Vermillion – A Bold & Crackling Red Color! Classic Color Series


Vermilion was originally made from the powdered mineral cinnabar, a name originating from the Persian word for “Dragons blood” خون اژدها It was a dense and opaque pigment with a clear and brilliant hue ranging from bright red to a duller bluish-red. The highest quality vermilion stones were chosen for colorant, and the finer the powder was ground, the more brilliant it became. A Brief History: The earliest use of cinnabar was brought to light in the cave paintings at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey (7000-8000 BC). Then, in China, (4000-3500 BC), cinnabar was first known to be used to paint pottery. Ancient Romans mined vermilion at the Almaden mine in northwest Spain, transporting it to Pompeii, where the use of vermilion emerged among the ruins in the splendid Pompeii frescoes (6th century BC – 79 AD). As a mercury mineral, cinnabar was highly toxic, and a prison term in the mines of ancient Rome, was a certain death sentence. Mayan civilizations, (the Chavins and the Incas – (600-700 AD), covered themselves in Vermilion for ceremonies by mixing Mercury and Sulfur together. The Tomb of the Red Queen (an anonymous Mayan noble woman,) was unearthed in northern Mexico in 1994, revealing it contents to be entirely covered in vermilion powder. The Illuminated Manuscripts, the illustrated books of the Middle Ages (400-600 AD), were painted with a vermilion pigment called Minium, creating jewel-like miniature paintings. Artists during the Rennaissance (15th-17th Century) used vermilion as under paint and glazes, to create a vivid, dramatic red in frescoes and paintings on panels.

Paint & Pigment

Vermilion pigment was made in the 14th century by heating a compound of sulphide of mercury in a flask. This compound vaporized, and re condensed in the top of the flask. The flask was then broken, the vermilion was taken out, and it was ground. When first created, the pigment was almost black, but as it was ground the red color appeared. The longer the grinding, the finer the color became. Il Libro dell’ Arte by Cennino D’ Andrea Cennini; The Craftsman’s Handbook, is a glimpse into the details of the 14th century profession of the “artist.” The vermilion process was so involved that Cennino wrote, “Know that if you ground vermilion every day for twenty years the color would become finer and more handsome.” He also gave some practical tips: “If you want to take the trouble (of making vermilion) you will find plenty of recipes for it, and especially by asking of the friars. But I advise you, rather to get some of that which you find at the druggists’ for your money, so as not to lose time in the many variations of procedure. And I will teach you how to buy it, and to recognize the good vermilion. Always buy vermilion unbroken, and not pounded or ground. The reason? Because it is generally adulterated by swindlers with red lead or brick-dust.” From the 17th century, the Dutch method of manufacturing vermilion was used. Closely based on the methods of ancient Chinese production, the pigment was then washed and ground under water. This was the primary red pigment used by European painters from the Renaissance until the 20th century. Today, genuine vermilion (synthetic mercuric sulfide), comes mostly from China and is of high quality when compared to the ancient vermilion made from cinnabar. There are also new modern versions of vermilion for use today in architectural color, interior design, product development, and artistry.

The History of Art

  • Cave Paintings of Catalhovuk, Turkey, 7000-8000 BC, the earliest known use of cinnabar.
  • The bright vermilion murals in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, before 79 AD were painted with ground and powdered cinnabar.
  • William Lord Hastings ”Book of Hours” from late 1470s. – Minium on vellum was used as rich accents in this plant design.
  • During the Middle Ages, minium was used decoratively in illuminated manuscripts and was reserved for the most important book illustrations. It was ten times more expensive than the red ochre which was also used in the illuminated manuscripts.
  • It seems also, that the French claimed the word “minium” naming it after “mignon” (small and pretty in French language), therefore the word “miniature”.
  • Saint Gerome and St. John the Baptist, 1428-29, Frescoe, by Masaccio, features a vivid robe painted with vermilion.

Girl with a Wineglass”, 1659 – 1660, by Jan Vermeer

Vermeer used Vermilion under glazes in the traditional manner of his time. The fabulous red gown in “Girl with a Wineglass” (1659 – 1660), was very likely modeled to begin with in shades of vermilion and white lead, and small quantities of ultramarine or black in the deepest shades. Then the entire gown was glazed with Madder Lake.

This same technique was also used in the red plumed hat worn by the Girl with a Red Hat, 1665-1666. (see Red Hat in this blog).

The Family of Charles IV, 1800 by Francisco Goya

The 19th century Spanish painter Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was so fond of this vibrant color that Vermilion also became known as Goya.

The Battle of San Romano, 1435-1460, by Paolo Uccello

Vermilion has the defect of darkening with time. In The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello, 1435-1460, the bridle of the horse has turned from red to dark brown

Modern Art

“As for the colors I use, what’s so interesting about that? I don’t think one could paint better or more brightly with another palette. The most important thing is to know how to use the colors. Their choice is a matter of habit. In short, I use white lead, cadmium yellow, vermilion, madder, cobalt blue, chrome green. That’s all.” Claude Monet

“I love red so much that I almost want to paint everything red.” Alexander Calder (A rough approximation of Calder’s red is – RGB 194,32,11.)

