Post-school, it’s not often that you’re afforded an excuse to plumb the depths of a topic like color theory or the historical underpinnings of a primary color. Yet working designers must build new color palettes daily, using the exact same shades they’ve always had. The eye could surely get jaded towards color, so how to get the creative blood coursing again?
Red: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau could be exactly the jolt needed for designers to re-animate their color palettes and wield color with a little more of a critical eye. We see red everywhere, and its ubiquity runs counter to its potency, perhaps making us momentarily forget how searing and pointed the color can be.
“The ‘pure’ red of which certain abstractionists speak does not exist,” writes the 20th century painter Robert Motherwell. “Any red is rooted in blood, glass, wine, hunters’ caps and a thousand other concrete phenomena. Otherwise we would have no feeling toward red and its relations….” For no other color does this statement ring quite so true. While other colors manage to evoke meanings beyond their most common manifestations, red is nearly always about blood and all its related associations, from love to courage to violence and power. Red is strong and pungent, so much so that, paradoxically, it’s normalized; it’s difficult to keep remembering how forceful it is. As such red is highly politicized, a volatile yet under-the-radar color for the Trump era.
Pastoureau’s book on red explores well-traveled terrain on what the color red has meant in different Western contexts, yet knowing historically why red accrued these meanings is surprisingly instructive. Little details speak volumes: for instance, the Romans favored red and purple flowers at funerals, particularly poppies and violets because they lose their petals rapidly, a metaphor for life’s brevity. Red amaranth—whose petals don’t wilt as easily—came to represent immortality by contrast. Even associations that seem alien to our sense of red’s meanings are interesting: who knew Medieval Europeans considered offering red cherries as a gesture by which a shy person could wordlessly declare their love?
On the subject of color palettes, I was equally surprised to learn that red and white were long considered classic color opposites in pre-modern Western traditions, a sort of color ying and yang. We might call red and black such a pairing today, but this duo evoked the colors of hell to medieval Europeans, animated as they were by dark red flames that emitted no light.
Red also explores the material history of the color red; the dyes and paints sourced from nature that covered artists’ canvases and colored fabrics, informing fashions at every stratum of society. While designers today can select colors freely and equivalently, in years gone by, color had a price tag attached: you’d pay dearly for a brilliant red or lustrous black, while dingy yellows and browns came cheap. Material color also brought with it a guild of makers, a received body of knowledge in dye- and paint-making, and entire industries. Red dyes sustained the wealth of the Spanish Empire for centuries, and they jealously guarded their secret ingredient, cochineal insects from Latin America, as prime intellectual property.
Red carries similar potency in the modern era. Student protests of 1968 took up the color in solidarity with Communists, whose own revolutions were well underway. As anarchists seized the color black for their cause, the palette of political extremism expanded to another shade, one in uneasy alliance with red. It’s a curious twist that Americans came to label their right wing parties with red, the color traditionally associated with the left.
Pastoureau’s book embraces only Western cultures, and obviously the color can be read—pun intended—with non-Western symbolism in mind, too. Chinese and Japanese tradition alike share a myth about a red thread linking people bound together by fate; while in Morocco, soldiers used to embalm chameleons with coriander, then sew them up with red threads as lucky charms going into battle.
Red’s layered meanings survive in historical echoes in modern designs. Posters inspired by Russian propaganda favor the strong, simple trio of red, black and white. Reds in the MTA Standards Manual hearken back to other transit color-coding systems like maritime flags and street signs, which themselves find their roots in heraldic principles: all are particularly concerned with color-pairings that are highly visible at a distance. Coca-Cola’s transglobal red logo screams hegemony in much the same way Mao’s Little Red Book does. It’s worth noting that only 26 countries, out of 194 total, don’t include red in their national flags. Each side of most battles draws courage and pride from exactly the same color. We all bleed red, but in infinitely varied hues.
Jude Stewart is the author of ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color.