Shades and Tones of Red
It's often humorously (but really quite erroneously) suggested that Eskimos or Inuits have 40 different words for snow. We should not laugh. We must have at least 40 different words just to describe shades of the colour red. There is scarlet and crimson, cerise and magenta, maroon, carmine, claret and burgundy, as well as carnelian and cherry and cardinal red. To say nothing of ruby or garnet or vermilion, and wine-red, rust-red, rufous-red, terracotta-red, etc.
But what are all these shades of red? How do you tell one from the other, or are they all just different names for the same colour? What about dark reds and light reds? Are they all even truly reds? And what is the historic origin of these rich and frequently evocative names? In this page I look at all these aspects of the colour red. Above all, I look at a range of different reds and how they are created using the system of colour production most common in visual display units: RGB.
Unless otherwise indicated, all images on this page have been created by the author using 'Paint' or 'Photoshop' programmes.
Naming of Red Hues
In the English language, no colour has borrowed so extensively in the naming of its shades and tones as the colour red. English has borrowed from many other languages, from Greek and Latin and French, from the names of plants and animals and minerals. The names have been liberally used and sometimes inaccurately used, for example in the case of 'cardinal'—not the true colour of a cardinal's cloaks. Nonetheless they are among the most attractive and diverse of colour names in use today. Just a few of the best known are described on this page.
A Confusion of Colours
Naming of colours is not a precise linguistic art. Anyone can name a colour whatever they like, and many do. Colours generated by RGB methodology (described below) on a television screen or computer monitor may not exactly match those produced by ink or paint, as anyone who prints directly from a web page and expects the paper image to look identical in tone will know. Different monitors, different printers and different ink compositions will also vary in the results they produce. What's more the manufacturers or suppliers of inks and paints are free to call their range whatever they choose to. For example the term 'garnet' may be used for one shade by one authority, whilst another may use an entirely different name, or they may apply garnet to a subtly different tone (Not perhaps too surprising as garnet gem stones themselves vary considerably in tone). In this short page, only one method of creating colour will be used, and hopefully colour reproduction will be faithful on the monitor you are using. As readers will be viewing on a visual display unit, I will employ the RGB system.
A Personal Interest
The decision to produce this page came about as a result of my own love of databases. I write databases on all kinds of subjects including plant and flower descriptions. Flowers come in all shades and hues and many of course are of a colour which is light or dark red, or red tinged with purple or orange. I look at various colour charts to descibe these colours, but quite honestly some of the shades in the charts seem to be indiscernably different from each other, whilst the same name sometimes seems to be applied to markedly different colours.
This page is my attempt to identify the characteristics of some of the best known shades of red.
Creation of Red Using the RGB Colour Model
As we know, visible light is made up of a continuous band of wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation which we perceive as different colours. If none of these visible light wavelengths are generated, then we see any image created as BLACK. On the other hand if all of these wavelengths are present together at maximum intensity, then we see any image created as WHITE. This is perhaps simple enough, but by omitting just some wavelengths, or by varying the intensity of some, then all the thousands of colour shades which we can distinguish with the human eye, can also be created.
In practice, it is really not necessary to use the entire band of wavelengths of light to create such a range of colours. Instead we find that combining just three wavelengths —the wavelengths of Red, Green and Blue light (RGB)—in different proportions, is sufficient to do the job, and this is the principle behind the RGB colour model.
Visual display units which use RGB, are composed of thousands of pixels in which red, green and blue light can be emitted at different intensities to create all these shades—we of course can't detect the individual pixels; we just perceive as a new shade, the end product of the proportions of red, green and blue light emitted.