“If you are only moved by color relationships, then you miss the point. I’m interested in expressing the big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” Mark Rothko

Modern Day Icons

It’s a bold and crackling color that conjures up emotions ranging from passionate anger to flaming love. Red-headed, film goddess Rita Hayworth epitomizes its dynamic activity, with the red carpet, flaming lips and fiery hair. While Showtime’s hit series “Dexter” – shows its dark side. No matter how you spell it, Vermilion commands attention. When anyone drinks a Coke today, (I do on occasion)we immediately know that it is associated with its vermilion and white trademark from 1890, using Frank M. Robinson’s Spencerian script.- Baker-Signet. It is interesting that among collectors of vintage Coca-Cola vending machines, Dupont Fleet Red 60807AH is what most ‘aficionados’ think of as ‘coke-red.’ “Please don’t use what is currently called Coke-Red today,” they say, “because that is a color they started using in the 60’s and it is more of an orange-red.”

Modern Day Icons

Feeling vermilion? You would not be the first! Sometimes we long for colors with vitality that jump out. It’s the first place the eye goes to when entering the room, and a dynamic energy that fills it up. When you are wearing Vermilion you are really living!

Architectural Color

The Golden Gate Bridge’s color is “International Orange” (Orange-Vermilion) a color name from the aerospace industries. The most current coat on the bridge now is Sherwin-Williams and is made to match the Bridge International Orange color formula.
  • International Orange (Engineering) – #BA160C,
  • International Orange (Golden Gate Bridge) – #C0362C,
  • International Orange (Aerospace) – #FF4F00.
  • Sherwin Williams – closest off-the-shelf Vermillion has available is “Fireweed” (SW6328). I love the color of the Golden Gate Bridge within its natural setting.
  • Interior Spaces

    When using Vermilion in interior decor, the space becomes energized. A well-placed explosion of rich, vermilion color, makes everything come alive. Sometimes this color incorporates well into the dining room or kitchen-nook. I often like red appliances and red electronics on the countertops. When this color is used in pops and splashes, such as tabletop napkins, it provides just the right dramatic accent. Or a Vermilion painted, tiny wall cove in the entryway where one can always use its warm, vital, and assertive charm when coming and going from home. Use Terra Cotta, Vermilion, Cinnabar, and Pumpkin, and go red with excitement!

    Interior Spaces

    This rich red-orange hue was used as the first edition book cover art of Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Holden, the novel’s main character, wears a red hunting cap throughout the book. He invents the fantasy that adulthood is a superficial world full of phonies, while childhood is that of innocence and honesty. The color becomes a symbol for the character’s teenage angst and alienation. Toulouse Lautrec, 1864-1901 and Jules Cheret, 1836-1932, members of the “Belle Epoque of Poster Art” in Paris, Vermilion appears to be the color of amusement, parties, events, and celebrations. Movie Poster, Metropolis, Josef Bottlik, 1927 The 1927 science fiction film, Metropolis, is full of the dichotomies of good and evil, the separation of wealthy industrialists and workers, man and machine, and innocence and the devil. The Hungarian poster artist Josef Bottlik uses the color Vermilion in this movie poster to express the passion, conflict and reconciliation in the film.

    Les Objets Utilise’

    Beginning in about the 8th century, the Chinese began making synthetic vermillion to create what came to be called Chinese lacquer or Chinese Red.” In 1835 “Chinese vermilion” was described as a cinnabar so pure that it only had to be ground into powder to become the perfect vermilion. The finely ground powder is mixed with a lacquer finish made from the sap of a Sumac tree, creating a richly colored natural plastic whose lacquer surface hardens for use. Vermilion is an enduring color with a rich and valuable history. It is a global hue, crossing over creative markets worldwide, and continues to endure, while its original roots remain.

    Red Door

    The art of Feng Shui says that a red door symbolizes the mouth of the home, while, in China, it is a tradition to paint the front door red before the New Year, to invite good luck and happiness. A tori is a traditional Japanese gate, usually at the entrance or inside a Shinto shrine. It symbolically marks the transition from the profane to the sacred. The red door on a Catholic church is the blood of Christ and other martyrs, to signify that the ground beyond the door (inside the church) is holy, and a sanctuary from physical and spiritual evils. In Ireland, front doors are painted red to ward-off ghosts and evil spirits. In the Old Testament, the Jewish slaves in Egypt smeared their doors with lambs blood as a sign that their homes would be passed over by the Angel of Vengeance. Red doors were also used as part of the Underground Railroad to signify homes as “safe houses”.

    Red Hats

    While standing in a long grocery line I met a Hindu woman who wore a luminous vermilion dot applied to her forehead and powder along the part of her hair. I asked her what the red powder was and why she wore it. She told me that she had just gotten married and that is why she wore this, and the brilliant vermilion powder is called Sindoor. She explained that when she and her friends wear it at the center of the scull, it gives warmth and good health to the brain, eyes, ears and nose. Her smile showed me this. I have wondered about vermilion, and the claim that it is connected to the endocrine system. The pineal and pituitary glands near the thalamus in the brain produce melatonin, and have an abundance of effects on our lives; moods, sexuality, and energy levels, released and timed in rhythms, and in portioned amounts. Does Sindoor support or enhance the endocrine system?


