Seeing red


Dear Artist,

With a little help from the animals, vegetables and minerals, one of humanity’s persistent habits is to colour ourselves with pigments and coloured objects. There are five main functions:


Japanese Geishas wearing
traditional white face paint

To be seen or noticed
To give info of rank or status
To warn of danger
To remain unseen or to confuse
To be admired or desired

It seems that colour itself is loaded with potential power. Interestingly, it’s the colours black and white (dark and light) that have the most differentiating variations in the vocabularies of the world’s languages. Also, for some reason, women use colour as a verbal signifier almost twice as often as men. Men tend to use size.



Vibrant face paint of a tribe in Papua, New Guinea

Next to black and white, red is the most popular colour. It’s also the last colour to go and the first to return in near-death experiences. Associations with blood, soil and sensual stimulation account for some of red’s historic popularity. Red roses arrive with Valentine’s red heart.

Psychologist Nick Humphrey notes that in the case of “flame,” both safety and danger are signified. It’s the ambiguity that’s important. Red depends on context. Apparently, red asks us to gather more information.


Kiss – popular 1970s band; Easily identified by their trademark face paint

It’s safe to say that with the advent of modern dyes and pigments, there is more colour around these days. Bright colours were formerly rare and had to be coaxed from sources like bird feathers, cochineal beetles or cow’s urine. Do we now suffer from colour overkill? Is colour losing her winning ways? Incredibly, the British Army was formerly tailored in red; the appearance of power and threat having more value than ease of shot. Of course, red still signifies danger (stop signs are generally red) and is present on almost every national flag.

From a painter’s point of view, a “red surprise” is most effective for bringing focus and heightened interest to many works. “Warm is better than cool,” say some of the colour pundits. Red will remain forever hot.


Standard issue uniform of a British soldier in the early 1800s

Best regards,


PS: “Colour is a power which directly influences the soul.” (Wassily Kandinsky)

Esoterica: Last evening, painting in the garden of our rented Hawaii home, I was victimized by the Purkinje Effect. In 1819, a Czech physiologist, Jan Purkinje, noticed a curious phenomenon as he watched the flowers in his garden. He realized that the relative brightness of differently coloured flowers changed as the light faded. Red flowers became almost black, while green leaves remained green and bright. At low light levels, the human eye becomes more sensitive to blue and green light than to red light. It’s not just about red, but how we see red.


Colours under water
by Kim Rody, Bahamas/FL, USA


“Sea Lawyers”
acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 inches
by Kim Rody

I’m a scuba diver, and the first color you lose on a descent is red as the light gets filtered. Red fire coral, which burns your skin upon contact appears green as you descend and depending on that day’s visibility. As you lose light going down, you lose each color as it stands on the spectrum, starting with red. The only way to see the “true” colors is with an underwater camera and a strobe light. However, at a depth of 120 feet, the appearance of the universe looks completely different, and incredibly beautiful.


Personal preference for colour combinations
by Wes Giesbrecht, Mission, BC, Canada


original painting
by Wes Giesbrecht

Some things I hear over and over are references along the lines of “Those colours don’t work” or they “don’t go together.” Am I missing something? There’re rules about what colours we can place side by side? Somebody better tell Mother Nature because she must have skipped school that day. My experience tells me that while certain colour combinations may not appeal to me or, worse yet, might actually repel me, someone else might find those same combinations pleasing or even exciting. And it seems to have nothing to do with whether the observer holds a fine arts degree or has only a casual interest in art. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a wrong combination of colours but I know when colours sing for me. Sometimes they’re soft and earthy and sometimes they’re bright and brassy. And sometimes a colour combination that feels like a dud to me is someone else’s favorite, regardless of the depth or seriousness of their interest in art. Why? I think it’s just because we’re all different… simple as that.


Split between hot and cold colours
by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA


“Framing the Landscape”
free machine embroidery over painted canvas
23 x 32 inches
by B.J. Adams

Colors change not only with varying light sources, but also after you have had cataract surgery. Now, I love having one eye that sees cool colors and one eye that sees warm colors. I don’t want this to change however I’m not sure if this benefits choosing colors for home, clothing, or art work. It was amazing to see how my red/orange roses that were dying and turning brown turned out to be magenta roses and how a pale beige fabric I had chosen turned out to be pale lavender. Do our eyes play tricks on us, or is nothing the way it seems?


