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Cadmium-based colors superseded those of mercury only in the early 20th century, so the majority of art created by man will contain real Vermilion.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.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

New Work

The Marina
Oil on Canvas 10" x 14"

A small painting I completed a few weeks ago. Its a wonderful opportunity to be able to make my own paints. At the same time I recognize that its going to take me a while to become accustomed to the character of hand mixed paint, which is so different from something that comes out of a tube.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A New Studio

A while ago, I was very generously offered a new studio space. The studio consists of its own dedicated separate building. Before I could start using the space, I wanted to have everything set up just right.

My preference is always to work from natural light if possible. Before the invention of electricity, buildings were built to maximize light from natural sources. They were oriented so they faced the poles. With more modern buildings this is not always the case; making the best of the lighting is tricky.

I was fortunate to have spent enough time at Charles Cecil studios in Florence, that I knew what changes to make to the studio.

The best natural light comes from a single, high-facing source, preferably to the north. Northern light is the most stable throughout the day. If you can't use northern light, you may have to deal with shadows and highlights that vary considerably from hour to hour.

Another goal should be to minimize the amount of light reflecting around the studio. A high facing window reduces light reflecting off of the ground or surrounding buildings. Cutting down on the number of light sources simplifies the image, making the artist's job easier.

The 19th Century studio of George Inness. Note the single, large window light source.

The studio before I moved in had more than ample light. The windows to the right are facing north. The other windows will need to be covered.

I don't own the studio, so I couldn't make any major changes to the structure. I needed to use non-destructive means to block the light. The windows didn't have shutters, so they were covered by paper and cloth. The cloth was either attached directly to the wall, or hung from curtain rods.

The complete studio. A few things may need tweaking down the road. Everything has been covered, except the north windows immediately in front of the work. The lower windows have been blocked off halfway as well.

The light piece seen extending out from the top of the skylight, is a piece of foamboard. This directs the light down towards the workspace, cutting down on reflections off the opposite side of the ceiling. Ideally, the whole studio would have been painted black or draped with curtains to cut down on reflected light, but this would not have been practical in this case.

I set up a quick informal still-life, to observe the quality of light with real objects.