The story of red


Dear Artist,

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.

Best regards,


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.


Red alert
by Michael D. Fiedler, PA, USA

As an artist and registered nurse, I wanted to share some warning information about cadmium compounds. (cadmium sulfide and cadmium selenide):

Probable human carcinogen. Causes cancer in animals.

Highly toxic by inhalation, slightly toxic by ingestion.

Cadmium sulfide itself is insoluble, but is often contaminated with soluble cadmium compounds.

Chronic inhalation or ingestion may cause chronic lung damage, kidney damage, anemia, loss of smell, and bone, teeth, and liver damage.

Chronic cadmium exposure is associated with prostate cancer and lung cancer.

May cause chromosomal damage, testicular atrophy, and other damage to male reproductive system.

Acute ingestion may cause illness resembling food poisoning.

On a happy note, skin contact is “not significant.”

Source: Michael McCann, Artist Beware: The Hazards in Working with All Art and Craft Materials and the Precautions Every Artist and Craftsperson Should Take, 1992, Lyons & Burford, NY


Cochineal red
by Nancy Law, ON, Canada


original print by Nancy Law

I studied textile design at the Ontario College of Art and Design in the 1990s. A large portion of my coursework involved exploration of natural dyes on wool, cotton and silk fibers. I used cochineal and madder a lot during this time. The cochineal dye was obtained by grinding and then boiling the entire bug. Perhaps it is the blood that contains the pigment but because of the expense, all the dyers I know use a mortar and pestle to try and obtain as much colour as possible. Cochineal is gathered from the cactus by picking it off the cactus’ skin. The cochineal looks very similar to the parasitic scales that can grow on aloe vera plants. When boiled (to extract the dye) cochineal produces a strange soapy smell… strong but not unpleasant. The amazing red colours become light fast when mixed with a mordant such as alum or tin, otherwise they fade to brown.


Cochineal dye in Coke and processed meats
by Marilyn C. Holsipple, Ed.D, RD, LDN

Please check your source as, to my knowledge, this was used to dye pills, etc. many years ago but was removed by the FDA as it potentially transmitted bacteria. Therefore, the only Red Food Coloring presently approved, I believe, is Red Dye #40. Red Dye #2 was removed more than ten years ago.

(RG note) Thanks for the heads up, Marilyn. According to Victoria Finlay in Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox, 2002, “Cherry Coke is full of it; it is colour additive E120.” According to the FDA, Coca Cola uses “caramel colouring” for Coke and Orange Crush. What does this mean?


Red underpainting
by Keena Friedrichsmeier


painting by
Keena Friedrichsmeier

Paintings with red in them apparently get better prices at auctions. Perhaps the red creates a more emotional reaction. And yet you don’t seem to find red in paintings very often. In the past year I have taken to coating my supports with red, primarily for my winter landscapes. Little flecks of the red underpainting then show through and give it a certain vibrancy. This was a method I borrowed from Tom Thomson, who often used bright underpaintings of red, orange or sienna.


Red hair
by Barbara Coffey, CA, USA

I have red hair and was once told that redheads are different from other people in regards to their tempestuousness. Once I went into a pet shop when I was a child and a monkey grabbed my hair and screamed at me and would not let go. The owner had to pry the monkey’s hand off my hair. Another time an iguana spat at me from his cage. I have a parrot named Jack and he loves me. But in the bird books that I researched about parrots, some do not like, actually hate, people with red hair. They are very color oriented. So before I bought him I went to the pet shop every day for three weeks and he already was in love with me by then.


Bright red
by Logan

I have recently started using the color “Bright Red” which is close to a cad red medium. Is this a fugitive color? I started using it because it is a more transparent red but I am not sure of its permanence. If you have any insight on the subject I would appreciate it.

(RG note) “Bright Red” is a generic name used by several artists’ paint manufacturers, both currently and previously. (Bocour, Danacolours, Lambertye, Weber, Winsor and Newton.) They are all fairly permanent. Another firm, Lefranc and Bourgeois, produces a “Bright Red” that has the highest permanency rating.


