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Title: Vermilion  
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Subject: Red, Scarlet (color), Pigment, Mercury (element), List of colors (compact)
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Vermilion (Cinnabar)
    Color coordinates
Hex triplet #E34234
sRGBB  (rgb) (227, 66, 52)
CMYKH   (c, m, y, k) (0, 84, 71, 0)
HSV       (h, s, v) (5°, 77%, 89%)
Source Maerz and Paul[1]
B: Normalized to [0–255] (byte)
H: Normalized to [0–100] (hundred)

Vermilion is a brilliant red or scarlet pigment originally made from the powdered mineral cinnabar, and is also the name of the resulting color.[2] It was widely used in the art and decoration of Ancient Rome, in the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, in the paintings of the Renaissance, and in the art and lacquerware of China.[3][4]


  • In art and culture 1
  • Etymology 2
  • Chemistry and manufacture 3
  • History 4
    • In Antiquity 4.1
    • In the Americas 4.2
    • In the Middle Ages and Renaissance 4.3
    • Chinese Red 4.4
    • Sindoor 4.5
  • Variations 5
    • Red-orange 5.1
    • Orange-red 5.2
    • Medium vermilion 5.3
    • Chinese red 5.4
  • In nature 6
  • In human culture 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
    • Notes and citations 9.1
    • Bibliography 9.2
    • External links 9.3

In art and culture


The word vermilion came from the Old French word vermeillon, which was derived from vermeil, from the Latin vermiculus, the diminutive of the Latin word vermis, or worm. It has the same origin as the English word vermin.[2] The name originated because it had a similar color to the natural red dye made from an insect, the Kermes vermilio, which was widely used in Europe.[6] The words for the color in Portuguese (vermelho), Galician (vermello) and Catalan (vermell) have the same origin. The first recorded use of vermilion as a color name in English was in 1289.[7][8] The term cinnabar was used interchangeably with vermilion until the 17th century, when vermilion became the more common name. By the late 18th century 'cinnabar' applied to the unground natural mineral only.

Chemistry and manufacture

Vermilion is a dense, opaque pigment with a clear, brilliant hue.[9] The pigment was originally made by grinding a powder of cinnabar, the ore which contains mercury. The chemical formula of the pigment is HgS (mercury(II) sulfide); like most mercury compounds it is toxic.

Vermilion is not one specific hue; Mercuric sulfides make a range of warm hues – from bright orange-red to a duller bluish-red. Differences in hue are caused by the size of the ground particles of pigment. Larger crystals produce duller and less-orange hue.

Cinnabar pigment was a side-product of the mining of mercury, and mining cinnabar was difficult, expensive and dangerous, because of the toxicity of mercury. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus of Eresus (371-286 BC) described the process in "De Lapidibus", the first scientific book on minerals. Efforts began early to find a better way to make the pigment.

The Chinese were probably the first to make a synthetic vermilion as early as the 4th century BC. The Greek alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (Third–Fourth century AD) wrote that such a method existed. In the early ninth century the process was accurately described by the Arab or Persian alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (722–804) in his book of recipes of colors, and the process began to be widely used in Europe.[9][10]

The process described by Jabir ibn Hayyan was fairly simple. Mercury and sulfur were mixed together, forming a black compound of sulphide of mercury, called Aethiopes mineralis. This was then heated in a flask. The compound vaporized, and recondensed in the top of the flask. The flask was 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 color was ground, the finer the color became. The Italian Renaissance artist Cennino Cennini wrote: "Know that if you ground it every day for twenty years the color would become finer and more handsome."[11]

During the 17th century a new method of making the pigment was introduced, known as the 'Dutch' method. Mercury and melted sulfur were mashed to make black mercury sulfide, then heated in retort, producing vapors condensing as a bright, red mercury sulfide. To remove the sulfur these crystals were treated with a strong alkali, washed and finally ground under water to yield the commercial powder form of pigment.[12] The pigment is still made today by essentially the same process.

Vermilion has one important defect; it is liable to darken, or develop a purplish-gray surface sheen.[9] Cennino Cennini wrote, "bear in mind that it is not in its nature to be exposed to the air, but it stands up better on panel than on the wall; because, in the course of time, from exposure to air, it turns black when it is used and laid on the wall."[13] The darkness is not a result of the vermilion itself, which is very stable, but is caused by impurities and adulteration of the pigment. Newer research indicates that chlorine ions and light may aid in decomposing vermilion into elemental mercury, which is black in finely dispersed form.[14][15]

Vermilion was the primary red pigment used by European painters from the Renaissance until the 20th century. However, because of its cost and toxicity, it was almost entirely replaced by a new synthetic pigment, cadmium red, in the 20th century.

