The color red played a role throughout history. It’s been a symbol filled with often contradictory meaning as well as a design element in marketing and messaging. Let’s see how red did its work over time.
by Peter McCarthy
for Assorted Ideas, Large & Small
It’s impossible to consider red – or any other color – without remembering that red isn’t red at all. It’s not something “out there” that we see. What we picture as red is, in reality, a colorless vibrating stream of photons – minuscule quantum particles – picked up in our retinas.
Although no one knows why exactly, we create red, along with any other color, in our mind’s eye, not the physical one. The process is so personal that no one is sure that what you see as “red” is, also, what I see as “red.”
Complicating that, our eyes have receptors for only red, green and blue, and we see them and combinations made from them. We do not see ultraviolet as birds, for example, do. That deprives us of a full range of possible color combinations. So, even what we do see in our minds is, by nature, incomplete.
And that means we may be inspired by the same things that appear differently in our minds. Other things, we can’t see at all, although our dogs and cats probably can, and sockeye salmon. We can’t ever really know. That said, here’s what we know for sure.
The history of red
Red is one of the three primary colors, along with green and blue. The first person to explain this was Sir Isaac Newton, who realized it after passing a beam of sunlight through a prism and seeing the spectrum of colors.
Red played an important role for many early civilizations for painting tools and weaponry, as well as decoration. It was also used to represent certain gods and their powers. We may blame Newton when a falling apple bonks us on the head, but this is more important.
The first recorded instance of the color red being associated with power was during China’s Xia Dynasty (2070 BC – 1600 BC). During this time, red was often used on warriors’ tools, weapons and dress to symbolize strength.
The early Egyptians believed that they would become more powerful the closer they were to the sun, so they chose a yellow-orange shade of red called “Goddess” that represented life and vitality. They also believed that red was a symbol of fire and used it in their hieroglyphics.
In Eastern culture, red is still sometimes associated with power. In Japan, for example, it symbolizes courage and power, whereas in India red represents purity. In ancient Rome, it was associated with the god of war.
In more recent history, red has been used to denote power and strength in many countries around the world. In America’s Revolutionary War (1775-1783), for example, both sides of the battle used red to represent courage and strength. The scrappy rebels thought the jaunty Red Coats made perfect targets.
Around the more modern world
After the war ended, America continued its association with red, using it to symbolize blood sacrificed in combat, along with white and blue as its national colors.
In contrast, certain countries have associated the color red with evil. In Nazi Germany, for example, red was used for a swastika armband because it symbolized blood and violence. Around this same period in Russia, red was associated with the communist party, representing blood in revolution.
Since then, however, some countries have adopted more positive associations with the color red. In China, for instance, red is a lucky color that represents joy and happiness. It also can represent love commitment and bravery in Indian culture. Also in India, it symbolizes purity, so brides wear red saris to their weddings.
In the US, red is often associated with Christmas and especially Valentine’s Day. It is a symbol of love. Red is seen as being passionate or exciting in many countries around the world and political movements like communism.
Red and true love
The association between red and love was popularized by the song Red, Red Rose, a lyric written as poetry by Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns. When Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton with a ring featuring an antique ruby surrounded by diamonds, he was using the traditional color symbolism of his country. Rubies are one of the most prized jewels in Great Britain because they are associated with true love, energy and success.
The color red is commonly, also, associated with love and romance in many other countries around the world.
As a result of these previous associations, red continues to be used in most Valentine’s Day iconography and accompanies most advertisements for love-related products. This association has caused red to become one of the favorite colors worldwide. It’s been suggested that most people around the world prefer the color red to any other color.
But then, variations play in
Some countries developed larger associations with different colors. For example, purple is associated with wealth in China, and white is associated with weddings in Great Britain and part of the old empire.
The word “red” comes from the Old English word read or rēad, which was derived from the Germanic root rud or reudh. This word is related to the Sanskrit and Latin words for “red,” which are rudhira and ruber, respectively.
The color red in nature
Many red fruits and vegetables owe their color to carotenoids, including tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit and red carrots. Anthocyanins are also responsible for the red colors of many red flowers, which range from carnations to poppies.
In autumn, when temperatures drop and sunlight is reduced in many parts of the world, red leaves appear on trees. This is a result of chlorophyll changing into the yellow pigment known as carotene. Eventually, chlorophyll fades away and leaves behind only the red and orange pigments that also helped create the green color we see during the rest of the year.
In some parts of the world, such as the Southern US and some areas in Canada, red leaves can also be a result of natural reactions to environmental conditions that cause some trees to produce excessive amounts of anthocyanin. This causes red leaves that fade into yellow or brown by early winter.
Insects such as ladybugs and some butterflies use the color red to warn predators that they are poisonous. They can produce chemical compounds from their bodies that make them dangerous for predators to eat.
Butterflies, generally hold up their wings in a Red-Orange form when there is a predator nearby. This causes the wing colors of the butterfly to resemble the color of a poisonous species.
