RED – when Chemistry is dating Art

gameofpaint blog post about the origination of colors,

I m so fond of color –

I absolutely love mixing colours, getting my hands dirty and making new colour hues as I have imagined.

Making a research to find how colors  are made and  what is the natural ingredients they have been used since antiquity, was something I wanted to do for a long time.

I thought it would take me only one blog post to cover the subject, but I have found so interesting things and information that the six colour became three and then I decided to give each colour a special date and to keep my eyes only on to one each time.

So Come along…

First date : RED

Red pigment is one of the basics that people have discovered .

Initially made from RED OCHRE, it is a colour you can find even in the prehistoric Art  as in the Cave of Altamira in Spain (10.000 -40.000 years ago).

They have found large bones and shoulders of animals that have been used to turn minerals into dust.

In order to make pigment they added water, animal fat, juices from vegetables, urine, blood or bone marrow.


red pigment fron ochre was found in prehistoric cave altamira.
Bison from altamira cave in Spain – pigment made from red ochre


In Ancient Egypt, they made the Reds from OXIZED IRON  and RED OCHRE

It was associated with life, health, and victory. Egyptians would color themselves with red ochre during celebrations.

Egyptian women used red ochre as a cosmetic to redden cheeks and lips and also used henna to color their hair and paint their nails.

ochre color in ancient times
photo credits to Andrian van Leen


But, like many colors, it also had a negative association, with heat, destruction and evil.

A prayer to god Isis states: “Oh Isis, protect me from all things evil and red.”

The ancient Egyptians began manufacturing pigments in about 4000 BC.

Red ochre was widely used as a pigment for wall paintings, particularly as the skin color of men.

girls dancing -ancint egypt - red pigment from ochre for skin tones
From the tomb of Nebamun, Thebes Egypt. Girls dancing. Painted plaster. Circa 1400 B.C. MOD


Ancient Greek  world used to produce Red colors  by using the MINERAL HEMATITES.

When it is pulverized it is a red powder.


hematites stone


The best quality in ancient times were the Persian and the Spanish hematites.

It is believed that the red color used in the palace of Knossos, Crete, Greece, during the Minoan period (2600–1100 BC) was mainly Persian hematitis.


knossos red pigment from hematites
Red pigment in Knossos it is believed to be made from Persian hematites.


Greeks and Romans depending on the way they used to produce the dye for their clothing, and not just the material of a dress, could suggest a social status in the ancient world.

Different shades of purple or red were reserved for the nobles as their manufacturing was an expensive process (from SEA SNAIL ‘S SECRETION !)

The lower classes could afford something plainer, like ochre or brown.


red dyes among the ages
An ancient depiction of women dying fabric to make clothes out of. –


In Pompei they found frescos painted with Red pigment which this Red was actually burnt sienna from Tuscany.

The pigment is from iron oxide at 50% and varied amounts of clay and quartz.

They believed to be yellow at the beggining and when gases from Vesuvius reacted with yellow paint, they created this red, as research reveal.


Red frescos paintings in Pompei
Roman fresco in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii –(1) (Charlotte Higgins, Pompeii shows its true colours, The Guardian online, 22. September 2011).


Red  was also an important color in ancient China, where it was used to colour early pottery and later the gates and walls of palaces.

During the Han dynasty (200 BC–200 AD) Chinese craftsmen made a red pigment, lead tetroxide,by heating lead white pigment.


Red in ancient china


Chinese red was a light red, but during the Tang dynasty new dyes and pigments were discovered.

The Chinese used several different plants to make red dyes, including the flowers of the safflour, the thorns and stems of a variety of sorghum plant called Kao-liang, and the wood of the sappanwood tree.

For pigments, they used cinnabar (Ancient greek word : κιννάβαρι), which produced the famous vermillion or Chinese red” .

red pigment coming out of cinnabar
Cinnabar mineral  on Dolomit


Brazilin was another popular red dye in the Middle Ages.

It came from the sapanwood tree, which grew in India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.

A similar tree, brazilwood, grew on the coast of South America


brazil wood -red dyes-

The red wood was ground into sawdust and mixed with an alkaline solution to make dye and pigment.

It became one of the most profitable exports from the New World, and gave its name to the nation of Brazil.


In the Renaissance, the brilliant red costumes for the nobility and wealthy were dyed with kermes (insects  that are natives to the Mediterranean and live on the sap of the kermes Oak)

During the Renaissance trade routes were opened to the New World, to Asia and the Middle East, and new varieties of red pigment and dye were imported into Europe.

Those imports usually  were through Venice, Genoa or Seville, and Marseille.

Venice was the major depot importing and manufacturing pigments for artists and dyers from the end of the 15th century- the catalog of a Venetian Vendecolori, or pigment seller, from 1534 included vermilion and kermes.


red pigment in the Renaissance was extracted from insects of Mexico
Detail of Jan Van Eyck painting “God Almighty”


During the 16th and 17th centuries, the most famous red pigment came from a cochineal insect. 

This creature lived on prickly-pear cacti in Mexico.


red colour made of cochineal insects
Indian Collecting Cochineal with a Deer Tail, (1777)


These white bugs produced a potent red dye so beloved  by artists and patrons, that it quickly became

the third greatest import out of the “New World” (after gold and silver)!

as explains Victoria Finlay in A Brilliant History of Color in Art.


From this bug (cochineal) and the Kermes insect they used  to combine and make the famous  Carmine Red. .






Carmine red pigment in Rubens paintingPeter Paul Rubbens – Samson and Delidah (1609) Carmine red was used in this painting. 

As a non-toxic source for red pigment, the cochineal bug is still used to color lipsticks and blush today!!!

(Did you know that  every time you put on your lipstick,you might kiss with a bunch of these little white (from the outside) bugs?)


cochineal insect for red pigment
my sketches for the cochineal insect


Only the names of the Red pigments among the ages, are like a magic journey to me.

I pronounce their names and feels like throwing magic spells, or is it only me that feels this way?

Read with me: Red Ochre, Madder lake, Carmine, Red Lead, Dragon’s Blood, Vermilion, Cadmium Red …

and you can make the actual  journey here with the timeline of Red Colour that I found in



Next date, colour Blue!



Sources :

About Colors and Pigments educational material at colourLex 

Wikipedia about Cinnabar, Brazilwood and  Red.

About  Red colors in History and Art in

About colours in the Archaic era you can find here  and  here

About ancient Greeks and Romans

On minerals and stones you can find more here

I was really inspired about colour origination from this article 

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