"., Pixabay CC0
    For Mark Rothko, colour was "only an instrument in expressing human emotion"., Pixabay CC0

Put on your red shoes and dance the blues

Given everything we've just been exploring it's no wonder musicians are still obsessed with the colour red. Check out our Spotify playlist on the colour and let us know if we've missed anything off.