RED Colours of ancient times

Post 430 – by Gautam Shah


Red is the most fascinating colour in history. It is the colour of kill, blood and life. It was prominently used in prehistoric cave art. It was made with red Hematite or iron oxide, as red ochre. It is one of the oldest pigments and has lasted well for more than 70000 years. Red ochres are very stable colourant unaffected by alkaline or acidic effects, moisture or UV exposure. The red ochre is available in many colour variations, in almost all regions of the world, and usually at surface level. The minerals in the form of rocks, lumps or dust form can be ground to fine powder form.

Cochineal insects crushed

Red oxide or Red ochre colours of the primitive age were not the most brilliant colours if one were to compare it with some of the synthetic red pigments (cadmium, chrome, rubine, etc.), we use today. But in absence of the ‘brilliant reds’ the Red Ochre was a magical red. Primitive man, however had some ochres that were brighter then others. The brilliance of red was enhanced by mixing, or with topping with wax or oils.

Natural dyes on Skeins

The early civilizations used ‘red colours’ for different purposes such as body painting, ceramic painting, dyeing of leathers and fabrics. Root extract of the Rubia or Madder plant was used in ancient Egypt for colouring textiles. A red colourant made from an insect exudate called Lac, gave the term ‘Lake’ (a transparent dye-based colour). In Italy during the post mediaeval periods, the Lac was considered very expensive pigment. Henna leaves and madder roots were mixed with alum to create red shades. Another source of red colour was from insects Cochineal and Kermes vermilio. The Romans used a bright red or vermillion pigment made from a natural mineral called cinnabar. A warm ruby-red resinous exudation of Calamus draco was used by illustrators. Red lead or Lead tetroxide pigment was widely used in Persian and Indian miniature paintings. It was also used in European art by name minium. Sindoor is a brilliant red colour powder used by Indian (Hindu) women, on their forehead and for hair parting. It was Vermillion, but being a toxic material is now produced by reacting Turmeric with Alum or Lime.


Sindoor Tikka Powder Hindu Women use in on forehead

In India, red dyestuffs were used from antiquity. These were plants of kampillaka (Mallotus phillippinensis), pattanga (Caesalpinia sappan), jauka (a species of Oldenlandia), and animal substances like indragopa (cochineal). The Sappan wood tree (Caesalpinia sappan from Asia and Brazil) based, red dyestuff is called Brazilian.

Vermilion Pillars

Red Ochre powders were placed with dead bodies (Neolithic) or heaped on burial mounds (S. India). The word magic =Zauber in German, =taufr in Old Norse, or =teafor in Anglo-Saxon >> all meaning Red Ochre.

Red Lanterns Shanghai

Red colour is associated with Egyptian God, Set. Set was a god of storms, unpredictable and associated with deserts and foreign places, meaning with chaos and danger. The word ‘desert’ has derived from the Egyptian ‘dshrt’ or ‘deshr‘ or ‘deshret‘=red place or Red Land. Red Ochre was sourced from desert lands. ‘The hieroglyph for red is the hermit ibis, a bird which, unlike the other ibis of Egypt, lives in dry areas and eats insects and small creatures. Writers of Egyptian papyri used a special red ink for nasty words.


Red palette has offered a vast number of shades and chromatic variations. Red has been used as space making colour of walls and earth or floors, but not for aeriform figures like flying angels, heavens, skies or ceilings. It has been used in murals, paintings, statues, architectural interiors, manuscripts, dresses, adornments, foods, funerary, etc. Red has been a colour of piety, royalty as much as of death and fear. Colours have been codified but named differently in various parts of the world, roughly the time sequence was black, white, red, green, yellow and blue. Some of the ancient Reds were: Iron oxide (hematite), Ochres (burnt-calcined), vermilion, cinnabar (natural mercuric sulfide), realgar (natural arsenic sulfide), minium (heated white lead), natural dyes (madder, kermes, brazil-wood), sandarac. words.

Red Colours in Egyptian Art