Seeing Red: Alex Connor, author of Isle of the Dead, on the power of colour

By Alex Connor | 18 June 2013

From paintings of Titian and Rembrandt to Gainsborough and Constable, there is a certain magic in the use of the colour red. Alex Connor, whose new book Isle of the Dead you can win on Culture24, explains why.

a Detail of Titian's The Assumption showing a femal figure in red held aloft by cherubs
Titian, The Assumption (detail).© Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. Via Wikimedia Commons.
According to a recent article in The Times, the reason for some paintings reaching higher prices is "often alarmingly simplistic" - the picture has red in it.

But why are we surprised by this? Painters know the impact of this colour. Rembrandt, Rubens, Salvador Dali - they all used it. None more than Titian, making the tint so famous we refer to titian red as a hair colour.

But why are we so drawn to it? Red has long been the colour of life. It stimulates a faster heartbeat, enhances metabolism and breathing, and raises blood pressure.

Red is also a warning colour. Fast food restaurants use red to provoke hunger; shops use it to advertise sales. You never see a sale sign in green. And no matador challenges a bull with a pale blue cape.

Red is the colour we react to the most. Titian used it liberally in The Assumption of the Virgin because he knew that red brought images forward and directed the viewer to the most important areas of the painting.

We look at The Assumption and are guided around the composition by the towering, emotional pyramid of red.

It’s shorthand for power – physical and spiritual. And sex. In advertising, red can be erotic, as in make up and underwear, or powerful, as in sports cars. Think of Red Light Districts too, using the colour to demand attention.

But some use of red is not so blatant. In heraldry, red is used to symbolise courage. In China, it represents the bloody struggle of the revolution.

The church realised the power of red too. The galero – the large, red-tasselled hat – was first granted to cardinals by Pope Innocent IV in 1245. Why? Because he wanted his favourites to stand out in the processions.

Some interesting scientific research was recently done with gymnasts. Each was dressed in different coloured sports gear - blue, green, yellow and red – and all performed to the same standard.

But when they analysed the findings the red team’s results were higher than the others. Even subconsciously, red is the colour of triumph.

So it seems obvious that the use of red would drive up the price of a painting. Thomas Lawrence’s Red Boy famously challenged Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. Rembrandt knew that a crimson hat livened up a portrait and Caravaggio wielded the colour like a whip.

But the genius of red is Titian. Like many Old Masters, he used an under-painting of red bole (powder of red iron oxide or clay), upon which he built his glazes - up to 16 in some of his most vibrant reds. They literally shimmered with colour and heat.

But why does red make a painting more valuable? Maybe because it describes emotion more vividly than other colour.

Look at Pope Paul III and his Grandsons – the red of power; the portrait of Pietro Aretino – and the red of lust. Then look at The Entombment - the red of pathos.

It is the colour of all human emotions. From the noblest to the basest. In red, we see ourselves.

  • Alex Connor is the author of several crime novels that combine art history, painting and thriller writing. Her latest, Isle of the Dead, is publilshed by Quercus.
  • Culture24 has three copies of Isle of the Dead to give away. Win one by entering our competition.
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