In my pages the proportions of the three primary colours in the finished tone is described using a code which incorporates a percentage intensity. Under this system, maximum intensity of each wavelength is 100% and minimum intensity is 0%. The higher the intensity of light makes the finished colour lighter and brighter. The lower the intensity of colour makes the finished colour darker. Red, of course is one of the primary colours of light in the RGB system, so pure red is generated by only one of the three wavelengths of light in the RGB system. The brightest red will be 100% intensity, :
- 0% (R) : 0% (G) : 0% (B) - A total absence of any light is BLACK
- 100% (R) : 100% (G) : 100% (B) - Combined emission of maximum intensity red, green and blue light is WHITE
- 100% (R) : 0% (G) : 0% (B) - The BRIGHTEST PURE RED will have this coded value on the RGB scale; that is, it will have full intensity of red, but there is zero emission of green or blue
- 50% (R) : 0% (G) : 0% (B) - This of course is still pure red, because there is no green or blue influence, but it is less intense; ie: it is DARK PURE RED
As soon as the percentage of green or blue emissions is raised above zero, but is less than 100%, so other colour tones are produced. As already explained, there is no standardisation of these tones, so on this page, I have used percentages of RGB intensity which seem to me to give the colour rendition which is most closely associated with a particular tone. It is by no means definitive, but I think that these descriptions of shade and tone could be generally accepted.
Pure Bright Red and Pure Dark Red: Maroon
First we must look at shades of pure red. An illustration of pure bright red on the RGB scale (in other words 100% red saturation and no green or blue tonation) is shown opposite (In all colour samples shown on the right, the percentage intensity values for each of the three primary wavelengths will be shown under the image).
Of course by reducing the saturation of red, but without adding any green or blue, one can obtain deeper shades of pure red, and the best known of these is Maroon, which has the value 50% (R) : 0% (G) : 0% (B) by this classification. Therefore, Maroon can be described as half-way between bright red and black, and Maroon is also the only colour variant here which is a true shade of pure red. All other colours shown below are tones which incorporate green light and / or blue light.
The word 'Maroon' was first recorded in 1789. It has been described as the colour of chestnuts, of Vajrayana Buddhist monks' robes, and it is also one of the official colours of many American universities, and of several English football teams.
(Maroon is pure dark red, however it should also be clear from this discussion of pure reds, that there is no such thing in the RGB scale as pure light red in which red is the only wavelength of light involved—all lighter tones are lighter because of the incorporation of increasing intensities of green and blue light which alters the final tone in the direction of white light. Pink is one such tone in which a sizeable intensity of green and blue emissions moves the colour closer to white.)
Scarlet, Orange-Red and Persimmon
In this section we look at red tones in which there is the addition of some green light, but absolutely no blue. Combining increasing amounts of green light with red light, makes the tone more orangy. Combining equal intensities of green light with red light creates the colour yellow.
Scarlet is best described as a very bright red with a hint of orange. It is the closest to pure red of all the tones represented here, and the distinction may not be obvious, but as can be seen from the colour code, there is a small tint of green light incorporated.
A more obvious change occurs when appreciably more green is introduced (twice as much) to produce a distinct Orange-Red, as in the next example.
Addition of still more green light, and the tone shifts towards Persimmon, named after the fruit, and other Red-Oranges, and moves beyond the brief of this page. Images are included here purely to demonstrate how increasing intensity of green will alter the tone.
Addition of still more green, and the tone will become an even brighter paler orange before eventually shifting to a bright yellow which has the RGB code of 100% (R) : 100% (G) : 0% (B).
'Scarlet' derives from the Old French 'escarlate' and referred originally to a once popular cloth dyed with this colour. In English the word has been used at least since 1250 AD. The tone has been much used to describe the colour of red birds such as the scarlet tanager and scarlet ibis, and flowers (the scarlet pimpernel is a wild flower). The word has also been used to describe 'a woman of ill-repute'. Will Scarlet, of Robin Hood fame, is supposed to have worn this vivid colour (though I cannot imagine this would have helped his survival prospects in the forest, when all his colleagues were wearing the camouflage colour of Lincoln green!)
Flame, Vermillion and Cadmium, and Coral-Red
In this section we cover three tones which illustrate how colour changes as we move away from green tinted reds to blue tinted reds. In the first of these—Flame—green continues to create a colour which is distinctly orangey in tone. However, as we then move from Flame to Vermillion to Coral-Red, so the amount of green is diminished, and increasing amounts of blue light are added, and this makes the end tone much more pinkish.
