A lot of (early) printing is done in black and red. The red is mostly used as accent color.

What is the origin of this red? Does is have a name and/or specification?

’Psalterium Benedictinum’
Image source: Museum Meermanno


I know it's a strong color scheme. I wan't to know what the exact color is and the reason why early printers picked this particular color. I'm also interested in the properties of the ink. What it is made of. Also if it is always the same red.

The example I gave is by Fust and Schoeffer, printing completed in 1459. A few year earlier, Fust loaned Gutenberg money to print his bible.

I realise that these early works inspired many. I guess Gutenberg red is the reference point. But if some other publication has more influence on this 'typographic color scheme', than I would like to know who, what and why.

  • 1
    Eh... could you clarify a bit? Do you want to know the name of the dye, of the style, or the reason why exactly red was chosen?
    – Vincent
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 16:52
  • 3
    ... gunna be hard pressed to find out who invented red :)
    – Scott
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 17:07
  • 1
    I'm wondering why they used it as a highlight as opposed to some other colors as well Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 17:25
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    If it is Vermillion, then it may have been the expense. The wikipedia entry for vermillion suggests in an image caption that it was as expensive as gilding in 15th century manuscripts.
    – Yorik
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 18:03
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    It goes back to the process of rubrication, which predates (movable type) print considerably. It helps to keep in mind that in order for new technologies, like printed books, to be widely accepted, they need to be just as good as the "real thing". Commented Feb 28, 2015 at 0:04

4 Answers 4


If you pinpoint a region and time period, then you probably will be better at guessing what the exact pigment was. Long time ago travelling was expensive or merely impossible, so inventions were usually created in parallel in more than one place or replicated to avoid the need of importing and exporting goods.

For example these are two medieval sources of red pigment: mercuric sulphide and vermilion, which are very similar in colour, or so I read.

Mercuric sulphide can be found naturally in Spain, close to Sienna. Vermilion, on the other hand, is a man made version of mercuric sulphide (trivia: it was poisonous).

Manuscripts made in Spain probably used natural mercuric sulphide, but the ones made far from Spain probably used vermilion, because they could not find the natural pigment.

You mentioned "prints" in your question, though, so are you specifically referring to documents created with a press, so circa 1400? Take a look at @Yorik's comment below.

  • 2
    In pargraph 2, Vermillion is Cinnabar which is in fact mercury sulphide, so they would be very similar indeed :) Gutenberg used vermillion, so I think you nailed it: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15924396
    – Yorik
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 17:40
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    @Yorik: Cool. Would be interesting to know if they had a different name for the natural occurring pigment as opposed to the man made one.
    – cockypup
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 17:51
  • Thank you for the answer. It's not that I'm looking for some specific time period. But Gutenberg is the great reference point for latin script. Good to know he used vermilion. I wonder if Gutenberg ever toned red down or was mainly looking for the highest contrast.
    – allcaps
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 19:27
  • Vermilion has an orangy hue, though.
    – cockypup
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 19:31
  • Just out of curiosity, is the black also really black? Or could be some Gutenberg black pigment?
    – allcaps
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 19:38

Red Ochre has been in use since the Neanderthals. It's readily available and understood.

Red ochers are among the most widely used pigments. They can be traced back to the earliest cave paintings. Red ocher can be found in natural form in volcanic regions or can be produced by heating yellow ocher. There are many variations or red ocher: a light, warn tone is Venetian Red, darker, more cool-toned purple versions is called Indian Red, or Caput Mortuum. The choicest source for red ochre in classical antiquity was known as Pontus Euxinus, from the Pontine city of Sinope, according to Pliny. The coloring agent of al these pigments is iron oxide. Although there are many shades of red ocher they all appear subdued when compared to vermillion. Red ocher is very opaque and absorbs much oil.

Medieval and Renaissance painters used red ocher for fresco, tempera and oil painting. It was also used for drawing. It mixes well with other colors and produces a great variety of natural shades.

Source: Essential Vermeer

  • I've been to Grottes de Lascaux once (although it's a replica) it surprised me how colourful the used earth tones and reds actually are. But I'm mostly interested in print / typography. For printers the same can be true. Maybe reds were available. I'm just not sure.
    – allcaps
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 19:34

Not a scientific answer, but Roger Black was famous for the white/black/red combo in a lot of his design. He had 10 rules of design and 2, 3, and 4 were:

The First Color is White, The Second Color is Black, The Third Color is Red Calligraphers and early printers grasped this over 500 years ago, and experience has proved them exactly right. On the web, white is every color firing at full strength; it's the brightest color. Black holds the highest contrast to white, and so it is the first choice for type set on a white background. Red (not blue or yellow) works well with both.

So from an aesthetic view, red works very well as a highlight color with both white (paper) and black (text).

And as you can see, this goes way back in history. From the Medieval manuscripts and Chinese calligraphy to name just a few.

  • Thank you for the answer. I also think this is the most graphic color scheme. I have to disagree with Roger Black point 6. ;)
    – allcaps
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 19:59

In medieval times, it would likely have been red lead (lead tetroxide). This red-orange pigment could be cheaply produced by roasting white lead.

The Romans called this stuff minium. (But they used the same word to refer to the more expensive pigment made from cinnabar).


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