Genuine vermilion pigment today comes mostly from China; it is a synthetic mercuric sulfide, labeled on paint tubes as PR-106 (Red Pigment 106). The synthetic pigment is of higher quality than vermilion made from ground cinnabar, which has many impurities. The pigment is very toxic, and should be used with great care.[16]


In Antiquity

The first documented use of vermilion pigment, made with ground cinnabar, dates to 7000–8000 BC, and was found at the neolithic village of Catalhoyuk, in modern-day Turkey. Cinnabar was mined in Spain beginning in about 5300 BC. In China, the first documented use of Cinnabar as a pigment was by the Yangshao culture (5000–4000 BC), where it was used to paint ceramics, to cover the walls and floors of rooms, and for ritual ceremonies.[17]

The principal source of cinnabar for the ancient Romans was the Almaden mine in northwest Spain, which was worked by prisoners. Since the ore of mercury was highly toxic, a term in the mines was a virtual death sentence. Pliny the Elder described the mines this way:

"Nothing is more carefully guarded. It is forbidden to break up or refine the cinnabar on the spot. They send it to Rome in its natural condition, under seal, to the extent of some ten thousand pounds a year. The sales price is fixed by law to keep it from becoming impossibly expensive, and the price fixed is seventy sesterces a pound."[18]

In Rome, the precious pigment was used to paint frescoes, decorate statues, and even as a cosmetic. In Roman triumphs, the victors had their faces covered with vermilion power, and the face of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill was also colored vermilion. Cinnabar was used to paint the walls of some of the most luxurious villas in Pompeii, including the Villa of the Mysteries. Pliny reported that the painters of that villa stole a large portion of the expensive pigment by frequently washing their brushes and saving the wash water.[19]

In the Byzantine Empire, the use of cinnabar and the vermilion color was reserved for the use of the Imperial family and administrators; official letters and imperial decrees were written in vermilion ink, made with cinnabar.[19]

In the Americas

Vermilion was also used by the peoples of Central and South America, to paint ceramics, figurines, murals, and for the decoration of burials. It was used in the Chavin Civilization (400 BC – 200 AD), and in the Maya, Sican, Moche, and Inca Empire. The major source was the Huancavelica mine in the Andes mountains in central Peru.

The most dramatic example of the use of vermilion in the Americas was the so-called Tomb of the Red Queen, located in Temple XIII in the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, dated to between 600–700 AD, discovered in 1994 by Mexican archeologist Arnoldo Gonzales Cruz. The body and all the objects in the sarcophagus were covered with bright red vermilion powder made from cinnabar.[20]

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance

The technique for making a synthetic vermilion by combining sulphur and mercury was in use in Europe in the 9th century, but the pigment was still expensive. Since it was almost as expensive as gold leaf, it was used only in the most important decoration of illuminated manuscripts, while the less expensive minium, made with red lead, was used for the red letters and symbols in the text.

Vermilion was also used by painters in the Renaissance as a very vivid and bright red, though it did have the weakness of sometimes turning dark with time. The Florentine artist Cennino Cennini described it in his famous handbook for artists:

"Vermilion is made by alchemy in a retort. I am leaving out the system for this, because it would be too tedious to set forth in my discussion all the methods and recipes. Because, if you want to take the trouble, 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, either with red lead or with pounded brick."[21]

By the 20th century, the cost and toxicity of vermilion led to its gradually being replaced by synthetic pigments, particularly cadmium red, which had a comparable color and opacity.

Chinese Red

On the other side of the world, in China, the color vermilion was also playing an important role in the national culture. The color was most famously used in creating Chinese lacquerware, which was exported around the world, giving rise to the term "Chinese red."

The lacquer came from the Chinese lacquer tree, or Toxicodendron vernicifluum, a relative of the sumac tree, which grew in regions of China, Korea and Japan. The sap or resin of the tree, called urushiol, was caustic and toxic (it contained the same chemical compound as poison ivy) but, painted on to wood or metal, it hardened into a fine natural plastic, or lacquer surface. The pure sap was dark brown, but beginning in about the 3rd century BC, during the Han Dynasty, Chinese artisans colored it with powdered cinnabar or with red ochre (ferric oxide), giving it an orange-red color.[22][23] Beginning in about the 8th century, Chinese chemists began making synthetic vermilion from mercury and sulfur, which reduced the price of the pigment and allowed the production of Chinese lacquerware on a larger scale.