Many animals, such as red foxes and raccoons, are known for their reddish coats. They get these colors by eating different types of berries with pigments that change their skin color over time.
The color red is also used in nature in many flowers, fruits and vegetables.
How red is used in art
Art is heavily dependent on the color theory of the time. For example, during World War II, artists would paint certain objects red to associate them with communism because this was associated with evil.
Since red is associated with love in many countries, it is also frequently used in wedding artwork.
Two of the most famous paintings using red are The Red Vineyard and The Night Cafe, both by Vincent van Gogh.
Going far back, around 200 BC, the Han dynasty began using a bright shade of red to color their pottery.
Later, during the Tang Dynasty of 618-907 AD, people used red extensively to color their pottery. This style is known as “Chinese Red.”
Red often symbolizes communism in art because it has had that association for generations. But others use red for very different ends. For example, the American artist Jasper Johns used red as a primary tone in creating a painting of the American flag.
Other modern artists used red
• Andy Warhol used red in many of his works, including “Mao” and “Cuban Pete.”
• Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art paintings are almost entirely based on the use of primary colors like red.
• Keith Haring often used red in his New York City street art to express passion.
How do people use red as a symbol today?
Since its earliest associations with blood, the color red has been closely linked to violence. This is reflected by several major events throughout history. For example, during the French Revolution, revolutionaries wore red caps while beheading nobles and the aristocracy; this became known as the Red Terror.
The Ku Klux Klan, or KKK, also adopted several of their symbols from the color red. The white hoods of the KKK are meant to represent purity and enlightenment – but red symbolized blood lost in protecting the “white race.”
Today red is most often associated with passion in sports events throughout the world. Football is no exception. The term “red card” comes from soccer, which means immediate ejection for bad behavior.
Interestingly, some scientists have found that wearing red can increase your chances of success in competition or on the field. A recent study showed that athletes who wore red before competing had more success in their games than those who wore other colors.
Early uses of the color red…
• The earliest documented example was found in a cave painting from 7000 BC, which showed what appeared to be two deer facing a powerful natural force symbolized by red paint.
• Ancient Romans used to dye their hair with a paste made out of crushed red insects called kermes, which was abundant throughout the Mediterranean region.
• In the Roman Empire, red was associated with death and bad omens because it was deemed a very dark and gloomy color.
What do we know about how people in history used the color red?
The earliest association of red with good luck was probably because it was frequently used on the robes of deities.
During the Spanish Inquisition, red was often painted on heretics so they could be identified easily by those who were persecuting them.
Although today the color red is typically associated with love, this wasn’t always true. Before about 1750, it had many negative connotations. For example, red was associated with diseases like smallpox and syphilis, it represented lust in art, and even the Bible refers to the color red as representing sin at least once.
Today, however, red is also closely linked to many positive things – love (especially passion), danger (fire hydrants and stop signs), or general happiness often has a red undertone. Additionally, a lot of brands use the color red to attract customers’ attention.
Role-playing for the color red
Red has been used in art throughout history due to its associations with many different emotions and ideals. Artists in many different countries have used red throughout time to symbolize love, war and power as well as religion.
It has played a large role in the symbolic color schemes of flags around the world as well, including the flags of China, Switzerland, Great Britain and the United States.
Red still continues to be a color used in many different art forms, representing love in most Valentine’s Day advertisements and being one of the favorite colors worldwide.
Its significant role in history has helped red become an iconic color known throughout the world.
Some countries use different colors to represent certain emotions, but red remains one of the most commonly used worldwide.
Red in marketing?
Red is associated with many emotions, including love, anger and danger.
Because red can represent so many things, it is one of the most popular colors used in marketing. It also has a high recognition factor for people who see it repeatedly. For example, you would recognize the color red on a stop sign more quickly than any other color.
A famous example of how red can be used to stimulate different emotions through marketing is Coca-Cola’s signature color scheme. Red was originally chosen for the company’s logo because it symbolized “passion, energy, and life.”
Red continues to be widely used for marketing purposes. For example, McDonald’s uses red in its logo and advertisements of Big Mac hamburgers. Red is also frequently associated with sports teams who use the color in their logos or uniforms.
Many other companies selling products or services use color to create a strong association with their brand.
Red is also commonly used in product advertisements to evoke either passion, anger or danger. Examples of this include Stop signs and fire extinguishers, both of which are typically red. Not to mention the once-ubiquitous Buy Now buttons on the internet.
This color choice can be beneficial for many businesses because it is easily remembered and recognized.
Red also creates a sense of power among consumers, which can motivate them to purchase a certain product because they feel as though the color represents something strong.
The color red has been used throughout history in many different ways, often representing meaningful ideals or emotions. In modern times, red is still widely used in art and marketing to create strong emotions among consumers.
Red is the color of many significant things in history, including communism and Valentine’s Day.
Today, it is still widely used to show strong emotions in marketing because of its high visibility factor. It continues to be popular among artists for use in both paintings and sculptures. Its many roles make it seem indispensable.
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