February 1, 2019

Well red

“I have on a red dress.” My mother had written this sentence for me to sound out when I was three years old. Wearing a red organdy dress with a white lace collar my mother had sewn for me and reading this sentence aloud are among my earliest memories. Discovering the meaning of printed words felt so powerful. As my mother prepared dinner one evening, my father lifted me up and out of her way, setting me atop the refrigerator. I opened the cupboard behind me and was delighted to discover I could read the words on the label of a bag my parents had often spelled out one letter at a time. “C-A-N-D-Y…” I exclaimed, “I know what that spells!”

Red was the first color I recognized in the picture books they read to me. THE LITTLE LOST ANGEL wore a red dress in the story painted by Janet Laura Scott. And in spite of being lost, the generous little angel gives away her crown, her wings and her harp to others in need, before she finds a happy home with a childless couple.

THE COLOR KITTENS, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen, busily mixed paints, trying to create green, and happily celebrated by painting “red tables and yellow chairs” after their discovery. Then the kittens “dreamed of a red rose tree, that turned all white, when you counted to three.”

Red figured prominently in many of my favorite picture books. When I began to read stories to my little sister, one of the first was Ezra Jack Keats’ THE SNOWY DAY. When Peter awakens to look out his window, his red wallpaper is sprinkled over with white cut-outs, much like the sight of wondrous snowflakes that had fallen during the cold night. Peter dresses in his red snowsuit with its elfin hood and romps through the stark white snow like a joyous exclamation mark across the pages. 

As a young mother, I recall three picture books that used red especially well and only got better each time each time I read them.

The red and green in Eric Carle’s THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR were fresh and juicy!

For the cover of CORDUROY, Don Freeman painted the toy bear against a bright backdrop of a red upholstered cushion, while the little girl who eagerly wishes to buy Corduroy wears a red coat. I cannot forget her sweet desire.

My youngest son was enchanted by Hannah Gifford’s paintings in the book RED FOX. Up against an angry dog, finding no pond frogs or field mice in their usual places, and a rabbit too swift to catch, he is unable to forage a meal for his mate Rose. It was amusing to see only his nose or his tail peek from hiding as Red rushed around like a curvy, quick comma. I  could imagine the anguish of courageous Red as, in desperation, he tries to scavenge in town to provide for his mate. Red returns triumphant with a sack that had been tossed into a trash bin for Rose, as she surprises him with five newborn red fox cubs, their red ears peeking up! The last illustration is a harmonious red family circle. Period.

When teaching English to Japanese high school students in Ono and Yashiro, Japan, I fell in love with Chihiro Iwasaki’s beautiful watercolor children in natural shades with lots of rose, yellow and blues. On the cover of her TEARS OF THE DRAGON, hot steamy red clouds frame the boy Akito (“Autumn Way”) riding upon the dragon. In the story, Akito wonders about the villagers’ tales of a frightfully wicked dragon who is never seen. He feels sorry for a creature so maligned, and wishes to invite the dragon to his birthday party. At the end of his long search, Akito finds the lonely dragon and delivers his invitation. The grateful dragon sheds tears at the trust and love of the young boy. As the boy rides back to the red-roofed village, the dragon transforms into a dragon-boat with a smooth, red hull, floating on the river of his tears.

In Chihiro Iwasaki’s illustrations of Hans Christian Andersen’s THE RED SHOES, the color is a potent symbol of obsessive passion. When a young girl’s grandmother stitches her a pair of red shoes, they become all she can think of, leaving her unable to recall the church prayers or hymns. Vanity follows her, as well as a curse of compulsive dancing. She is unable to care for her sick grandmother, or even attend her funeral because her little red shoes will not stop dancing. Eventually she prays to have her feet separated from her body. Crutches are carved for her so she can walk.  She becomes penitent and good. Here red becomes a symbol of carnal passion that is almost unstoppable, a completely moralistic tale told to urge children of the eighteenth century to turn towards the good deeds of Christianity. It is no wonder that these red shoes are reminiscent of THE SCARLET LETTER that adorns Nathaniel Hawthorne’s character, Hester Prynne, the unwed mother.

I love the way Chihiro paints a field of red to enclose a white bull in her poem, PASTURE COW. Brazenly ignoring the warnings that the bull will be angry and dangerous, the children in the story observe that the bull has kind eyes, like the Buddha.