Russian red
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak

I personally was “red” 20 years ago in the Soviet Union because I wanted the same — nice and good world. But understanding of false have cured my soul. It is widespread self-mistaking — to think your soul is of some colour. Possibly, feeling of some colours indicates some mental states, but today I feel all colours are valuable.

I think we must rescue minds & souls of artists from colour extremism, they must not consider they are “red” or “yellow,” it is not so really because of human nature, even if some artist thinks so. Really healthy soul of man/woman/artist has all colours, healthy soul is as rainbow.

Red colouring substances are weak by nature because red colour means absorbing of blue part of spectrum. Blue and ultraviolet rays have more energy, than more long wave light rays.

It means that all organic red substances will undergo to strong light action more than other colours. Only inorganic (or inorganics containing) these are more permanent. And maybe it is worthy to warn them by case about poisonous cadmium and mercury (vermilion? cinnabar?) Inorganica?

Rutenica. Red in old Russian language had meaning “beautiful.” Even contemporary “krasota” (beauty) and “krasnota” (redness) are similar. Red Square in Moscow was in old times called “nice square.”

Also qualified wooden furniture worker has name ” krasnoderevschik ” (red-woodenist). To make new paragraph in Russian has expression “to begin from red line” (because of ancient monks have began new line with expensive red ink). Soviet Red flag was because of blood colour — terrorism was a tool for those people to take state power (and all other symbols — as colour analogies). That years factories had strange names — Red October,  Red way, Red Rubberist, Red (anything) — many variants of “red” names. (Although Moscow factories manufacturing sweets are even today “Red October” and second in German type name “Rot front.” Rot means in German & Yiddish “red,” but in Russian (occasionally, for fun) this word means “mouth,” “front” is the same in all languages). An anecdote was about name of factory manufacturing blue coloring for white clothes washing — factory must have name “Red blueness..


Quinacridone red
by Robin Humelbaugh, OR, USA

The most wonderful reds and golds that happen to be transparent (important to the watercolorist and some acrylic painters) are the quinacridones. They were developed for the auto industry, I’ve heard and are very archival. I have found after teaching watercolor for the last seven years that most mud is made from the cads, umbers and other earth tones. Of course there are other circumstances which lead to mud (which is not always bad) but I am in awe of the “quins.” But I like the cads and perylenes as well. I just got a new tube of genuine rose madder and feel like I bought the finest diamond. Love that stuff! No one receives more pleasure from a work of art than the artist who made it.


Wonder of colour lumps
by Olinda Everett, Sao Paulo, Brazil

I have on my window sill, in full sunlight, two rough fist-sized chunks of rock, of a blue so deep, so fathomless that it becomes hypnotic. Friends just pick one up, smell it, poke it, lick it even. Can’t leave them alone. Alongside these, a smaller, smoother oval of turquoise. In it, the trees grow throughout the day, then a slow tortoise, its cracked shell barnacled and battered, progresses unheeded; turn it over and there is an Indian Ocean African beach, azure, reflecting the yellowing sunrays in the bottom sands. Sparkles of surf. Then, green algae undulate. And so on. The universe tumbling on ad infinitum. The primeval Lapis and the serene realized turquoise. What shall I put next to them? I experimented with black and ochre (I think Ochre is my next stone) and was surprised when the greens produced some fine and subtle results. Cochineal is the hunting-man, the rapacious intruder. A gash of red to season life. With cochineal, the human being enters the scene of dreams.


Graduating to colour
by Dave Edwards, Northumberland, UK

I have been doing pen and ink work for many years now and have recently started teaching myself how to use watercolours. It gives me the same feeling I had many years ago when we bought our first colour television. It’s like learning a foreign language — the language of colour. I still love black and white artwork and always will (thanks originally to my discovery of Aubrey Beardsley in 1974), but colour says so much more. In my efforts to learn about colour techniques, I have contacted a few artists whose work I admire and they have all been very kind, answering my questions patiently. One of those, Sherry Preston, who is a regular contributor to your website, has been very helpful indeed and with her help I am learning more about colour. In the past, I have had a few attempts, but have given up easily at the first hurdle. May I suggest something that has motivated me personally — I went out and bought three watercolour pads and vowed that I would use every one of the sheets and if, at the end of them, I still hadn’t become enthusiastic about watercolour painting I would give it up. I have already used up one pad. I now look forward to the next two pads and have indeed started buying more paper; that’s how keen I now am.


