The Color Red

The Magic Science of Red

What is it about red that hypnotically captivates the eye? The vibrancy of our world is always momentarily paused at the sight of this gravitational color. Distinctly empowering and sensually mesmerizing, red has that subliminal tendency to enthrall the senses.

It is by no accident that in color psychology, red is used to evoke the strongest emotions and physiological responses. As the token symbol for warmth, red boasts the highest wavelength (620-740 nanometers) of the color spectrum. Is it science that provokes red’s lure? Perhaps. To understand the paradox of color, the biology of the eye must be examined. Color is actually light received by the retina, where color-sensitive cells known as cones decipher specific hues according to wavelength of visible light. Thus, the perceived color of an object is actually its reflection of light. Envision the sun, the source of light. At different increments during the day, objects appear brighter, deeper, lighter, or softer, depending on the amount of sunlight reflecting off of them. Physiologically, red evokes an involuntary increase in pulse and heart rate, stimulating the adrenals and blood pressure; a sure sign of energy reminiscent of the sun. Consciously or not, red has an initial psychological impact that precedes its carnal change. Chromotherapy, a treatment using colors to heal, is common practice among holistic psychologists. Following base instincts, red is the hue used to stimulate the mind, increasing circulation and an awakening of the body. Feelings of love, excitement and passion in the mind instigate the body to follow suit. Can something as intangible as a mere ember of color truly be medicinal?

Artists over the course of centuries, too, have valued the use of color exponentially more than any other aspect of their work. For instance, color was the cornerstone to French artist Henri Matisse’s paintings in the early twentieth century. His L’Atelier Rouge, or The Red Studio, is one of the boldest in his collection. Aggressive, yet charming, evocative, yet subtle, it manages to exude a pensive, but strong nature without appearing overbearingly intense. Vincent van Gogh, renowned painter and lover of absinthe, often reversed his visions with abruptness. Medical theories have long been proposed that thujone, a neurotoxin produced from consuming copious amounts of absinthe, caused van Gogh xanthopsia, a consistent vision of yellow. As with all artistic endeavors, frequently emotions surface on the canvas. In Pablo Picasso’s Rose Period, his exuberance derived from his relationship with Fernande Olivier emerged with warm colors of reds, oranges and pinks. Artistically, physiological vigor of emotions is the catalyst to symbolic tangible hues. Whether conscious or not, even these artists followed contemporary chromotherapy in color choice.

Throughout history, red enjoys a multihued persona. Implicative of multitudinous emotions, it has been supposed that red was the first delineated color in antiquity, signifying a source of life and energy. Gladiators in the Colosseum drank the blood of their conquered to symbolize harnessing of the victim’s strength. Shimmering rubies and deep garnets charmed spirits of evil away, supposedly an invincible air bestowed upon the wearer. Eighteenth century brides introduced the red veil, still common practice in the surrounding areas of Greece, to ensure love and fertility. Mythology and Christianity, too, dedicate the red rose to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, and the Cross, respectively.

So, what is it about the sensuous power of red, so explicitly symbolic of passion and energy and so emphatically used to reignite the body and the mind? Why does it so mysteriously and surreptitiously grab hold of the senses and invigorate them to acute measures? Red remains the token symbol of passion. In the mind’s eye, do not wine, silk, roses and other assorted aphrodisiacs surface while you inwardly simper? The blushing hue that sends electric shivers up and down our spines boasts many faces. In art, it is spirited and passionate; in society, it is powerful and attention-grabbing; in psychology, it is invigorating and transforming; in science, it is robust and primary; in a word, it is red.