Blushing In Cochineal Colour Red

By Moksha Kumar 

The history of the colour red has been covered many times over – but little has been said on its artistic uses and more modern pigment history.

Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 71 1/4" x 7' 2 1/4", © 2019 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York colour red
Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 71 1/4″ x 7′ 2 1/4″, © 2019 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Looking at the colour red is an intense, bold and beautiful experience. When used correctly – the effect is mesmerising and almost, historic. Flags, paint pigments and even revolutions are not bereft of this powerful colour.
So, where did it all begin? It began with Aztecs, who bred Cochineal bugs (small red coloured cactus mites) – for this very purpose! Creating a vibrant red meant crushing up these beetles to create a rich, red dye – that was then used to create other shades as well (orange or deep yellow).

Just as ultramarine blue (covered in the piece ‘In Search for the Perfect Blue’) was an incredibly valuable and expensive pigment – so was the flaming shade, which often graced the robes of royalty and eventually, the infamous ‘red coats’ of the British troops. 
Of course, the pigment changed hands and traversed history to become the colour that it is now. Referencing the various modern movements that began to use red for everything other than garments, apples and other traditional motifs – we take a look at a few artists who used red quite brilliantly and to elucidate a strong point. 

In Henri Matisse’s ‘The Red Studio’ – we see the entirety of the canvas covered in carmine red, with exception of the outlines of the canvases and some furniture. Never before in the history of art, had an artist painted his studio without his own visage/image within it. Especially not in such a fabulously jarring shade!

The paintings reflect the artist and the outlines vibrate with a certain electricity due to the pigment itself. The point of course was to not only showcase the studio but the energy that flowed within it. The table, plants, glasses, chairs and grandfather clock – add character to the otherwise boring space, as though anchoring the boundaries of the colour red itself. 

Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 7' 11 3/8" x 17' 9 1/4" © 2019 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York colour red
Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 7′ 11 3/8″ x 17′ 9 1/4″ © 2019 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Vir Heroicus Sublimis – ‘Ma, Heroic and Sublime’, is an incredible painting. Luckily I was able to visit the work at the MoMA and witness its scary intensity for myself. For when you stand next to it, almost everything else disappears. The canvas is almost 18 feet wide and 7 feet tall – so the colour red seems to turn into a sea, ready to swallow and drown you whole, while enveloping the senses completely in its flaming force.

The canvas almost seems ready to burst like a dam, full of colour red and dangerously held within the frame. The artist himself of course, wanted the experience to be like that of a meeting with a person. So the red would essentially be able to translate the canvas into a persona. In the paintings mentioned, we are subject to an immense amount of the colour red, thus creating the desired effect. Even in smaller amounts, the colour is quite beautiful – in fact both love and war are likened to its intensity!