Why Red?

Why is seal ink usually red? There are several reasons and one answer is related to why the Chinese seem to like to use bright red on so many occasions. Red is considered auspicious; it’s the color of the blood running through our bodies and therefore the color of life. For more information on the importance of red in Chinese culture I suggest looking to one of the many available resources on Chinese symbolism. Other than its auspicious color, for the artist there is another more practical reason. Throughout Chinese history scholar artists preferred black and white calligraphy as the supreme form of art—most closely expressing the personality of the artist. They also preferred black and white ink painting with very spare use of color. Bright color was considered vulgar and was associated with folk art. On the other hand, a small bright vermilion red seal stamped on an artwork provided good contrast with the black ink and is one of the few colors that can be successfully stamped directly over the top of solid black and still be legible. Other colors of seal ink are sometimes used for special occasions or purposes—even black—and there are many variations of seal ink available in different shades of red from near purple to near orange. Which to use is a matter of personal preference, but those who prefer one color or another are often adamant about the “authenticity” of their preferential shade. A vivid vermilion red is most common.

The detail illustrated below is from a painting by Zhao Shao’ang (1905-1998) showing a round red seal stamped directly over the black ink signature.

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