Because it’s the tone of earth and of blood, it’s both a color and an archetype. It’s the first pigment humankind could manufacture, and capture. And therefore, the human imagination —in which all colors have a symbolic place— treasures the history of red as one of the oldest relationships people have maintained with any color. The artist Keith Haring once wrote that red “is one of the strongest colors, it’s blood, it has a power with the eye” and he wasn’t mistaken. It’s the color of revolution, of seduction, of the insides of our bodies, and its use, even in the most pragmatic of places, give it a  quality of cardinal importance. This is a brief history of all of the materials from which we’ve gotten red.

The earth was the source of the first pigments known to humankind, and from it people got shades of red, brown, and yellow. The first works of art, the prehistoric murals which have survived the passage of time, all boast an earthy red obtained from the minerals of the ground, especially hematite, a type of oxide. This pigment was used for about 250,000 years by Neanderthals in what is now the Netherlands, and it’s believed that these groups of early humans also used it to adorn their bodies as part of rituals, as a glue, and as a skin softener. One of the most notable examples of the use of hematite is in the murals of the caves of Altamira, in Spain, dating to about 20,000 years ago.

rojo1

Egyptian culture, still many centuries ago, made use of numerous red pigments including cinnabar, a highly toxic mercury sulfide. The Romans later used this same chemical as a pigment, which was then highly coveted and very costly. The gladiators who emerged victorious from the Coliseum were painted with cinnabar before victoriously touring the city, and the tragic Pompeii is full of the color in murals and in other possessions of the upper classes who once lived there. Later, from the 12th century on, cinnabar became synonymous with a lacquer used in China on vases and other luxury items.

Minium was another chemical used, especially by the Romans, for making red. Like cinnabar, it was poisonous, and specialists believe it was one of the first pigments synthesized by man. Its orange hues were perfectly captured within works of marble and gold, and within inscriptions. Minium was also used later in medieval illuminated manuscripts, and in India and Persia during the 17th and 18th  centuries. Still later, the painter Van Gogh would unfortunately use the pigment, a factor which would irreversibly damage his paintings, as exposure to light eventually discolors it.

Another red pigment, one of the most used in history, is vermilion. There’s confusion as to the name, as some ancient authors referred thus to a color which resulted from pulverizing cinnabar. The same name also refers to a synthetic version of the pigment invented in China and taken to the West by the Arab alchemists during the middle ages. This vermilion has a slightly orange tone but, with exposure to light, it may darken. It was used by many Renaissance painters including the great Titian. The 17th century saw a huge boom in the use of vermilion by painters, first in Venice and later in the Netherlands and Germany.

Perhaps the most curious red, one which fascinated Europe for centuries, was that extracted from an insect. It’s a red pigment obtained by drying and pulverizing the cochineal, an animal which lives inside a Mexican cactus. It was the largest import from the new world to Europe during the 16th century, after only silver and gold. Although initially used to make dyes, cochineal was quickly used as a pigment called carmine. Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Rubens, and Vermeer are just some of the artists who used it during the period, but it was later to reach the brushes of the great J. M. W. Turner and others.

Several centuries later, in 1817, the German chemist Friedrich Stromeyer discovered a new element in the periodic table, cadmium. From this he initially extracted yellow and orange pigments. Finally, in 1910 a red was also obtained from the same element and became one of the favorite pigments of Matisse. But today, the synthetic pigments most used for reds in works of art are known as litol and naphtol.

Red has dominated human visual culture for centuries although today it’s well-known that blue and green are preferred in Western culture. Nevertheless, the power of red in any of its tones remains just the same. One final curious point is that works of art in which red predominates are still the most expensive at auction, a fact which makes its continued dominance clear, both symbolically and imaginatively.

rojo2

Images: 2) Public domain 2) Public domain 3) Dominio público

Because it’s the tone of earth and of blood, it’s both a color and an archetype. It’s the first pigment humankind could manufacture, and capture. And therefore, the human imagination —in which all colors have a symbolic place— treasures the history of red as one of the oldest relationships people have maintained with any color. The artist Keith Haring once wrote that red “is one of the strongest colors, it’s blood, it has a power with the eye” and he wasn’t mistaken. It’s the color of revolution, of seduction, of the insides of our bodies, and its use, even in the most pragmatic of places, give it a  quality of cardinal importance. This is a brief history of all of the materials from which we’ve gotten red.

The earth was the source of the first pigments known to humankind, and from it people got shades of red, brown, and yellow. The first works of art, the prehistoric murals which have survived the passage of time, all boast an earthy red obtained from the minerals of the ground, especially hematite, a type of oxide. This pigment was used for about 250,000 years by Neanderthals in what is now the Netherlands, and it’s believed that these groups of early humans also used it to adorn their bodies as part of rituals, as a glue, and as a skin softener. One of the most notable examples of the use of hematite is in the murals of the caves of Altamira, in Spain, dating to about 20,000 years ago.

rojo1

Egyptian culture, still many centuries ago, made use of numerous red pigments including cinnabar, a highly toxic mercury sulfide. The Romans later used this same chemical as a pigment, which was then highly coveted and very costly. The gladiators who emerged victorious from the Coliseum were painted with cinnabar before victoriously touring the city, and the tragic Pompeii is full of the color in murals and in other possessions of the upper classes who once lived there. Later, from the 12th century on, cinnabar became synonymous with a lacquer used in China on vases and other luxury items.

Minium was another chemical used, especially by the Romans, for making red. Like cinnabar, it was poisonous, and specialists believe it was one of the first pigments synthesized by man. Its orange hues were perfectly captured within works of marble and gold, and within inscriptions. Minium was also used later in medieval illuminated manuscripts, and in India and Persia during the 17th and 18th  centuries. Still later, the painter Van Gogh would unfortunately use the pigment, a factor which would irreversibly damage his paintings, as exposure to light eventually discolors it.

Another red pigment, one of the most used in history, is vermilion. There’s confusion as to the name, as some ancient authors referred thus to a color which resulted from pulverizing cinnabar. The same name also refers to a synthetic version of the pigment invented in China and taken to the West by the Arab alchemists during the middle ages. This vermilion has a slightly orange tone but, with exposure to light, it may darken. It was used by many Renaissance painters including the great Titian. The 17th century saw a huge boom in the use of vermilion by painters, first in Venice and later in the Netherlands and Germany.

Perhaps the most curious red, one which fascinated Europe for centuries, was that extracted from an insect. It’s a red pigment obtained by drying and pulverizing the cochineal, an animal which lives inside a Mexican cactus. It was the largest import from the new world to Europe during the 16th century, after only silver and gold. Although initially used to make dyes, cochineal was quickly used as a pigment called carmine. Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Rubens, and Vermeer are just some of the artists who used it during the period, but it was later to reach the brushes of the great J. M. W. Turner and others.

Several centuries later, in 1817, the German chemist Friedrich Stromeyer discovered a new element in the periodic table, cadmium. From this he initially extracted yellow and orange pigments. Finally, in 1910 a red was also obtained from the same element and became one of the favorite pigments of Matisse. But today, the synthetic pigments most used for reds in works of art are known as litol and naphtol.

Red has dominated human visual culture for centuries although today it’s well-known that blue and green are preferred in Western culture. Nevertheless, the power of red in any of its tones remains just the same. One final curious point is that works of art in which red predominates are still the most expensive at auction, a fact which makes its continued dominance clear, both symbolically and imaginatively.

rojo2

Images: 2) Public domain 2) Public domain 3) Dominio público