The colour of depression
by Lyn Cowan, Kitchener, ON, Canada

I have personal experience with the power of red. I was hospitalized with depression in the early ’90s and after the hours of questions and days of being in a psyche ward a woman appeared to give art therapy. She put out lots of colours of crayons for us to use. I grabbed all of the red ones and made huge red marks on the large sheet of newsprint I’d been given. Up until then, after the initial crying stopped, I returned to my mask. She asked me if I was angry. The red was the key. Then they got a handle on me. I met that woman 15 years later when she came to the Quilt Gallery in St. Jacobs where my fabric work was on display. We both knew we recognized each other and finally figured out the connection. She was the woman who gave me art therapy. She bought the very first hanging that I had done just for me after changing medium from watercolourist to fabric artist. I asked her to go back “there” and tell them that there is a survivor “out there” who is having the time of her life. I hear that the hanging looks fabulous in her living room.


Males don’t always get it
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada


“Fairmont View, Banff”
acrylic painting, 24 x 30 inches
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

Red was the most popular gown color this year at the Oscars, on the red carpet. Another fascinating fact I recently learned related to color and fashion – it appears that male birds need different treats every year in order to be accepted by the females for mating. One year it’s the size that matters, another year it’s bright and shiny feathers that are more important, another year it’s the beauty of the voice. The speculation is that females shop according to the natural conditions that change through the years. They look for different stuff if the year is cold, or sparse with food, or abundant. The males who “don’t get it”…well, they don’t get it.


Colour push and pull
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA


“The Enigma of Seven Dead Seas”
oil on canvas, 20 x 40 inches
by Coulter Watt

Hans Hofmann used to teach the Push/Pull theory of color. Cool colors push the eye back in the picture plane and warm colors pull the eye forward. They work as a pair, in unison to complement one another. One could cool the background color which will push the warm, hot color more to the fore, plus it will intensify the heat of the warm color by its color contrast. Further, if one is progressing towards a lighter tone in the Hot Zone, try lightening the color with a lighter hue of the color. For example, cadmium red would be lightened with cadmium red light, even lighter with cadmium orange and further still with cadmium yellow deep.


Colour and music overkill
by Paul Burns

This might be reaching, but “Color overkill” may heighten sensitivity and make the average person more acute and aware of what is conveyed in art. In music, studies show the average person has become more comfortable with and consciously aware of dissonance. Thus our society has evolved to accept and appreciate genres like Flamenco, be-bop Jazz, Bossa Nova… If that was music overkill, then Willie Nelson would no longer do it for us, but we still Love Willie.


Testing values of colours
by Mary Gregg Byrne, Bellingham, WA, USA


“Good Ol’Summertime”
watercolour painting, 20 x 10 inches
by Mary Gregg Byrne

One of the exercises I use when teaching watercolor painters how to judge the dark/light values of colors is to have them arrange a sample of each color on their palette, from darkest to lightest in value. I scan the test sheet, then print it in black and white. Red is the color that is most often misplaced. Consistently, reds are perceived as lighter in value than they actually are. Perhaps it is because of their warmth? It’s an interesting phenomena and I advise students to compensate in their value plans. If using red when a dark area is desired, you may want to overstate it.


Mystique of red
by Barbara Loyd


“Interupted Reading”
oil on canvas, 1865
36.2 x 25.5 inches
by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot used red most effectively in his dreamy, pearly gray landscapes. An old friend told me to use red bulbs in night lights because they are easier on the eyes when one stumbles about in the wee hours. He learned that while on submarine duty with the U.S. Navy. There are so many cultural associations with red — Japanese brides wear it; Catholic hierarchy wear it. Fast food restaurants’ decor usually have red prominent, to speed up the eating process so they can serve more customers, faster. Besides Indian Red and Chinese Red, how many other reds are there in the world’s paintbox?

(RG note) Thanks, Barbara. Artist’s Materials by Ian Hebblewhite lists about 550 reds — including Alizarin, Azo, Carmine, Cadmium, Madder, Rose, Flame, French, Geranium, Red Oxide, Madder, Napthol, Orient Earth, Persian, Scarlet, Venetian, Vermillion and many others too fugitive, discontinued or rococo to be mentioned in normal conversations.


Peter Ewart’s red coat
by Linda Ewart, Canada


“Winter Morning”
original painting, 12 x 16 inches
by Peter Ewart

My father, Peter Ewart, loved the vibrancy of red. He wore a red sweater and it suited him. To the “What is your favourite colour” question he always responded with red. In his art it was a colour that came to be associated with him in a way that became a trademark in his depiction of the Cariboo. The scarlet blanket coat, neck scarf or shirt, was a draw, a focus for the eye, but it also served as a metaphor for warmth and the human need for it in the wide and sparsely populated landscapes of 19th and earlier 20th century British Columbia and Alberta. It was something that appealed to the buying public, many of whom seemed to need a reassuring note in the paintings of the western cowboy and homesteader. A continuing reference, perhaps, to the Hudson’s Bay red and black point blankets, and the voyageurs and settlers who had multi-uses for them, most notably warmth and survival. His critics pointed out that it was too obvious, not sophisticated enough to be viable in the ‘serious’ artistic community of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Dad’s career as an artist spanned his eighty-two year lifetime. Still, along with the light in the cabin window, the cowboy and the campfire, that red coat remains one of the most endearing and remembered aspects of his artistic career.


