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    Mastering Color Series – The Pschology and Evolution of the Color RED and it can be used in photography


    The post Mastering Color Series – The Pschology and Evolution of the Color RED and its use in photography first appeared at Digital Photography School. It is written by Megan Kennedy.

    Photography was invented in 1839 as a black and white medium. Finicky and cumbersome, most proponents of photography were more concerned with perfecting the photographic process without the added complexity of color. Some pioneers have had to deal with new methods to transfer the colored photographic image. But it wasn't until the 1930s, when companies such as Kodak and Agfa started to introduce color films based on consumers, that color photography began to become widely available and relatively affordable.

    Color photography allowed photographers to create images with the emotional charge of color

    The invention and the widespread use of color film had a considerable influence on photography. Modern photographers could now display a more realistic representation of a scene that conveys the world in colors that resemble those of the average human eye. But color photography also had a different purpose. Photographers could now link images to the emotionally load of color much easier.

    In the course of history, people have forged strong associations with colors. And although some associations are experiential, others speak to our evolution and the history of the visual arts. In this series of articles we look at the history of different colors, how they shaped the way we look and what it means for your photography.

    The psychology of red

    Color has an important influence on our perceptions, emotions and physicality. Our earliest ancestors made associations between red and the color of our blood, and cultivated a strong visual link between red and danger, violence and life. People evolved to prioritize red as a color of immediacy, warning and opportunity. For example, the appearance of fire turns red to heat and light, but also to destruction.

    Associated with warmth and fire, red appeals to our emotions and our physicality

    Because it attracts our attention, red brings text and subjects to the foreground of an image. Red is also the international standard for stop signs and traffic lights. In nature, red autumn leaves and vibrant sunsets appeal to our sense of time and season. Perhaps tied to the color of red roses – a flower traditionally associated with romance – red symbolizes passion, love and sex. Red also appeals to our taste buds, with foods such as strawberries, apples, cherries, tomatoes and peppers, all colored by forms of carotenoids – vibrant red pigments that support photosynthesis.

    Red has different associations in different cultures and beliefs. In some parts of Africa, red is a mourning color that symbolizes death. Traditionally worn at funerals, weddings and New Year's celebrations, red symbolizes good luck, happiness and prosperity in China. In the Thai tradition, red is the color for Sunday, associated with Surya, a sun god. In the Indian subcontinent, red stands for purity, fertility, wealth, beauty and the goddess Lakshmi. And in Japan, red is the traditional color of heroism.

    Informed by the permanent presence of red in the visual arts, these inherent associations (and more) model the way in which a viewer reads an image.

    Evolution of the color red

    Despite its many forms, red has had a constant place of meaning throughout history. From ocher to cadmium red, the evolution of red stems from our old respect for the impressive hue.


    Ocher is a natural pigment that varies in color from yellow to deep orange or brown. In combination with hematite, ocher gets a red tint. The red bison on the cave walls of Altamira in Spain, which is around 36,000 years old, is one of the oldest examples of red used in the visual arts.

    Red bison on the cave walls of Altamira in Spain. Image credit: By Museo de Altamira y D. Rodriguez, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link


    Cinnabar, a natural mercury sulfide, varies in shade from deep brick to scarlet red. Although very toxic, the Romans mastered the shine of the red pigment and used it extensively in decoration. Cinnabar is prominent in the murals of upper class villas in Pompeii. Starting with the Song Dynasty, the Chinese used cinnabar in carefully cut lacquerware.


    Old writers used the term vermilion to describe the pigment made from ground cinnabar. But vermilion also refers to a synthetic version of the color, invented in China. Rthe Renaissance paintings regularly display the latter. Famous Renaissance artist Titiaan is known for his lush vermilion accents.

    Titian ' s Maria Ascension with vermilion-like accents. Credit: Titian [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


    Romans made minium, also known as common thread, by heating white lead to extremely high temperatures. Unlike gold and marble, the Romans used the minium primarily for inscriptions. Medieval illustrators used the pigment in their illuminated manuscripts, but it was especially popular with Mugal artists from India and Persia in the 17th and 18th centuries.

    Vincent van Gogh was an avid user of Minium. However, since then it has been discovered that Minium turns white under light, and some Van Gogh works have blurred their red accents as a result.


