Skip to Content

Is the color crimson red?

The color crimson evokes images of rich velvet, blood, or a bright fiery red. But is crimson actually red, or is it a distinct color with its own place on the color spectrum? This article will examine the technical definitions and cultural associations of crimson and red to determine if these two colors are really one and the same.

The Technical Definitions of Crimson and Red

In technical terms, crimson and red occupy different places on the color wheel and spectrum. Crimson is a strong, deep red color that has a slightly bluish hue. It sits between the primary colors of red and blue on the color wheel. Red, on the other hand, is a primary color in both the RYB (red, yellow, blue) and RGB (red, green, blue) color models. It sits at 0° on the color wheel and has no tint or shade of another color.

The wavelengths of light that produce these two colors also differ. Red has a dominant wavelength of approximately 620-750 nm. Crimson, with its slightly bluer cast, has a dominant wavelength of roughly 617-620 nm. So in the technical sense, crimson and red, while similar, are distinct colors with their own specific properties.

Cultural Associations of Crimson vs. Red

Beyond the technical distinctions, crimson and red also have differing cultural connotations. Red is a bold, attention-grabbing color associated with love, passion, anger, and excitement. It has symbolic meaning in many cultures. Crimson, meanwhile, has cultivated more specific associations.

The word crimson originated from the Sanskrit word krmi-ja, referring to the crimson dye derived from carmine insects. This deep red dye was associated with luxury and prestige in many ancient cultures. Crimson robes were worn by nobles, priests, and kings. The crimson hem of a Roman senator’s toga indicated his status. In Renaissance art, crimson symbolized opulence and was reserved for depictions of religious figures and wealthy patrons.

This regal lineage gives crimson a formal, elegant feeling compared to the more dramatic red. Crimson is also strongly associated with prestigious universities, from Harvard to the University of Alabama. Their sports teams’ crimson uniforms evoke old-world scholarly tradition.

Crimson vs. Red in Color Science

Color scientists also delineate crimson and red when discussing color properties and perception. Red is one of the chromatic primary colors, meaning it cannot be created by mixing other colors. Crimson, on the other hand, is a non-spectral color. This means that while red corresponds to a specific wavelength of light, crimson exists outside the visual spectrum.

In color theory, crimson is considered a “cooler” version of the “warm” primary color red due to its slightly bluer cast. These subtle visual differences impact the psychological effects of the two colors. While red is arousing and intense, eliciting passion or anger, crimson has a mellower, more dignified effect. Understanding these nuances allows artists, designers, and marketers to choose colors tailored to the response they wish to provoke.

How Our Eyes Perceive Crimson vs. Red

The way our eyes process color also supports the distinction between crimson and red. Human color vision depends on cells in the retina called cones. There are three types of cones that respond preferentially to different wavelength ranges of light.

Cone type Peak sensitivity
S cones (short) 420-440 nm (blue)
M cones (medium) 534-545 nm (green)
L cones (long) 564-580 nm (red)

Red light strongly stimulates the L cones. Crimson, with its slightly shorter wavelength than red, stimulates the L cones a bit less. The M cones also respond partially to crimson’s bluer wavelength. So the visual system processes pure red and crimson signals differently, providing physiological evidence that they are distinct colors.

Crimson vs. Red in Language and Culture

Beyond technical specifications, crimson and red have distinct meanings in language and culture. For example, in English literature and poetry, writers leverage these colors to evoke different moods and imagery.

Red is a common metaphor for powerful emotions like passion, rage, or lust. Poets like Robert Burns “my love is like a red, red rose” and Sylvia Plath “Out of the ash I rise with my red hair” use the color red to symbolize deep romantic and feminine passion. Red is also associated with anger and violence, like in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”

Crimson, on the other hand, carries cultural associations with opulence and grandeur. British author Charlotte Brontë described a “crimson sky” at sunrise and crimson-colored wine. Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote of “crimson spots” on flower petals. This lyrical use of crimson evokes a subtler, more nuanced color than the intense red.

Distinguishing crimson from red also allows for more descriptive power. A writer can paint a vivid scene using red and crimson in different contexts, like crimson blood on a white dress or a woman in a red gown with crimson lipstick. The two colors complement each other when used purposefully to add depth and dimension.


While crimson and red are similar colors, there are distinct differences that matter in technical, cultural, and linguistic contexts. Crimson has its own unique wavelength and place on the color wheel. It carries cultural associations with luxury, while red is seen as bold and passionate. Writers use crimson in a more elegant, nuanced way than the intense red. So in summary, crimson is not exactly the same as red. It is a color with its own identity and connotations.

Understanding the nuances between these similar colors allows us to be more discerning in how we use them. Whether in design, literature, or simply discussing our favorite flower’s petals, distinguishing crimson from red adds dimension and expands our descriptive power. So the next time you paint, dress, write or chat, consider the sophisticated crimson along with the classic red.