In another story, GIRL FROM THE SNOW COUNTRY, Masako Hidaka makes a little bit of red as a reward for a kind heart. Mi-chan makes plump snow rabbits in her garden, but regrets she has nothing with which to give them eyes. She follows her grandmother to the market and kindly wipes away some snow covering the heads of the little guardian statues that they pass along the way.  At the end of their errands, a generous market woman gives her a branch of red berries for which Mi-Chan is grateful. She plucks the red berries, placing them as eyes for her snow bunnies.

These illustrations of children propelled me into sketching and drawing the children around me as often as possible when I returned from Japan. My nieces and then grandchildren became my frequent models for illustration.  I began to paint with complementary colors. Most often, in red. My nieces were born in Jiang-Xi and Hunan provinces, and I sketched them whenever I could. Red and green were so cheerful and friendly together. Even though their preferences were for pink and lavender, my first paintings of them were using rose madder pigment as they wore their red velvet jumpers in autumn, lighting the lanterns for Halloween. 

While teaching Japanese at Mt. Rainier High School, I prepared by reading the previous year’s International Baccalaureate examinations papers. In one was a mysterious story called, 赤い蝋燭と人魚 (THE RED CANDLES AND THE MERMAID). I was enchanted by Komako Sakai’s sad and lonely illustrations. A thoughtful mermaid desires her newborn to be raised in the land of sunlight instead of the dark and dreary waters of the sea, shown in heavy gouache strokes of black and blues. When she leaves the infant on the village steps by the sea, she is discovered by a childless and impoverished elderly couple who make candles for a living. The little mermaid is a bright addition to their home/shop as she paints red sea-inspired designs on the candles they sell, some of which become candles for a critical lighthouse on the hill overlooking a disastrous rocky coast.

While everyone knows Little Red Riding Hood, a more recent picture book character known by her colorful garb is RED KNIT CAP GIRL by Naoko Stoop. She longs to meet the moon. She is an adorable and earnest standout among her forest friends, the bear, squirrel, rabbit, hedgehog and owl, as she is uniquely painted in red acrylic, ink and pencil on stained plywood.

In Bomi Park’s FIRST SNOW, aside from the white, grays, black and little bit of beige-brown, the red scarf,  and the red design on the little girl’s mittens, are the only obvious color. When she rolls her snowball to the other side of the woods, she embraces all of her friends, also wearing a bit of red to warm them while playing out in the cold white, snow.

The wonderful warmth of red that Gabrielle Grimard dresses the girl in LILA AND THE CROW,  protects Lila’s heart. It brings out our heart-felt sympathy for the lonely girl longing to make friends in a new school. But even in her bright red dress the other children ridicule her for her dark hair, dark skin and dark eyes. She is dejected and lonely and so hurt by their jeers, calling her a crow. One day she is inspired, and eventually when she accepts herself,  she makes friends with the crows and her classmates!

When I first opened tubes of watercolor, I chose the splashes of rose madder or alizarin crimson in the girls’ dresses on watercolor paper. Recently, I’ve experimented with thick and heavy strokes of red, carmine or scarlet acrylic gouache on canvas. Red sets a character apart.. So I painted a caring boy, Tao, with a red shirt and his trusty toy dragon-playmate, Hong, also bright red, in TAO AND HONG: THE LOST BUNNY, as well as the setting late August evening sun in the story. 

Since TAO AND HONG: FOLLOW THE CROW, takes place while he is asleep, I chose a different palette: I reduced trusting Tao’s tee shirt to a golden orange and allowed Hong to accompany him as a lighter, but still scarlet dragon, true to his name since Hong ( ) means “red” in Chinese. Near the end of his dream Tao discovers an old rusty red caboose, now serving as a diner, which is as bright as the sun inside. 

In their most recent adventure, Tao and Hong tiptoe through their dark home after they’re supposed to be asleep, on a quest to find their favorite bedtime story: Here Be Pirates! To feel brave in the dark, Tao wears a red bandana and carries a wooden cutlass. Together, they ride a red sailboat through the high seas, and discover that they have the power to recreate the story they treasure.

The meaning and energy of the color red can vary greatly depending on the story. It can show up as a jewel-like treasure, clothing or accessory to offer protection from the elements, such as with an umbrella, boots, mittens or a bandage. Reds can bring comfort or pain, display heat or light, show injury or courage. Most often, red is a symbol for love and acceptance.