Friday, November 2, 2012

Red, Black, White

A killer cold knocked me off my feet for the past couple of weeks.  To make up for it, I've been pinning on Pinterest like a madwoman.  So check out the feed below for lots of eye-goodies.

In my subjective experience, the most popular fairy tales to be illustrated (or at least the most popular collected illustrations) are Snow White, The Little Mermaid, and Little Red Riding Hood.  And Little Red Riding Hood towers above the other two for sheer volume.  Every artist that ever posted a drawing on deviantART has tried his or her hand on LRRH.*

artist unknown, please e-mail

And no wonder.  The vampire-werewolf-insertsupernaturalhotbeinghere craze is well beyond infancy and striding confidently into hot-blooded adulthood.

But, artistically speaking, I think there is another reason why Red Riding Hood is such a popular subject for artists.  And this is something I've also noticed from my pinning.

The striking color red, and it's common-sense counterpart white, is intrinsically woven into the soul of the story.  And I'm not talking about the theory of LRRH as a cautionary tale to girls on the threshold of menstruation to beware of wolfish men.  I mean, very literally, the red hood, the black wolf and woods, and, never mentioned, but astonishingly uniform in artistic depictions, the white of the snow.

Austere, copyright konako

This is suspiciously like one of the other popular-among-artists fairy tales I mentioned, Snow White.  I don't think it's coincidence, even if it's not conscious on the part of the artist, that when painting the colors on LRRH, they pick them up from Snow White's color palette.

At the very least, it shows how powerful colors are; how one color strategically placed in a tale can color its whole flavor.  

copyright papernoodle of Etsy

What do you think?  Why are the colors red, white, and black so universal and striking?  Is it something basic in our nature, like an evolved fancy?  Or is it symbol-recognition?  Or even just human beings reacting to things that look pretty?

Can you think of any other fairy tales in which a color or colors play a significant or intrinsic role in the story?

* It's also super popular for crafts, more so than any other fairy tale I've seen so far: hoods, dolls, necklaces, puppets, folksy wood paintings . . . I don't think it's insignificant that the colors lend themselves well to traditional-type crafts.



  1. Its funny, my immediate thought was that black and white are the good and the bad...but nothing seems to be 'black and white' (!) in fairy tales. But I suppose there are a lot of dark forests, a lot of witches who these days we associate with wearing black, and the general idea that these are stories for children, and often children are scared of the dark? So white being its opposite would be the natural companion, representative of light and a force for good...
    As for the red...I don't know, there are a lot of gruesome deaths in fairy tales so I imagine there would be blood! Also as a contrast to black and white it is definitely striking...more so than blue, green or yellow would be I think. And then there's the association with love, passion, anger, lust - common themes.
    Thank you - this is an interesting post, it really got me thinking! xx

    1. You bring up a great point - yellow, green, and blue would not be the same with the black-and-white pair! xx

  2. Hi,

    It's definitely a dramatic colour combination, visually and symbolically.

    White as snow, red as blood, black as ebony.
    Maiden, mother, crone. These colours are quite significant for fairy tales (as well as gold and silver). The three drops of blood in the snow motif is used in more than one tale (especially when you read outside the Grimms and Perrault). There is a paper called "White as snow, red as blood, black as crow: Chromatic Symbolism of Womanhood in Fairy Tales". I'm using the three colours for an installation piece on transformation in fairy tales...mainly glass on black with hints of red...

    1. Oh yeah, they're so heavy with symbolism, red-black-and-white. I don't know why it delighted me to find those mental symbols bleed over into the sensual (read: 5 senses) world as well.

      Oh, and transformation in fairy tales! There's a good five volumes right there!

  3. This reminds me of a factoid I learned back in my Anthropology classes in college - while color description is fairly prevalent across the cultural spectrum the more basic languages have words merely for "light" and "dark", or "white" and "black". BUT (and here's where I totally geek out) if a culture adds more colors to it's linguistic palette the first addition is always "red". I'm sure "always" is a bit strong, but that's how I recall it being presented.

    But of course, that leaves "why" completely unanswered. I'm sure blood has a great deal to do with it, being so closely linked with birth, life, and death. Also red is the color of earth for many cultures; The Virgin traditionally wears red robes in Russian iconography, specifically made with a pigment derived from the soil of a certain region. Red distracts the Evil Eye, brings good fortune, incites passions. Even its placement on the spectrum gives it predominance. Ultimately I'm tempted to assume that the color itself affects our brains differently than other colors, perhaps more strongly? This would be just a guess but seems to fit the pattern.

    Anyway, awesome post!

    -Masha's Neglected Husband

    1. I did know that some languages only have words for light and dark, and that some also only have words for one, few, and many, and no numbers other than that. Thanks for that goes to _my_ neglected husband! But I didn't know that the first color named after black and white was red, and that is very striking indeed. It certainly supports my little thoughts on the subject.

      Also, I didn't know that Our Lady's robes are red in Russia. So neat, because we always think of them as being blue (at least in this western European culture).

      Now I wonder: is the color red so strong because we react to it the way we do, or do we react to it the way we do because it is so strong? I mean, is there something intrinsic to the nature of red that makes it so . . . well . . . red!

      And all this circles me back around to how instinctive fairy tales are, that they've always been with us, since the dawn of time, in one form or another. How I love them!

      Thanks for your comments!

  4. I always find myself drawn to the symbolism of colors and numbers in fairy tales. Red is absolutely considered significant in folklore, although the red hood isn't necessarily essential to the story of Little Red Riding Hood-the French version "The Story of Grandmother" contains the same story but without the iconic red hood. I loved reading your post and the comments!

    1. Good point, numbers are important too: three, seven, twelve . . .

      I didn't know about "The Story of Grandmother." Do you think the striking colors in LRRH has something to do with it becoming the better known version?

    2. Hmm, interesting thought. That's definitely a possibility, it would be interesting to get statistics on the spread of the tale's different versions, if that were possible

    3. A task for people with more time than us, no doubt! c;


Don't be shy. Leave a comment!