The shade of red of the lacquerware has changed over the centuries. During the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD) the Chinese word for red referred to a light red. However, during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), when the synthetic vermilion was introduced, that color became darker and richer. The poet Bai Juyi (772–846) wrote that "the flowers in the river when the sun rises are redder than flames," and the word he used for red was the word for vermilion, or Chinese red.[24]

When Chinese lacquerware and the ground cinnabar used to color it were exported to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, European collectors considered it to be finer than the European vermilion. In 1835 "Chinese vermilion" was described as a cinnabar so pure that it only had to be ground into powder to become a perfect vermilion. Historically European vermilion often included adulterants including brick, orpiment, iron oxide, Persian red, iodine scarlet—and minium (red lead), an inexpensive & bright but fugitive (cf Pigment#impermanence) lead-oxide pigment.[25]

In China, From ancient times vermilion was regarded as the color of blood, and thus the color of life. It was used to paint temples, the carriages of the Emperor, and as the printing paste for personal name chops. It was also used for unique red calligraphic ink reserved for Emperors. Chinese Taoists associated vermilion with eternity.


Sindoor is a vermilion-colored powder with which Indian women make a mark in their hairline to indicate they are married.

In India vermilion or sindoor as it is called is the symbol of fertility, it is therefore applied on the forehead as a dot or on the hair parting of the woman signifying that she is married. A key ritual in Indian marriages is application of vermilion by the groom on his bride, signifying their marital bond, which she applies everyday for the rest of life till her husband's death.



    Color coordinates
Hex triplet #FF5349
sRGBB  (rgb) (255, 83, 73)
CMYKH   (c, m, y, k) (0, 68, 71, 0)
HSV       (h, s, v) (3°, 71%, 100[26]%)
Source Crayola
B: Normalized to [0–255] (byte)
H: Normalized to [0–100] (hundred)

At right is displayed the Crayola color red-orange.

Red-orange has been a Crayola color since 1930.


    Color coordinates
Hex triplet #FF4500
sRGBB  (rgb) (255, 69, 0)
CMYKH   (c, m, y, k) (0, 73, 100, 0)
HSV       (h, s, v) (16°, 100%, 100[27]%)
Source X11
B: Normalized to [0–255] (byte)
H: Normalized to [0–100] (hundred)

Displayed at right is the web color orange-red. It was formulated in 1987 as one of the X11 colors, which became known as the X11 web colors after the invention of the world wide web in 1991.

Medium vermilion

Vermilion (Plochere)
    Color coordinates
Hex triplet #D9381E
sRGBB  (rgb) (217, 96, 59)
CMYKH   (c, m, y, k) (0, 56, 73, 15)
HSV       (h, s, v) (14°, 73%, 85[28]%)
Source Plochere
B: Normalized to [0–255] (byte)
H: Normalized to [0–100] (hundred)

At right is the medium tone of vermilion called "vermilion" on the Plochere color list, a color list formulated in 1948 that is used widely by interior designers.

Chinese red

Chinese Red
    Color coordinates
Hex triplet #AA381E
sRGBB  (rgb) (170, 56, 30)
CMYKH   (c, m, y, k) (0, 67, 82, 33)
HSV       (h, s, v) (11°, 82%, 67[29]%)
B: Normalized to [0–255] (byte)
H: Normalized to [0–100] (hundred)

"China red" or "Chinese red" is the name used for the vermilion shade used in Chinese lacquerware. One version is shown in the color box at right; the shade could vary from dark to light depending upon how the pigment was made and how the lacquer was applied. Chinese red was originally made from the powdered mineral cinnabar, but beginning in about the 8th century it was made more commonly by a chemical process combining mercury and sulphur. Vermilion has significance in Taoist culture, and is regarded as the color of life and eternity.

The first recorded use of Chinese red as a color name in English was in 1924.[30]

The source of this color is: ISCC-NBS Dictionary of Color Names (1955)--Color Sample of Chinese red (color sample #36).

In nature

In human culture

Hindu culture
  • Hindu women use vermilion along the hair parting line known as Sindoor, to signify that they are married. Hindu men often wear vermilion on their forehead during religious ceremonies and festivals.
  • The Shaolin temple, where the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma is reputed to have established the new sect of Chan Buddhism (Zen Buddhism), is colored a bright tone of vermilion. This temple was made famous in the West by the 1972–1975 TV series Kung Fu.
  • In the Bible vermilion is listed as a pigment that was in use for painting buildings during the reign of Shallum the son of Josiah king of Judah and is named in the book of the prophet Ezekiel as a pigment used in art that portrayed Chaldean men. (Jeremiah 22:11–14, Ezekiel 23:14-17)
  • The Vermilion rose is a symbol of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
  • In Han China's Five Elements cosmology (cf. Chinese mythology), one of the four symbols of the four directions is a bird called Vermilion Bird, which represents the direction of south. The color red (particularly as exemplified by cinnabar/vermilion) was also symbolically associated with summer, fire, a certain note on the musical scale, a certain day of the calendar, and so on.[31]
History of computing
  • The color orange red has a special significance in hacker culture. The documentation for Digital Equipment Corporation's VMS version 4 came in memorable, distinctively colored orangish-reddish ring binders, and "China red" was Digital's official name for this color. Mark Crispin seems to claim Digital's name for the color was Terracotta, at least in the context of PDP-10 machines running Tops-20.[32]

