Thursday, December 23, 2010


Vermilion is a bright, intense red color that has been used by artists since ancient times. It is a color that was indispensable to the Old Masters, for its strength and flexibility.

The color that is known as Vermilion today is only superficially comparable to what was used in the past. The modern color is made from Cadmium. Real Vermilion is made from Mercuric sulfide.

The naturally occurring form of Mercuric Sulfide is the mineral Cinnabar. The majority of mercury found on Earth is in this form. It has been mined for thousands of years as a source of mercury, as an artist's pigment, and even for natural medicine!

Most cinnabar is not of high enough quality to be made into a bright pigment, so a synthetic form was necessary. Ancient Chinese alchemists developed a process to synthesize cinnabar in the laboratory, and that was the beginning of Vermilion. These methods eventually found their way to the west.

Real vermilion has developed a bad reputation as not being stable. Vermilion was often adulterated with inferior products by unscrupulous vendors. Depending on the process used to create it, synthetic vermilion will vary in its stability. Vermilion has been known to darken when exposed to direct sunlight for long periods. In general however, it has proven very stable over time.

Cinnabar is not affected by these issues, so I chose to use it as a basis for making Vermilion pigment. Chinese cinnabar is of very high quality. I purchased it in the form of small pieces and not a powder, to ensure it was genuine. Cinnabar crystals have an unmistakable greasy appearance similar to quartz.

Because Cinnabar is mostly mercury, it is important to take appropriate safety precautions while it is being handled.

An example of roughly ground cinnabar. This was washed over and over again to remove impurities. It was then dried, reground and then washed again. The jars contain the pigment in different series of being washed.

Once dry, I mixed the final color into oil paint:

Cadmium-based colors superseded those of mercury only in the early 20th century, so the majority of art created by man will contain real Vermilion. Real Vermilion is stronger and more intense than cadmium, and will tolerate more extreme color mixes without losing its chromatic purity. It also tends to be much warmer.

An example of Vermilion, from the painting Mars et Rhea Silvia, by Peter Paul Rubens.


Annie Belle said...

Hey! I'm also interested in making my own vermilion, so I have to ask--where did you get your cinnabar pieces? Google is not being very friendly.

Zachary Kator said...

Hi Annie,

The cinnabar I found came from China by way of Hong Kong. You should be able to find a source either online or through a company that sells to rock collectors. If all else fails, there's always ebay.