Archive | 20:03

Talking About Red

27 Jan
A linocut Sparta Puss in red

Here’s my second podcast. It’s about the colour red and is mostly based on the book Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay

I hope you enjoy listening to it but if you’d prefer to read, here’s a transcript of the podcast.

Hello, Rosie Scribblah here. Welcome to my second Podcast. It’s been a while since my first one but there’s a pandemic going on so things go a bit pear shaped sometimes. I’ve been having a think about what to podcast about and I fancied doing something about Red. That’s the colour Red.

I read this amazing book a while back by Victoria Finlay, called Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox. She’s a really good storyteller so I thought I’d share some of her adventures. 

Red

Sooo – Red. Well, it’s a fundamental colour.  It’s the colour of blood.  It’s the colour of lust and rage and love and power and any kind of heightened emotion. In the Comanche language the same word is used for colour, circle and red, which shows how important it is to them. And of course it’s the colour of the dragon of Wales. 

But making red for paints and dyes isn’t an easy business. Blood is obviously red but once spilled it quickly turns to a murky brown so it’s no use as a permanent dye.  The search for something which matches the richness of blood that can also be used for painting pictures and dying fabrics is almost as old as history itself.

Chemical pigments

Before chemical pigments were invented by the Victorians, colours came from nature, from animals, plants and minerals and elements.

And for thousands of years the most popular red in what we now call the Western world came from an insect called the Kermes, which comes from the Mediterranean and lives on the Kermes oak trees. They were crushed up and used by the ancient Greeks and Romans as a very expensive red dye. And from this Kermes we get the words crimson and carmine, which are both types of red. 

Another very expensive red was vermilion, which the Ancients called cinnabar. The Roman author Pliny wrote that is was the blood spilled from battles between elephants and dragons. But it’s a deadly mixture of sulphur and mercury, which is really poisonous. The Romans loved it so much that they used it in paintings, in frescos on their walls and in lipstick even though they knew it was so dangerous. But then these days people have Botox, a well-known deadly toxin injected into their faces, so who are we to judge?

The cochineal bug

Meanwhile, in the Americas they had a much richer red. The cochineal bug grows on prickly pear plants. Cultivating it is a delicate balance because left to their own devices the cochineal bugs will completely destroy the cacti.

To get at the pigment, cacti plants are infected with the bugs for 5 months at a time and then they leave the plants to rest for a few months. The insects are harvested by blowing them off the plants into bags using compressed air tipping them into massive steel vats and pulping them.  There’s no nice way of saying it. Trillions of insects die to make your chicken tikka masala look like it does. Because, cochineal is the common name for the permitted food colouring E120 and it’s in most foods that are red and pink, like processed ham and also in cosmetics like lipstick.

The deep red you get from cochineal bugs has always been very valuable.  Cardinals in the Catholic Church used to have hats dyed with it and Mary Queen of Scots wore a dress dyed with cochineal when she was beheaded. 

The ancient Incas

The ancient Incas had a very sophisticated symbolic colour system. Black was time, yellow was gold, blue was the sky and they used red to represent themselves.  Different types of red would mean different aspects of their empire. They used a sophisticated system of knotted cords to communicate across great distances.  A red cord tied with knots at the top would mean a great battle and blood red knots at the top would show how many of their own people had died. 

When Europeans stumbled across the Americas, gold wasn’t the only thing they wanted.  They were amazed by the red they found there.  It was richer than the ones they were used to and they didn’t waste any time, muscling in on the trade in cochineal and very quickly this new, brighter version of red totally swamped the European world.  Everybody wanted it for clothes and cosmetics.  At the time only the Spanish knew how the red was made and they guarded the secret fiercely.  The colour was imported into Europe as a reddish brown powder, so no one knew it was bugs, and the Spaniards tried to stop any other nation from travelling to the source of their supplies in the New World. 

Thiéry de Menonville

By the 18th Century, other nations wanted in on the Red action. The French sent Thiéry de Menonville to South America to find out.  The Spanish were suspicious of him and tried to send him home but he escaped and headed into the interior of Mexico.  Once he had discovered the secret, he then had to get the insects home to France. Because they would not settle on a plant once they had been removed, the plants complete with insects would have to be kidnapped and kept alive all the way back across to Europe. And, if he’d been caught the Spanish customs officers would have burnt him at the stake. That was their penalty for industrial espionage back then.

After months of searching and risking death from the Spanish, from bandits, disease and wild animals he got back to the French controlled island of Haiti where he lived. And then he found the cactus and bugs growing just round the corner from his house. Which must have been annoying. But it broke the Spanish monopoly of the cochineal trade.

The red produced by cochineal is so gorgeous that the 19th century British painter Turner used it despite being told time and again by his fellow artists, customers and even the manufacturers of his paints that it would fade.  And it did. And because of this many of the great Turner paintings that we see in museums are literally shadows of their former selves, because the reds have faded so much.

Turner

But he wasn’t that bothered. Turner was well known for not caring about his finished work and left a lot of his paintings in terrible conditions. He even ripped a tear in one painting to make a catflap for his seven Manx cats.  He was such a passionate, spontaneous artist that he wanted the reddest red at the moment he was painting and didn’t think of anything else. 

But he also used another popular red at that time, red lead. The proper name for it in its natural state is Minium but it can be made by heating up white lead, which is also really poisonous. It’s quite an orangey red and it was so widely used by Persian and Mughal artists that their work became known as miniatures.  The fact that the paintings are also usually very small is just a coincidence.

So what other reds did Turner get to use? In one of his most famous paintings, of the ship The Fighting Temeraire, he used iodine scarlet, which was developed by the inventor Humphrey Davey from the mineral iodine.  But like the others, it fades and the painting is now it’s just a pale reflection of when it was created. 

Post boxes

Finding a red that didn’t fade was also a problem for the Post office in the 1800s. Post boxes were originally painted green, but people complained that they kept bumping into them, so the Post Office painted their pillar boxes red. Unfortunately, they quickly faded to pink and had to keep being repainted until a good, colour fast synthetic red paint was invented.

So there we are, the colour Red – I hope you enjoyed hearing about colour as much as I do. Like I said, I got most of this from the book Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox by Victoria Finlay. Net time I’ll podcast about another colour – black maybe …. Or purple …. So many to choose from. Hwyl fawr, Bye….

A Chance To Own One Of My Artworks

I have some small screenprints for sale, inspired by my drawings of the taxidermy collection at Swansea Museum. I have given these antique artifacts a modern twist by combining them with images of rubbish – old fruit nets, bubble wrap and plastic – highlighting the problem of human pollution and how it affects wildlife.

To buy my work on the Swansea Print Workshop site please click the image to the left and to see the complete image.

Inspired by drawings of the taxidermy collection at Swansea Museum. I have given these antique artefacts a modern twist by combining them with images of rubbish – old fruit nets, bubble wrap and plastic – highlighting the problem of human pollution and how it affects wildlife.

20 percent of the cost of each screenprint sold goes to support Swansea Print Workshop, which receives no public funding.

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