See also


Notes and citations

  1. ^ The color displayed in the color box above matches the color called vermilion in the 1930 book by Maerz and Paul A Dictionary of Color New York:1930 McGraw-Hill; the color vermilion is displayed on page 27, Plate 2, Color Sample L11. It is noted on page 193 that the color cinnabar is the another name for the color vermilion.
  2. ^ a b Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (2002), 5th Edition, Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ Gettens, R. J., Feller, R. L. & Chase, W. T., Artists' Pigments: A Handbook of their History and Characteristics, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 159
  4. ^ Cox, Robert E. (2009). The elixir of immortality: A modern-day alchemist's discovery of the philosopher's stone. Rochester: Inner Traditions. pp. 22–23.  
  5. ^ David Bamford and Ashok Roy, A Closer Look: Colour (2009), National Gallery Company Limited (ISBN 978 1 85709 442 8)
  6. ^ Eastaugh, p. 211
  7. ^ Maerz and Paul A Dictionary of Color New York:1930 McGraw-Hill Page 206; Color Sample of Vermilion: Page 27 Plate 2 Color Sample L11
  8. ^ Maerz and Paul A Dictionary of Color New York:1930 McGraw-Hill Page 193; Color Sample of Cinnabar (It is noted on page 193 that Cinnabar is the same color as Vermilion): Page 27 Plate 2 Color Sample L11
  9. ^ a b c d David Bomford and Ashok Roy, A Closer look: Colour. p. 41.
  10. ^ Philip Ball, Bright Earth, Art and the Invention of Colour
  11. ^ Daniel J. Thompson, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting p. 104.
  12. ^ Gettens, Rutherford J.; Stout, George L. (1966). Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopedia. Courier Dover Publications. p. 171.  
  13. ^ Cennino Cennini, The Craftsman's Handbook "Il Libro dell'Arte", Translated by Daniel V. Thompson Jr. (1954), Dover Publications. p. 24.
  14. ^ url =
  15. ^ Spring, M., Grout, R. (2002). National Gallery Technical Bulletin (PDF) 23: 50–61 Retrieved 13 January 2014. 
  16. ^ section on uses and risks of vermilion pigment
  17. ^ Cinnabar - History of Mercury Mineral Use, archeology of ancient pigments (retrieved August 2, 2013)
  18. ^ Daniel V. Thompson, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, p. 103.
  19. ^ a b Anne Varichon, Couleurs : Pigments et teintures dans les mains des peuples, p. 112
  20. ^ [2], archeology of ancient pigments (retrieved August 2, 2013)
  21. ^ Cennini, Cennino D' Andrea.Il Libro dell' Arte (The Craftsman's Handbook). Trans. Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1933.
  22. ^ Garner, H., "Technical Studies of Oriental Lacquer"; Studies in Conservation (8), (1963) pp. 84–97.
  23. ^ Ken Johnson, "Cinnabar: Zen once came in a shade of red," New York Times, August 20, 2009.
  24. ^ Yan Chunling, Chinese Red, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, (2008).
  25. ^ Eastaugh, p. 387
  26. ^ Color Conversion Tool set to hex code of color #FF5349 (Red-Orange):
  27. ^ Color Conversion Tool set to hex code of color #FF4500 (Orange-red):
  28. ^ Color Conversion Tool set to hex code of color #D9603B (Medium Vermilion):
  29. ^ Color Conversion Tool set to hex code of color #AA381E (Chinese Red):
  30. ^ Maerz and Paul A Dictionary of Color New York:1930 McGraw-Hill Page 192; Color Sample of Chinese Red: Page 29 Plate 3 Color Sample J12
  31. ^
  32. ^ Use Net History


  • Varichon, Anne (2005). Couleurs: Pigments et teintures dans les mains des peuples. Paris.  
  • Yan, Chunling (2008). Chinese Red. Beijing: Foreign Language Press.  
  • Ball, Philip (2001). Bright Earth: Art and Invention of Colour. Hazan (French translation).  
  • Eastaugh, Nicholas (2004). Pigment Compendium: A Dictionary of Historical Pigments.  
  • Martín-Gil, J; Martín-Gil, FJ; Delibes-de-Castro, G; Zapatero-Magdaleno, P; Sarabia-Herrero, FJ (1995). "The first known use of vermillion." Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, 51(8): 759–761
  • Chase, W.T., Feller, R.L., Gettens, R. J., Vermilion and cinnabar. Studies in Conservation, 17 (2), 45–69

External links

  • National Pollutant Inventory: Mercury and compounds fact sheet
  • "Vermilion". Pigments through the Ages. WebExhibits. 
  • "Why are cinnabar, vermilion, and cadmium orange colored?". Causes of Color. WebExhibits. 
  • More information in Medical Dictionary
  • Vermilion, Colourlex
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