We all know the colour of Flame, and we know that flames are usually nearer to orange or even yellow than to red, even though the term Flame-Red is often used. As can be seen from the RGB code, the next colour, Vermillion, remains rich in red light, and green light is again influencing the tone. But in Vermillion, unlike Scarlet and Orange-Red, the introduction of blue light is now subtly altering the tone. Vermillion clearly represents a true red, mid-way between the orange of Flame, and the pinkish hue of our next colour, Coral-Red, in which the intensity of blue light at 25% is becoming significant.
Looking at these tones, Vermillion is regarded as red, and so with a degree of reservation is Coral-Red, but I think Flame, by any criteria, is a tone of orange.
'Vermillion' was originally derived from the mineral cinnabar, which has been the source of a range of red pigments since prehistoric times. However cinnabar is expensive, and it is also poisonous containing as it does the compound mercuric sulphide. As a result the closely related compound cadmium sulphide has replaced cinnabar in modern pigments, and 'Cadmium-Red', as it is called, is very similar to Vermillion. The name Vermillion actually derives from a French word 'vermeil' used for any red dye (as in Kermes vermilio—see 'Crimson').
Carmine-Red and Crimson and Cardinal-Red
In the next two sections we consider red tones which are characterised by less green light, and by increasing amounts of blue. This replaces the orangy tone we have seen previously, and introduces pink-purplish tones instead. (This is not so apparent with the three colours shown here, but it will become clearer in the next section).
Carmine-Red (not the same as true Carmine) is a very intense bright red, superficially quite similar to Scarlet as red light is so dominant. Crimson is also a clear true red, though slightly deeper in colour in this classification because the intensity of red emission is only 86%. The tone which is known as Cardinal is included here because the colour make-up is very similar to Crimson, albeit rather deeper because the intensity of red is reduced to 77%.
'Crimson' is one of the most evocative of colour descriptions, and is often used to describe the colour of blood, or the colour of a really deep, beautiful sunset, or even the colour of blushing (though one would have to be very embarressed indeed to blush as deeply as true crimson!) The English name has been recorded since 1416, and derives from Latin translations of the Arabic qirmiziy, which has in turn given its name to a species of Mediterranean scale insect called Kermes vermilio. The link here is that the dye, Crimson, used to be obtained from the crushed bodies of these insects.
The use of Kermes insects declined with the introduction of a similar insect from the Americas called Cochineal; although the dyes were comparable, extraction of the dye from Cochineal was more efficient than from Kermes. 'Carmine' was the name given to the new dye made from cochineal, although the term Crimson also continued to be used. The raw pigment Carmine is quite dark, and is included below under 'brown-reds'. However, various other tones have been produced by processing the pigment and one of these is often called 'Carmine' by watercolour artists, though should preferably be called 'Carmine-Red'. Even though in the description used here, Crimson, Carmine and Carmine-Red are all quite different in tone, there are clear associations. Both Crimson and Carmine are originally derived from scale insects, and the word Carmine is derived from the Spanish for Crimson. Carmine-Red is also sometimes labelled as 'Electric Crimson'.
'Cardinal' of course is named for the robes worn by Catholic churchmen, though in fact their cloaks are considerably lighter in tone than the generally accepted appearance of Cardinal-Red. Cardinal is also the name given to a well-known red chested bird in North America, and is the official colour of many universities and other institutions.
The Purple-Reds: Cerise and Cherry and Ruby
We saw in the section about scarlet and orange-reds, gradual introduction of more and more green into the hue, created an increasingly orange (and ultimately yellow) tone, as we moved away from red. In a similar way, the gradual introduction of more and more blue into the colour, will create an increasingly pinkish to purplish tone. Thus, as we see in Deep Cerise, we are again moving away from red.
