The colour red is universally known as a symbol of the principle of life because of its intensity. But red, the colour of blood and fire, also has a symbolic ambiguity that depends on whether the red is light or dark.
Light, clear red, which is intense and extroverted, belongs to the day. It is fresh and invites action by projecting its light onto the world, like an enormous and invincible sun. It attracts.
A really dark red, on the other hand, is of the night, secretive and almost introverted. It is the symbol of the mystery of life. It warns, restrains. It is the colour of the forbidden, of the lamps of the old red-light districts.
I have always thought that there was something missing in the red artists’ colours that you can buy nowadays. When you look at sunlight through a glass of red wine an infinite number of nuances of colour appear, from the deepest shades of red to a bright red that jumps out at you with the energy of a turbojet.
How can I get to a deep red which is not a dark cadmium red, a rose carmine or an imitation red cinnabar, but a rich red that feels right artistically and at the same time is more ambiguous than the simple synthetic colours that are everywhere?
It is here that red natural cinnabar comes into the picture. The largest and most important source of this mineral is in southern Spain, where it has been extracted and made into pigment since ancient times. It was used for the frescoes of Pompeii, and it was used early in the Renaissance with Lapis Lazuli and gold to create the icons of the Sienna School.
The process of extracting the mineral and transforming it into pigment was very expensive, and this is why a substitute was sought, just as alternatives have been sought for lots of other colours throughout history.
The process of producing a synthetic cinnabar red was begun in the Arab world in the 7th and 8th centuries. They mixed mercury and pulverised sulphur and heated this to 600°C, thus producing a uniform red pigment that they could use in their art.
By placing several pieces of unworked natural cinnabar crystals together and studying them under lighting conditions which ranged from bright sunlight to deep shadow, I could see how the clear red surfaces that were illuminated reflected their colours onto the surfaces of the crystals that were in shadow. This made the colours in the shadows change to a much richer, fuller red instead of being just a normal flat shadow colour.
These rich reds can be achieved by mixing pigments together. I do it simply by mixing synthetic cinnabar red (vermilion) pigment with other colours. In order to make a clean colour that can be used as both a light and a dark red, I add white, yellow, red ochre, alizarin crimson or madder, according to how warm or cold I want the red to be. Then I paint the red on top of, for example, a cold green, a lemon yellow or another colour. This brings the red alive. I never use red on red, however, as this kills it completely.