Spotlight on Colour: Vermilion


Created in China during the 8th century, Vermilion is an opaque orange-red which was one the main red used by artists until the introduction of cadmium pigments in the 20th century. Vermilion is made using a synthetic process which combines Cinnabar (a natural mineral containing mercury) with sulphur. Although still in existence today, the presence of mercury in the natural mineral once made it a highly toxic pigment, dangerous to mine during ancient times.

Prior to the development of the combined pigment developed in China, artists simply used the crushed Cinnabar mineral for this red. The names Cinnabar and Vermilion were interchangeable until the 17th century, when Vermilion became the more common name.

During the 12thcentury Vermilion was so expensive that it was reserved for illuminated manuscripts. This changed by the 14th century, when the manufacturing technique became more widely used in Europe and the combined version became accepted as superior to the natural Cinnabar version. This was replaced with Cadmium pigments in the 20th century. The name Vermilion is derived from the French vermeil a word, used to mean any red dye, which in turn comes from the latin; vermiculum, a red dye made from the insect Kermes vermilio.

The bright warm red colour is instantly recognisable in paintings from Renaissance art (such as Titian) as well as in Baroque, Rococo, and Romantic paintings.

Today, Vermilion is still most commonly synthesised by reacting mercury with molten sulphur and any naturally produced Vermilion is most likely to come from Cinnabar mined in China.