Moving the subject
by Tricia Migdoll, Byron Bay, Australia

Our instructor Rene Bolten sets up the subject — we happily paint away — the next day he moves it, and we have to start again. I tell him he is cruel — but he says no, it is better this way. He is right of course. I always do better the second time. I have become more familiar with the objects, the painting takes on more life. This is so hard to do though all by myself in the studio where cowardice reigns. As a new painter, trying to be a realist, I get so precious about it — afraid to paint over in case I muck it up.


Pushing the boundaries
by Mike Sibley, Yorkshire, England


drawing by Mike Sibley

I am one of your “artists whose planning and executing are steady and predictable progressions toward their ideas of perfection” but only up to a point. I work within a tightly controlled series of guide lines but the detail content remains unresolved until execution. I will, for example, produce a compositional line-drawing that includes the defined boundaries of a bush. I might even add lines within this that suggest the internal form — but the bush itself comes from pure invention during the drawing stage.This, of course, produces many instances where “recovery mode” is at full red alert status.

Each element has to succeed as the overall success is only as strong as the weakest part. But success, I pointed out to my friend, possesses its own rating system. You cannot look inside my head to see what I was aiming at. Often perceived “success” is merely “acceptable” and falls far short of my goal but each attempt takes me a little nearer and each failure teaches me a little more.

If all we ever drew (or painted) merely consisted of techniques that we already knew, we would cease to advance. It’s the challenges and the necessary shifts into “recovery mode” that keep the learning curve for ever arcing upward.

But perhaps the greatest benefit of “recovery mode” is that it forces new techniques to be tried, new ways of looking at something, new angles from which to analyze the troublesome element until the answer is found. None of these would have naturally occurred to us had we not pushed the boundaries beyond our knowledge.


Clickback changes
by Steve Baker, CA, USA

Your recent changes to our clickbacks are very interesting. I wondered if you could make another change? Often, yes quite often in fact, I copy the name of one of the correspondents and paste it into the little box on google to see the work of the writer. I love to see the art, to relate the painting to the letters. I doubt I’m the only one who would make use of such a feature if it was included. It seems that the combination of reading and seeing the paintings lets me see someone as if they were here with me. I also cruise through the Painters Keys site. I really like the quotes section as well.

(RG note) Several artists have made this request and we are considering it. Most of the artists who correspond have their sites listed on our links page. Our statistics tell us that more and more artists and collectors are going to this site. The quotes page you mention currently has the highest attendance of all. Today, Andrew Niculescu, our webmaster, has just completed a printer-friendly archive of all of the RG letters to date in 2003. This permits you to print out — with one stroke — all of the letters this year so far — one letter to a page.


by Jack Bartlett

In traffic red means stop

but in all else means go.

Go to heat where tongues and flames waltz,

this red the enemy of the liver, giver of fuel

for flame, for fire, for flesh.

Go for hearts set to burst with blood that

erupts into song.

Go to suns and hunger and meat.

Red pressures through all

like scarlet water through a hose.

It is the color of lava and lust,

of roses, dead evenings in the west,

monkey fluid, valentines and rust.

Red is the father of orange,

green slayer, pain painter,

the color of cuts and kisses,

of targets, winter noses and remembered lips,

a member of the trinity,

it gives warmth to a triad of wishes.







Jonathan Wylder, London, England


sculpture by Jonathan Wylder







Artist and his Model

painting by Frank Wright


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, 2003.

That includes Carol Hama Chang, who writes, “Your letters come to me like a “Whack on the Side of the Head.”

And Betsy Kuhn who writes, “I see red.”

And Jerry Waese, who writes, “I have to agree. In colour composition red is the most reliable colour surprise. A photograph from my daughter’s recent trip to Mexico was so filled with red I felt compelled to use it as a painting reference. It overpowered me and I responded with sienna and cadmium.”


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