Learning from the masters: The power of red

In my third look at what portrait photographers can learn from the old masters, I want to look at the power of deliberately introduced colour, and, particularly, the colour red.

This portrait of Antonio Canal (1647), attributed to the Flemish painter Daniel van den Dijk (1610-1670), is in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Like the previous images in my series, this is a portrait which would be almost considered "environmental" by modern standards. More exactly, Canal has been carefully placed, surrounded by objects which illustrate his life and person, and other elements which improve the composition of the painting.

Once again, the main centre of attention is the face. The painter (we will assume it was van den Dijk) has carefully used both light and focus to ensure that our eyes go straight to the face, and linger there. Interestingly, van den Dijk doesn't so much use blur, as Strozzi did, but chooses soft furnishings and clothing which are intrinsically less 'sharp'. The hard furnishings and features are so much dimmer than the main subject that they do not form competing interest.

But look at the secondary interest: that extraordinary robe is a little reminiscent of John Ash's academic gown in my first blog, but it is so much richer and more life-like that it captures the attention — or does it? The largest area of bright red forms an approximate triangle, leading to the upper arm, which inevitably leads… back to the face. 

One of the most elementary tips worth passing on to budding portraitists is: get the subject to wear something red! Visually speaking, there is something about the colour red which instantly attracts the eye, but, crucially, does not retain it. A red scarf can draw the eye to the picture, and then allow the eye to follow other cues to the true centre of interest. In other words, it is an attraction which does not them dominate and rob the image of its centre of attention.

There are a number of explanations for why red does this more than any other colour. Culturally, we can argue that red is the colour of attention, of warning. We are used to having to pay attention when red is around. Biologically, we can argue that, since red is the colour of blood, we have associated it since the dawn of mankind with danger, with life, with importance. When blood is spilled, we have to take note, and quickly. A ruddy complexion is associated with health, with love, with blushing.

Optically, however, the answer is probably simpler: red is the lowest frequency of light that the eye can interpret, and therefore hits us with the longest wavelength and, hence, in the normal spectrum, with the greatest power. 

Photoshop beginners like to saturate colours as far as they will go. Those slightly more experienced protect skin tones, so that people don't turn into lobsters when they pump up the saturation. But van den Dijk, in this image, carefully holds back the red. He allows it to shimmer, in darkness and light. This combination of reds is infinitely more appealing than a flat, blown out red.

For van den Dijk, this is all the more important, because he invests more of the luminance in this portrait in the red gown than in any other element, except the face and hand. This means that all the environmental elements — which in the John Ash portrait are pushed so much to the fore — are held back, in what photographers would refer to as Zones I, II and III of the Zone system. But these are exactly the elements for which Canal would have been paying — his credentials, and the symbols of his importance. The master painter clearly knows his art: he invests in showing us, rather than telling us (which is what the background elements are doing), and he invests in colour to bring in the attention of the viewer, before leading us to the face and features of the subject.

I have purposefully kept the images in this series small, because I want to introduce the pictures the way that they are first seen in a gallery — from a distance. We appreciate photographs in magazines, on the internet, in catalogues, and on screen. To a certain extent, we are already committed to viewing the image before we see it. Gallery portraits, as well as photographic fine prints and anything which is considered 'art' enough to hang on a wall, have to compete for our attention in the same way that billboards do. We see it small, from a distance. Only if it attracts our attention from a distance do we approach it for closer look. Of course, an image which doesn't stand up to close inspection is a disappointment, but an image which cannot draw our attention never gets that attention in the first place. This is a dynamic which van den Dijk clearly understood well.