  • To ancient Chinese astronomers and astrologists, the vermilion bird was the king of all birds with the most beautiful singing voice and appearance, and one of the Four Symbols in the Constellations.
  • It is arranged as seven mansions, located in the south, and Vermilion in color. In ancient myths, the Vermilion Bird was reborn from the fire, the phoenix, incarnation of the God of Fire.
  • In Chinese culture today, the phoenix is a symbol of auspice and good luck.
  • When creating a design using vermillion and gold together, they are the two harmonious colors of joy and prosperity; a color scheme with ancient roots!
  • Vermilion powder was used in sacred rituals during Buddha’s time and is woven into the Chinese Taoist culture; regarded as the color of life and eternity. Hindu men wear vermilion as a part of all
  • Hindu religious ceremonies and festivals.
  • Vermilion was used to color the faces of triumphant Roman generals, who held elaborate victory processions to the temple of Capitolium.
  • Red also symbolizes Socialism, with the concept of social and economic “well being” of all citizens.
  • Personally, vermilion symbolizes the magnetic power of love and desire. It is the blood of life and the color of the heart.
  • It has the ability to be both positive and negative, and this is no wonder, as it is produced directly from the Earth’s deep volcanic and hot springs activity.
  • It is the embers of a burning fire, the principle seat of the soul.
  • In Nature

    Vermilion is a stunning part of the natural world.

    Cadmium Red

    Beginning in the 20th century, Cadmium Red has been more widely used than Vermilion. This is a synthetic, brilliant red, that is both modern and versatile. To my own eye, it is a different red altogether; a tinge on the blue side!

    Read more:

    Visual Images
    1. Cinnabar
    Cinnabar Stones
    Sindoor-Vermilion Powder
    2. Paint and Pigment
    Sennelier Vermilion Color Gradient
    Pantone 2012 Color of the Year
    Tangerine Tango, Pantone 17-1463
    Benjamin Moore – Vermilion wall paint #2002-10, new in 2013!
    3a. The History of Art
    Cave Paintings of Catalhovuk, Turkey, 7000-8000 BC,
    Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, before 79 AD,
    Saint Gerome and Saint John the Baptist”, 1428-29, Frescoe, by Masaccio
    “Girl with a Wineglass”, 1659 – 1660, by Johanness Vermeer,
    “The Family of Charles IV”, 1800 by Francisco Goya,
    “The Battle of San Romano”, 1435-1460, by Paolo Uccello
    4. Modern Art
    Alexander Calder 1976,
    Claude Monet “Red Boats at Argenteuil” 1869
    Mark Rothko “Orange, Red, Yellow” 1961
    5. Modern Day Icons
    Coca Cola – An Icon
    Google Plus,
    Dexter on Showtime,
    6. Wearing Vermilion
    Vermilion Tulle
    Dress by Marchesa
    When You are Wearing Vermilion, you are really living!
    7. Architectural Color
    Golden Gate Bridge by Raj Hanchanahal,
    Heian Shrine, Kyoto,
    Vines in Winter
    8. Interior Spaces
    Vermilion Room-,
    Victoria Station
    9. Books and Posters
    “Catcher in the Rye”, 1951,by J.D. Salinger,
    Toulouse Lautrec, 1864-1901 with Jules Cheret, 1836-1932,
    Movie Poster, Metropolis, Josef Bottlik, 1927,
    10. Les Objets Utilize
    Gas Range,
    Falcon Products-Frescoe Side Chair,
    Celine Paris,
    Stellar Pendants
    Chinese Cinnabar Vase c.1900
    11. Red Doors
    Door Latch
    Paul Davis Architect
    Vermilion Shrine
    Japan, Old Red Door
    12. Red Hats
    Christian Dior-Fall 2009
    “Girl with a Red Hat”, 1665-66, by Johannes Vermeer,
    Vermilion Head Cover,
    African Woman
    Deborah Tuberville
    Kate Middleton
    Zulu Bride
    13. Symbolism
    The Tomb of the Red Queen – Palanque Mexico
    Vermilion Bird
    Vermilion Powder at Durga Puja, Hindu Festival in New Delhi India
    Vermilion and Gold Together
    14. In Nature
    Monarch Butterfly, worldwide
    Vermilion Flycatcher, southwestern, U.S.A.
    Koi Pond
    Amanita Muscaria, native conifer and deciduous woodlands throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
    Vermillion Sea star, west coat in the U.S.
    Istanbul Tulips, Turkey
    Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona
    Autumn Colors
    Sunrise on the Columbia River by Mike Yoshida
    Sunsets and sunrises are often red because of an optical effect called Rayleigh scattering. This happens at sunrise and sunset, when the path of sunlight through the atmosphere is longest to the eye.
    15. Cadmium Red
    Station Wagon
    Sherwin Williams Heart Throb-SW6866 and Tanager-SW6601
    Maggie Rizer-Supermodel

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