The first recorded useage of 'Cerise' is believed to have been in 1844. A trawl through various dictionaries will show the tone generally described as a vivid red with a deep pink-purple tint. Cerise is variously compared to the colour of tomatoes, raspberries, rubies or blood, but the name is taken directly from the French word for 'cherry', so the most accurate way of describing the tone is to say that Cerise is the colour of ripe cherries. 'Cherry-red' and Cerise are therefore effectively the same shade. The typical colour of the gemstone 'Ruby' is likewise very similar, and has been used as a colour name since 1572.
The Dark Purple Reds: Garnet, Wine and Claret
In this section we see colours in which the intensity of red light is considerably reduced, and the colour becomes darker as a result. These tones are slmilar to Maroon, but they are subtly different as some green light and a rather high level of blue emissions contribute to the overall tone.
The colour Garnet is deep in shade, though the gemstone Garnet can actually occur in many other colours. Wine-Red and Claret are obviously related to each other, and similar to each other as very deep purple reds.
The Brown Reds: Rufous and Carnelian, Burgundy, Carmine and Rosewood
In this section we see tones of red in which are neither as bright as those in the earlier part of this page, nor for the most part are they heavily influenced by greens and blues, creating orange or purple tones. The end result is a range which can best be described as brown-reds. However, throughout this section, the shades get lighter, and other changes in colour contributions move the tone further away from red and towards brown and pink.
In this system of classification the colour of Rosewood is almost a pure red, similar to a dark Maroon, but this is such a deep shade, many would not consider it as red at all. It is similar in shade to Claret, but comparing the two, the purplish tinge of Claret will distinguish it.
Burgundy, named for another red wine, is slightly lighter than Maroon, and with a faint purple tinge resulting from the addition of some blue light. The pigment Carmine has already been described above, because of its associations with Crimson, but its true colour is very close to Burgundy.
Rufous-red is a lighter shade than either Rosewood or Burgundy. (these three colours illustrate very well how an increase in intensity of red—from 40% to 66%—lightens the shade of red). Carnelian is a semi-precious gemstone of virtually the same hue, and the name of this mineral may also be used to describe this tone.
As in previous sections we finish here by extending the range beyond red to show how other tones are developed with a look at Rust and Terracotta. Both are sometimes described as red tones. However as can be seen from the RGB code for Rust, although the intensity of red has been further increased, so too has the intensity of green light. This, as we know, increases the orangy tone of the final hue, and Rust is best described as an orangy brown. Terracotta has a still higher intensity of red light, but also includes higher intensities of both green light and blue light. As already pointed out, this makes the tone pinkish—a trend taken to its logical conclusion in the next section.
The Non-Reds: Pink and Magenta
Finally, two colours which emphatically cannot be described as shades of red, yet frequently are:
Earlier it was stated that higher and higher intensities of red, green and blue light created lighter and lighter tones, ultimately resulting in white light. In paint mixing, Pink may be created by adding white to red, but in terms of coloured light production, Pink is NOT light red. Pink is a combination of very high intensity red, with intensities of green and blue, which are also higher than in any tone described elsewhere on this page. Each of these primary colours contributes strongly therefore to a colour which has a red tinge, but which is approaching white. This is Pink.
Magenta likewise is clearly NOT red. The colour Magenta on this RGB model comprises equal proportions of red and blue. It is therefore midway between red and blue, and is pinkish purple in hue. Magenta, of course, is also one of the primary colours in the CMYK printing ink system, though printing ink Magenta is rather different in tone to RGB Magenta.
Although this page was primarily intended to differentiate between different shades and tones of red, as it has developed I trust it now serves two purposes:
- Using red as an example, hopefully the page demonstrates how the natural science of combining just three wavelengths of light in varying proportions (albeit with red always in the ascendency) can produce the immense range of tones and shades we know by so many different names.
- Red is the most vibrant of hues, the most garish, or most brilliant, depending upon one's point of view. The shades and tones of red have some of the most exotic and beautiful of all colour names, so hopefully this webpage will encourage some readers to use such descriptive and evocative names as Crimson and Cerise, Vermillion and Scarlet rather more, and the oh-so-boring 'red', rather less.
JUST FOR FUN - WHICH IS YOUR FAVOURITE RED?
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2011 Greensleeves Hubs