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The Color Red: Passion, Power, & Peril

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

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In some ways, red is THE original color. It is one of the primary colors and a very dominant one at that. It was the first to be reproduced and broken down into different shades. It is also noted as the first color that a baby can recognize when it is born (alongside black and white).

It goes back to as early as color is recognized by man, to a time when civilization starts in Africa and as a result, it has been a dominant feature of culture ever since. We see evidence of stone age man using ground ochre (otherwise known as rust!) around 250,000 years ago in the Netherlands in Europe.

The first derived reds come from a plant called madder, where the root can be transformed into a dye, and a tiny scale insect, Kermes, whose bodies are dried and crushed to create a red tint.

Few colors, if any, can produce the emotions that red does. For many, it is the color of evil and anger, for others, it's a source of good and love. It’s this contradiction between how people respond to it that makes it so popular and why it generates such passion in people.

Power And Opulence

Of the many feelings that red generates (and it does generate a lot) one of the strongest is the sense of royalty and power. It’s been utilized a lot over the years when looking at how people of power have used it.

Many royal paintings from history show the subject in red robes. One famous example is Queen Elizabeth I having a portrait shortly before ascending to the throne. She was dressed in red to show her subjects that she was ready to take power.

As a result, reds are popular in interior design for studies, boardrooms, and other places where strength and control are emotions you want to convey. It’s no surprise that conference rooms will see a lot of red in chairs, table settings, and also in the art that gets displayed on the wall.

This all dates back to Roman times when blood-red symbolized courage, strength, and power. It was only Emperors that could use this blood-red for interior design in a palace. They also allowed it to be worn by their guards as another sign of their superior strength.

As we will see later, the Egyptians do have some negative thoughts about red but due to a limited color set of the time, we also have many good associations, particularly around life and health. Women of the time used it to redden their cheeks to show healthiness, whilst most depictions of men in paintings were colored in red.

Red is of course the color of blood and our hearts, so for centuries, it has been strongly linked with love, romance, and lust. It has always been popular in weddings, from the Roman times through to modern Chinese weddings where it is considered good luck to have red involved in your wedding, from the dress to the transportation the couple ride in.

Famously, it’s the color of Valentine’s Day, with red hearts adorning most cards you can ever buy, whilst most romantic artworks or ornaments are based in red. In fashion, red is also seen as expensive and a signal of luxury. A great example is a red-bottomed shoe from Christian Louboutin, first launched in 1992, that he went on to trademark the shoe.

Its association with blood has also meant red has played an important role in religion over the years, seen as the blood of Christ. Cardinals have always worn red garments and it's the prominent color in most worship garments.


For all the positive tones we mention above, there is no disguising that red can also be a negative color and can scream danger. It might be seen as a threat and is therefore used by a lot of organizations to denote a warning, most famously fire engines. It’s also used in warning signs, no one doubts when the sign is red, that means stop!

A good example of these negative connotations comes from the Ancient Egyptians, where red was attached to uninhabited and barren lands, thus it was seen as an evil color. One of the most infamous stories from the time is of Seth, who mutilated his brother and is normally depicted in red whenever the act was drawn.

Red was the color of the Greek gods of war, Phoebus and Ares, so it has connotations with bloodshed and conflict. For this reason, even today red can be seen as an aggressive color and should be used very carefully. You wouldn’t generally use the darker shades in places of recovery, peace, and reflection like hospitals or spas. It is also rare to see it in modern bathrooms.

One interesting fact about the danger of using red came during Roman times. They loved interiors adorned with a bright pigment derived from the mineral cinnabar, which was also used to splash on conquering warriors. The downside? Cinnabar is an ore from highly toxic mercury and as a result, those mining for it (usually slaves) were basically given a death sentence!