    During their conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century, Spanish conquistadors were surprised by the vibrant fabrics and face paint of the Aztecs. Derived from cochineal bugs, the Spaniards have quickly started sending large quantities of ' Spanish red ' to Europe. Artists quickly adopted Carmine to decorate their extensive dramas. Like minium, however, carmine also tended to fade, especially in sunlight. Cosmetics and red dyes continue to use carmine these days.

    Cadmium red

    In 1817 a German chemist discovered a new element, cadmium, that became the basis for shades of yellow and orange paint. However, it took 93 years before cadmium red became commercially available in 1910. Intense and lightfast, Henri Matisse was one of the first prominent users of the pigment. Other artists who used cadmium red are Edvard Munch, Francis Bacon and Clyfford Still.

    Since the invention of cadmium red, technological developments have created a wide range of synthetic pigments and chemical processes for producing red pigment. Easier preparation and application, better archiving qualities and a wide variety of colors have nowadays all become standard for red in paint, dyes and inks.

    henri matisse the red room

    The red room by Henri Matisse. Credit: JD Lasica via Flickr

    Red in the visual arts

    Due to the constant presence in art history, the concept of red has evolved over time, with new meaning and meaning. We cannot be entirely sure what meaning red has had for our old ancestors. However, we can assume that at least the use of red increased the drawing of the rock, making the image appear more dimensional.

    Medieval artists associated red with Pentecost, the holy spirit and the blood of Christian martyrs. In Renaissance painting, Red exploited the gaze of the viewer, while he was covering Christ, the Virgin Mary or other substantial figures.

    Baroque art saw deep and radiant red tones in spectacular drama. Later, pre-Raphaelite artists used shades of red and orange to paint the flowing locks of women and to draw attention to the symbolism embedded in their artworks.

    Lady Lilith by pre-raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Image credit: By Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Delaware Art Museum, Public Domain, Link

    Impressionist and post-impressionist artists used red to convey light or accent details. However, Fauvists cram excessively red in scenes and portraits with almost violent tenacity. Only a few years later, abstract art abandoned the objective goal. Used to accentuate, irritate and philosophize, abstract artists award the viewer or completely conceal them in fields of gluttonous red.

    Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Four Darks in Red, 1958
    Abstract expressionist Mark Rothko painted in deep red. Credit: G. Starke via Flickr

    Red in photography

    With the advent of color photography, the creative possibilities for photographers flourished. The radical medium gave photographers the opportunity to display colors as it was in the field. In addition, inherent color associations are transferred to color photography. The enduring qualities of Red have enabled photographers to communicate visual cues based on evolution and art.

    As an early pioneer in color photography, Marie Cosindas & diffusion of red in her still lifes and portraits resembles the technique of baroque still lifes. William Eggleston ' s famous photo, The Red Ceiling, uses red as a grim undercurrent to an apparently ordinary environment. In Saul Leiter ' s dynamic representations, red drama adds to the theater of the urban landscape. Images such as Dust Storm and Red Boy and Holi Festival by Steve McCurry document the history and materiality of red in art and culture. The most famous photo of McCurry, Afghan girl depicts a young girl whose piercing eyes are further accentuated by the striking red scarf that frames her face.

    Nan Goldin ' s use of red brings with it atmospheric tension, as if the sky itself has a dense color. The Richard Mosse series down depicts the Congo in infrared, so that the green landscape is displayed in pink and red tones, whereby the nature of photojournalism is redrawn.

    The use of red is also not limited to color photography. Red filters (applied to / in the camera or in post-production) absorb blue and green light, which improves contrast. Famous landscape photographer Ansel Adams used red filters for a dramatic effect and darkened the blue sky in his abundant views.

    Ansel Adams used red filters to improve the contrast of the sky in his photos. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


    Faber Birren, an American author and consultant on color theory once said: "Red is the passionate and fiery hue of the spectrum, marking the saint and the sinner, patriotism and anarchy, love and hate, compassion and war." Red has been used regularly throughout history to indicate concepts and experiences. Status, physicality, anger, warmth, love and danger are all aspects that are characterized by associations with red.

    With the invention of color photography, red was transferred to film and then to digital media. And while it has different meanings in different cultures, the prominent red color in art history is a testament to the emotional and visual impact of today.

    The post Mastering Color Series – The Pschology and Evolution of the Color RED and its use in photography first appeared at Digital Photography School. It is written by Megan Kennedy.

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