Red as eye-catcher
by Cara Bevan


“Rainforest Ruby”
acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches
by Cara Bevan

I used to hate the color red, but as I evaluated the color as an artist I became very fond of it. (My favorite color is black for the way it absorbs all color.) When put beside blue or yellow, and even the secondary colors, which color do you see first? Red is definitely an eye-catcher and I’ve used it purposely in many of my wildlife paintings to make things pop. Red is also a very safe color; the most popular car color is red because it stands out and you are less likely to get in an accident with it. But, like all things, it’s better to use it in moderation.




Colour and personality type
by Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, AB, Canada


“Back at Fish Creek”
acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 inches
by Lorna Dockstader

>While working several decades ago, a young and enlightened geophysicist suggested I read Nuclear Evolution, The discovery of the rainbow body by Christopher Hills. First published in 1968, it was written during a time of immense social change. I struggled through many of its concepts, until reading the chapters about colours and how they related to chakras, levels of consciousness, inner levels of time, and personalities. After reading that each of us has a dominant colour personality, having both positive and negative traits, I began an experiment. Studying the personality types of co-workers, friends and family, it was amazingly easy and fun in perusing. This became very useful and fun later, for both determining and assigning a colour to each of them. Then I’d determine personal colour choices for myself, and also imagine how these might resonate with a client. The basic hues, as they related to the personality types, were as follows: Red – physical, Orange – social, Yellow – intellectual, Green – acquisitive, Blue – devotional, Indigo – intuitive, Violet – imaginative and creative, Black – self-annihilation (loss of ego). While continuing studies from other unusual sources, I read about the elegant uses of neutrals, browns and greys, colours most often used by those with high self-esteem, and the use of clear white light in more “spiritual” pieces, then colour light-references in The Tibetan Book of The Dead by W.Y. Evans-Wentz. Think about “green clients.” They would be of an acquisitive nature (of the heart and family chakra), and might purchase more paintings having harmonious shades of green.


Reselling ubiquitous reproductions
by Arja Palonen, Tweed, ON, Canada


“Madawaska River Rapids”
oil painting, 18 x 24 inches
by Arja Palonen

Having run a retail art gallery for past 20 years with all original works by 60 or more artists, has shown us that lot of people have not understood what these so-called ‘prints’ are about and have been made to believe that they have an investment in their hands and some have put a lot of money into these reproductions because of the false advertising and promotion. Not a week goes by that one such unlucky customer contacts us to sell their pricey reproduction prints, telling how much they are worth. Of course, we have to decline, and we usually refer them back to place where the purchase was made, and tell them to take them up on their evaluation on the piece. Usually, they tell us that they have without any luck. You can’t but feel sorry for these people. It’s the scam of the century. Any true artist should not participate in it.


Corruption of today’s art?
by Peter Hemmer, Melbourne, FL, USA


“Martin Luther King Jr”
digital painting
by Peter Hemmer

Thanks, Hans! It’s nice to know that I am personally responsible for the corruption of the art world as we know it: “These people generally lack the experience and knowledge to express themselves in any other way–no drawing skills, no sense of perspective, and no need for academic training, just the computer and its associated machinery are providing a cheap way to muscle into the arts.” After working as an illustrator and graphic designer primarily on a computer for the last 17 years, it’s also nice to know that I’m uneducated (B.F.A & M.F.A. Coursework), have no drawing skills, no sense of perspective, and have cheaply muscled my way into the arts – please tell my parents, Art College, and student loan companies that they either got off cheap (my parents) or I didn’t give them enough money (the College & Sallie Mae)! I have also worked in pen & ink, graphite, watercolor, charcoal, acrylics & pastel, and am on a mission to try oils in my free-time (free-time, what’s that?). I also wanted to add CG Society to the list of places to check out computer art on the web.


Definitely seeing red now
by Nancy O’Toole, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“BC Mountains, Evening Light”
acrylic on canvas, 16 x 16 inches
by Nancy O’Toole

They are at it again! Some of my paintings are again being copied and sold as oil paintings in a variety of sizes over the Net by a company in China. They do say it is a hand painted copy of the original. I am sure no matter what we do they will find a way of getting them up online again. It is very frustrating! Besides the obvious letter or phone call to them and reporting it to the Copyright Assn., reporting it to my publishers, etc., is there anything more that can be done to stop this blatant use of our images? Is it advantageous to have a lawyer write a letter? Can a word/message be written across the image to prevent using it to copy, and if so how does one do that? I distinctly say under each image displayed on my site: “All images are the copyright of Artist Nancy O’Toole. Do not copy without express permission of the artist. Thank you for any suggestions you care to make. It would be very much appreciated! At least I am in good company with artists like Monet, Klimt, O’Keeffe (spelt Okeefee) and Pablo Picasso (spelt Apablo picasso) and several others which I suspect copyrights have run out!

