Cochineal is a red dyestuff extracted from the blood of a beetle parasite on prickly pear cacti. Formerly used to make carmine and scarlet lakes, it was first imported from Mexico into Europe in 1560. British army uniforms were dyed with it. Permanence aside, it’s still in use today. As a colourant for Cherry Coke, beetle blood is known as “Colour Additive E120.” Processed meats are full of it.
The English artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) didn’t understand or even care about the fugitive nature of early reds — his sunsets are not what they used to be. Unfortunately today, in photo-litho reproductions, red is often the first printer’s ink to fade.
Cadmium sulfides and selenides are the basis of most of the modern artists’ reds. The process of manufacture was invented in Germany and the various cadmium pigments became popular with artists after the First World War. All the cadmiums are dense, opaque, brilliant and permanent. Most cadmium colours are cut with barium-based pigments. These are less powerful in tinting strength. Pure cad reds are the top of the line.
Artists’ reds win the prize for the most names. These include vermilion, madder, scarlet, cerise, persimmon, sanguine, cinnabar, rouge, crimson, carmine, geranium, ruby and rose. In colour composition red is the most reliable colour surprise. Practically every work of art can benefit by warming with red. Red washes or scumbles give life to dull works. Red is charged with emotion and promise. Red speaks for heroism and bravery, honesty and patriotism. Red is also the red badge of courage, redcoats, the thin red line, red sails in the sunset, and a jolly red nose. My love may be like a red red rose, my sins, as well as my politics, may be red. Red is also red tape, red ink, red wine, red lips, red blood, red earth, red barons, red barns, red hearts, red thoughts and red herrings. Red means anger, fire, storms of the heart, love and war. Even women can be scarlet. More than any other colour, red is loaded for action.
PS: “Cochineal red is a holy blight, a noble rot where the treasure is rubies.” (Victoria Finlay)
Esoterica: One of the earliest man-made pigments was red lead. The Romans called it secondarium minium. In the Middle Ages monks employed “minium” in illuminated manuscripts. Through the Latin verb miniare (“to colour with red lead”) we have the modern word “miniature,” which originally had nothing to do with small size.
This letter was originally published as “The story of red” on May 30, 2003.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.