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types of red | The Art Institute of Chicago | Pro Club Bd

Of Thea Liberty Nichols, Sylvia Wu, Lorien Yonker and Nathalie Silva

It provokes us into action and stimulates our heart to beat faster. It symbolizes love and passion and affection, but also fire, anger and bloodshed. Although it often warns us of danger and commands us to stop, it also signifies purity and happiness. It was made from the mineral cinnabar, the roots of the madder plant, and the shells of certain beetles. The first color used by prehistoric artists is the first primary color babies can see and is often worn by children to protect them from disease.

And since it’s summer as I write this, how can I not mention the visual appeal of immaculately ripe strawberries in a white bowl?

Check out the stories behind four different shades of red chosen by our staff.

If you say “red” – the name of the color – and listen to fifty people, you can bet there are fifty shades of red in their heads. And you can be sure that all these reds will be very different.

Joseph Alber, interplay of color1963

Screaming red

Bright, bold red is just one of many colors you can almost hear in this synesthetic portrait of eccentric rock musician Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins by artist Karl Wirsum.

Karl Wirsum

Inspired by voodoo (an Afro-Haitian religion), Hawkins took the stage in long, flowing robes clutching a skull-decorated staff to perform ballads punctuated by snorts, howls and grunts. Wirsum’s painting is as outrageous as Hawkins’ stage persona and an incredibly visceral translation from sound to image.

Sizzling nerve endings and amoeboid-like blobs are executed in a highly sophisticated style that sets or encapsulates graphic lines on a black ground. The throbbing imagery perfectly conveys the feeling of being a spectator at a live performance such as Wirsum might have seen by Hawkins on Chicago’s South Side in the early 1960s. Maybe the smaller figure at the bottom of the painting is someone in the front row?


Wirsum’s love of wordplay was legendary, and it was his innocent question “Harry who?” that his friends and fellow artists turned into the name of their jointly created Hairy Who exhibition group. The same sort of pun is at work in the text at the top of this painting, based on Hawkins’ legendary 1956 hit “I Put a Spell on You.” Wirsum transforms the haunting chorus of the song “Because you’re mine” into the equally mysterious “Because is in your mind”.

Wirsum’s friend was an art director at Philips Records and showed Hawkins a picture of this painting. Hawkins was so taken with it that he decided to use it for his 1970 album cover – and in an extraordinary example of life actually imitating art – Hawkins adopted “Because is in your mind” as the record’s title. Wirsum considered it a career highlight, or what some would call Red Letter Day.

—Thea Liberty Nichols, Terra Foundation Curator, Prints and Drawings

The true color of life is the color of the body, the color of the covered red, the implicit and non-explicit red of the living heart and pulse. It’s the humble color of unreleased blood.

– Alice Meynell, poet and essayist

diacritical red

Written Arabic words contain only the consonants, and readers often need diacritics as an aid to pronunciation and understanding. The red dots, which are prevalent in Qur’anic texts, serve this critical function. Yet the scarlet drops and the way they splash around the leaves always reminds me of the dramatic assassination of Uthman (died 656), Islam’s third caliph.

North Africa or the Middle East

According to Islamic tradition, Uthman was reading a code of the Qur’an – one without diacritics – when he was besieged and killed by rebels. The Caliph’s blood spilled over the pages before him, making the tainted codex one of the most precious relics in the history of Islam. It was not long before 7th-century grammarians and theologians began putting red dots on the Arabic alphabet to establish an authoritative reading of Scripture. The eerie parallel between drops of blood and these vocalizing signs makes it fascinating to imagine the myriad connections between the intense moment of bloodshed and the highly ritualized recitation of the Qur’an, the importance of which was linked to the legitimacy of subsequent Muslim dynasties.

While the red dots may have evoked strong emotions in historical audiences, today they offer researchers indispensable tools to identify the provenance and routes of transmission of the Qur’anic scrolls. Most Koran manuscripts enter museum collections as scattered, often single pages, and are therefore a challenge for contextual reconstruction. Thanks to these red dots, we are able to study the pigments used and the patterns of their application around the Arabic words, which helps to date the leaves and associate them with specific regional practices.

—Sylvia Wu, Mellon Foundation COSI Research Fellow, Arts of Asia

A thimble full of red is redder than a bucket full.

— Henri Matisse

Mars Red

Throughout ancient times it was believed that certain stones and crystals possessed certain and even supernatural powers. A stone’s color, not its classification, defined its meaning, and red stones like garnet, jasper, and carnelian were particularly popular thanks to their association with strength, protection, and regeneration.

Ancient Egyptian

In ancient Egypt, those who could afford such luxuries were buried with magical amulets made of precious red stones in the drapes of their mummified bodies to ease their physical passage into the afterlife. When Egypt in 30 B.C. When it became part of the Roman Empire, the importation of gemstones such as carnelian led to an explosion in gem carving and collecting among the general populace and even among the Roman Emperors.


Most carved stones that survive from ancient Rome are small and intended to be set in rings so that they could easily stamp their owner’s unique seal on important documents. However, the extraordinary gem above would have been worn as a pendant and the extremely fine carving combined with the impressive size of the stone would have made it a status symbol.

The image of Mars, the Roman god of war, is a rare choice and perhaps indicates that the owner held a high position in the vast and powerful Roman army. Whatever the rationale for the subject, the choice of this deep red stone is clearly appropriate to represent a deity associated with bloodshed.

—Lorien Yonker, Associate Curator, Arts of the Ancient Mediterranean and Byzantium

A good painter only needs three colors: black, white and red.

– Titian

bauhaus red

This multi-faceted piece begins as a faded red cylinder, tempting the viewer to open it, and unrolls to reveal grayscale patches punctuated by a striking red. This work by Elsa Kula is an invitation to Project House #1, a showcase of contemporary furniture company Designers in Production, founded in Chicago by Harold Cohen and Kula’s husband Davis Pratt.

Elsa Kula

This interactive piece drew on exercises developed at the Chicago Institute of Design (ID) in which Kula, Cohen and Pratt participated. Founded in 1937 by László Moholy-Nagy as a new iteration of the German Bauhaus, the ID focused on an interdisciplinary teaching method that used raw, found materials as well as new experimental techniques, allowing students to expand their scope of what was considered design expand and create works that blended different media and techniques. At school, Kula explored the manipulation, cutting, and folding of paper to create dynamic objects, an activity that influenced this advertisement and many other multimedia projects at the school.

In addition to the interactive nature of this object, it also stands out for its bold use of color – black, white, gray and red. This same color palette is found in many of Moholy-Nagy’s works, whose philosophy is to use color for its raw, emotional qualities and connotations and to use color psychology to enhance art and architecture. Kula’s promotional brochure uses Bauhaus colors as well as the innovative ID doctrine to create a memorable piece. Red alone is an eye-catching color that draws attention to the object, but when combined with the more interactive experience of unrolling the flyer, encourages viewer participation.

—Nathalie Silva, intern, architecture and design

Need more red? Visit our collections page, click on “show filter” below the search box on the left, scroll down and click on “color”. This will bring up our color wheel finder, allowing you to select works from across the collection that share the same colors and tones. Check out this example.

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