(RG note) Thanks, Nancy. It is unpleasant to have one’s work directly copied — by anyone, anywhere. Regarding the Chinese pirates, we have had quite a bit of success by bombarding them with emails asking them to kindly remove our images from their sites. Letters from trade commissions and embassies may work as well, but the best results seem to come from direct and repeated letters from artists and their publishers, dealers and other fellow travellers appealing to their sense of decency. The Chinese website where Nancy is copied can be found here.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Seeing red



From: Mina Pratt — Feb 29, 2008

My husband and grandson both are color blind. I have always been able to “click”my brain to see as they do. To me as an artist I find it very interesting. There is a lot of misconception associated with this phenomenon. Comments?

From: Jennifer Horsley — Mar 03, 2008

Nancy, I just checked out that Chinese site. Wow! The sheer number of your works they have is astounding. You’d have to talk to your site writer about putting words across the images. “Do not copy” or something like that. It can be done. I don’t know if that will help but it sure is worth a try.

From: Pat Oblak — Mar 04, 2008

A million thanks as always Robert, that photo of the gents from Papua New Guinea was like Creme Brulee for my eyes.

From: Barbara Jean — Mar 04, 2008

Another main function of colouring oneself is to express one’s mood or attempt to change it. I’ve never met a colour that isn’t useful. Like people, each one is different. They all have something to say that is uniquely theirs. And like people, who they hang out with influences them greatly. They are changed by the company they keep. Thanks, Robert, for the ongoing wealth of information and inspiration! Best, B. Jean

From: Margaret van Gurp — Mar 04, 2008

What a pleasure to be able twice a week to read about and see the work others are doing. It is always an inspiration. Thank you so much!!!

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Mar 04, 2008

Too busy this week to write a “proper” letter. glad for a “second chance to comment. I observed that your list left off a very important association of bright red in many cultures: a symbol of life itself. A simple explanation for its use ceremonially and for festive occasions, as a reflection of joy. (And, I suspect, that may be a reason it came to be associated more with women.) Red was once the color of wedding dress. Superstition changed that to white, the color of death, to protect the celebrants from being harmed by jealous spirits. I find that many of my paintings end up with bits of red in them, in one way or another. I often use red as a base layer — gives the whole painting a sense of liveliness and warmth. Thank you for a lively exploration of red in painting. I enjoyed seeing the visual contributions of some of your other readers very much.

From: Shirley Williams — Mar 06, 2008

I do so enjoy your very newsy-letters and look forward to them each week. I have learnt so much from them although have as yet not made any contribution. But I will some day. Thank you so much.

From: Marlena Burger — Mar 07, 2008

Hi BJ, I am new to this community and a photo artist. I know most of you here are traditional artists but I liked the site and the art plus I do work with artist in my business. Your fabric art caught my attention. I print my work as wearable art on silk. Usually scarves and sarongs is what I focus on. I am now considering stretching one of my silks to stretcher bars. So far I understand that I would need to stretch a piece of muslin over the bars before I gently attach the silk. Do you or anyone else have any advise or suggestions on this? thank you. Marlena Burger







Fall Road

acrylic painting, 24 x 36 inches
by Linda Kukulski, BC, Canada


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.

That includes Janet Morgan of Brooklyn, NY, USA who wrote, “A perfect Red Empire, Espionage and the quest for the colour of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield is about the race for cochineal. It’s a good read for color enthusiast and history buffs alike.”

And also Cynthia Gehrie of Evanston, IL, USA who wrote, “When you see photos and movies of rich color underwater, you can be sure that either they were filmed on shallow reefs, in tanks, or with flood lights.”

And also David Nielsen of Calgary, AB, Canada who wrote, “Try using a Venetian Red ground on your canvases. I have for nearly 20 years. It was originally shown to me by my mentor and teacher Howard Fussiner.”

And also Geri VanHeuverswyn of San Antonio, TX, USA who wrote, “When looking at paintings through a red lens, colours are reduced to black and white. I found a pair of sunglasses with red lenses, and I occasionally don them when in doubt about the values in a painting.”

And also Yaroslaw Rosputnyak of Moscow, Russia who wrote, “The colour is very strong resource of effect also requires honest application, if the artist will use it for good things — he will get God blessing to have force of the real artist. And as soon as the real artist is sent to Earth by God — the real artist must remember always about his mission at the Earth.”

And also Salinda Dahl of Siler City, NC, USA who wrote, “In my world there is a sixth use of color. That is the use of color in the realm of spirit or magic.”




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