The race for the perfect red: Why we still haven't cracked the colour of love, excitement and blood

In the history of producing colour pigments, our efforts to make the perfect red have often resulted in shades not quite bright enough or prone to fading. But after scientists accidentally discovered a new shade of blue, the race is on to create the right red.

Synthetic shades of red can fade too easily or are made with toxic substances

Efforts to create synthetic shades of red often don't match the brightness found in the natural world. (Pixabay/Galkin YS)

Originally broadcast on May 22, 2018.

Read Story Transcript

The colour red has long been established as the colour of love, passion and blood, but the science in creating it has never been perfect.

As far back as prehistoric times, people have used clay as a pigment for red body paint. We've used beetles, plants and even mercury to create the hue. What those methods share with modern efforts is the tendency to fall short. Those reds are often not bright enough, fade too easily or are made with substances considered to be toxic.

YInMn Blue, the colour accidentally discovered by Mas Subramanian, a chemist at Oregon State University. (Submitted by Mas Subramanian)

To discuss the science, art and history of developing of colour pigments — and the race to find the perfect red — The Current spoke with:

  • Mas Subramanian, a chemist at Oregon State University, who accidentally discovered a new shade of blue  — YInMn Blue — in 2009.
  • Jason Logan, a Toronto artist and pigment maker who forages for his ingredients on the shores of Lake Ontario.
  • Amy Butler Greenfield, an author who has written about the history of the colour red. She told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that while most colours have different meanings in different cultures, if you look around the world red is consistently identified with "heat and passion and excitement."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann.