This section is from the book "Chromatography; Or, A Treatise On Colours And Pigments, And Of Their Powers In Painting", by George Field. Also available from Amazon: Chromatography, or A Treatise on Colours and Pigments, and of Their Powers in Painting.
"Celestial rosy red. Love's proper hue." Milton: Paradise Lost.
RED is the second and intermediate of the primary colours, standing between yellow and blue; and in like intermediate relation also to white and black, or light and shade. Hence it is pre-eminent among colours, as well as the most positive of all, forming with yellow the secondary orange and its near relatives, scarlet, etc.; and with blue, the secondary purple and its allies, crimson, etc. It gives some degree of warmth to all colours, but most so to those which partake of yellow.
It is the archeus, or principal colour, in the tertiary russet; enters subordinately into the two other tertiaries, citrine and olive; goes largely into the composition of the various hues and shades of the semineutral marrone, or chocolate, and its relatives, puce, murrey, morello, mordore, pompadour, etc.; and more or less into browns, greys, and all broken colours. It is also the second power in harmonizing and contrasting other colours, and in compounding black and all neutrals, into which it enters in the proportion of five, - to blue, eight, - and yellow, three.
Red is a colour of double power in this respect also; that, in union or connexion with yellow, it becomes hot and advancing; but mixed or combined with blue, it becomes cool and retiring. It is, however, more congenial with yellow than with blue, and thence partakes more of the character of the former in its effects of warmth, of the influence of light and distance, and of action on the eye, by which the power of vision is diminished upon viewing this colour in a strong light; while, on the other hand, red itself appears to deepen in colour rapidly in a declining light as night comes on, or in shade. These qualities of red give it great importance, render it difficult of management, and require it to be kept in general subordinate in painting; hence it is rarely used unbroken, or as the archeus, ruling or predominating colour, or for toneing a picture: on which account it will always appear detached or insulated, unless it be repeated and subordinated in a composition. Accordingly Nature uses red sparingly, and with as great reserve in the decoration of her works as she is profuse in lavishing green upon them; which is of all colours the most soothing to the eye, and the true compensating colour, or contrasting or harmonizing equivalent of red, in the proportional quantity of eleven to five of red, according to surface or intensity; and is, when the red inclines M to scarlet or orange, a blue-green; and, when it inclines to crimson or purple, is a yellow-green.
Red breaks and diffuses with white with peculiar loveliness and beauty; but it is discordant when standing with orange only, and requires to be joined or accompanied by their proper contrast, to resolve or harmonize their dissonance.
In landscapes, etc. abounding with hues allied to green, a red object, properly posited according to such hues in light, shade, or distance, conduces wonderfully to the life, beauty, harmony, and connexion of the colouring; and this colour is the chief element of beauty in floreal nature, the prime contrast and ornament of the green garb of the vegetal kingdom.
Red being the most positive of colours, and having the middle station of the primaries, while black and white are the negative powers or neutrals of colours, and the extremes of the scale, - red contrasts and harmonizes these neutrals; and, as it is more nearly allied to white or light than to black or shade, this harmony is most remarkable in the union or opposition of white and red, and this contrast most powerful in black and red.
As a colour, red is in itself pre-eminently beautiful, powerful, cheering, splendid, and ostentatious, and communicates these qualities to its two secondaries, and their sentiments to the mind. Hence the blind man mentioned by Locke, who compared scarlet to the sound of a trumpet, had not a very bad conception of its analogy; nor very different from that of Euripides, where he says -
"But when the flaming torch was hurl'd, the sign Of purple fight, as when the trumpet sounds," &C.
And the intelligent youth couched by Cheselden thought scarlet the most beautiful of all colours. This beauty of red is a great temptation to that undue use of it which subjected the Greek painter, Parrhasius, to the censure of Euphranor, "that the Theseus of the former had eaten roses, but that his own had fed upon beef."
"The bold Erechtheus' sou, Whom Pallas bred, and cherish'd as her own."
Plutarch: Oh the Fame of the Athenians.
The same beautiful fault has been attributed in modern times to the colouring of Rubens, whose very name may he supposed in a future age to have been given him on this account. To see things or events en coulear de rose, is, with our vivacious neighbours, to look upon them with a cheerful, partial, and favourable eye. Hope is beautifully and expressively represented as the Goddess Spes, with an opening rose-bud in her hand; whence the rose-bud is held to be the emblem of Hope: and as Destiny is veiled with Hope, so, according to Catullus, the Destinies wore rose-coloured veils tied with white.
Nature, every where replete with benevolent intelligence and good taste, has given this colour to the blood, with the property of becoming more vivid when spilt; and has proportioned its action on the eye to the danger of the case, as when an artery is wounded. If it excite salutary terror by association, its immediate effect on the sense is to moderate alarm by its beauty. Had it been black instead of red, it would have been less promptly discovered, and more frightful in its appearance. But this is out of place, except as an instance that Nature sanctions it as a true principle of art that we should disguise or veil whatever is horrible, abominable, or loathsome.
Red is expressive of ardour, courage, and the sanguine passions: it is hence peculiarly a military colour, as appropriate to war as white is to peace: hence the red plumes worn by military heroes in antient times. Hannibal, Scipio, and Alexander the Great, bore shields of this colour, the badge of prowess, courage, and command. It dyes the flag of defiance, and is the emblem of blood; naturally stimulating and indicating fierceness and courage, as in the comb of the cock, the throttles of the turkey, and in exciting the bull to rage.