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Vermilion Color

The Fascinating History and Significance Behind Vermilion Color

Red is one of the most abundant colors on earth. It’s often ranked alongside black, white, blue, green, and brown in terms of relative abundance. It’s prominent in various industries, ranging from fashion to automotive, kid supplies, and even farm implements.

It is also the most favorite color in terms of national identity. As of 2016, 77% of all independent countries had red on their national flags. That was enough to make it more popular than white, which is the default background color for most flags.

Another thing that makes red so special is that the color is available in numerous shades. There are over 40 officially identified red varieties and thousands of others that are yet to be defined. Vermilion is one of them.

In this article, we explore everything there is to know about the rich vermillion pigment.

What Color Is Vermilion?

Vermilion Color

Vermilion, sometimes also spelled as vermillion, is an opaque red-orange color. The pigment was naturally obtained from the powdered form of the mineral cinnabar. As a lively reddish-orange color, vermillion has the hex code #E34234

Note that cinnabar also happens to be the ore where mercury comes from. It’s essentially a form of mercury sulfide, which makes it potentially toxic.

Vermilion is typically lighter and warmer than crimson. The pigment is thought to be up to 10% more intense than basic red. Some color enthusiasts have also described it as a saturated coral color or a red hot pigment.

However, the term ‘vermilion’ might also denote a family of colors and not one distinct pigment. That’s especially when viewed with respect to the natural ore where it comes from. As a family of colors, vermilion can range in appearance from bright orange-red hues to duller reddish-purple tints.

What Colors Are In Vermilion?

Colors In Vermilion

Based on the above definition, it’s evident that red is the dominant color in vermillion. Note that red is a primary color. Primary colors are the source of all other colors, including secondary and tertiary ones. In other words, they cannot be made by mixing other pigments.

However, remember that some shades of vermillion may have purple undertones. In this case, it would be accurate to say the pigment also contains blue, seeing as it takes the combination of red and blue to create purple.

Where Did The Name Vermillion Come From?

Name Vermillion

The English word “vermillion” derived from the Old French word ‘vermeillon.’ ‘Vermeillon’ was further formed from ‘vermeil,’ a variant of the Latin word ‘vermiculus’ which is the diminutive form of the Latin word ‘vermis.’ ‘

Vermis’ loosely translates to worm. The name “vermillion” was coined because it resembled the color of the natural red dye secreted by the insect Kermes vermilio, which was widely used in Europe.

The first recorded English usage of the word “vermillion” as a color was in 1289. From this period until the 17th century, the words “vermillion” and “cinnabar” were used interchangeably.

What Is The Origin and History Of Vermillion?

Vermillion is a relatively old pigment. The color has been commercially produced from at least classical antiquity (between the 8th century BC and the 5th century AD). Numerous archaeological findings have pointed to the widespread usage of vermillion by artists from ancient civilizations.

China is credited for being the first nation to synthesize vermillion from mercury sulfide. This was around the 14th century. Synthetic vermillion immediately caught on as it was considered easier to produce and of superior quality than naturally-obtained vermillion. For many years, the color was called China red, ostensibly as a tribute to the Chinese prowess in producing it.

Vermillion became one of the default colors in Chinese culture. It was especially used to highlight manuscripts and as a common shade in palaces.

Rome also had a love affair with vermillion. Ancient Romans reportedly bathed the faces of their victorious generals with this color. The practice was designed to mimic the vermilion visage depicted in the image of Jupiter Capitolinus located in the temple on Capitoline Hill. It was perhaps also a tribute to the triumphant generals for shedding the most blood on the battlefield.

History Of Vermillion

However, naturally-obtained vermillion became scarcer following the depletion of most cinnabar mines. The fact that pure cinnabar was even rarer made the color a preserve of the high and mighty. The Roman government had to step in and fix the price of vermillion at 70 sesterces per pound, which was still ten times more expensive than red ochre.

Besides the Chinese and the Romans, the Egyptians and Spaniards also have their fair share of history with the vermillion color. At some point in history, most of the vermillion supplied throughout Europe came from Sisapo in Spain.

As vermillion’s natural sources were gradually exhausted, humans discovered cadmium red. Cadmium red became the favorite of artists because unlike natural vermillion, it didn’t blacken when exposed to the air. Vermillion’s popularity would later rebound following advancements in paint manufacturing.

What Is The Meaning and Symbolism Of Vermillion?

History Of Vermillion

Vermillion’s symbolism is largely rooted in culture.

In Taoist culture, for instance, vermillion is regarded as the color of life and eternity. Taoists used the pigment to make potions that were intended to heal and rejuvenate the body, despite the mercury-laden potions achieving quite the opposite effects. Vermillion accents also underscored the popular belief that life exists beyond the grave.

In India, vermillion signifies the sanctity of marriage. Hindu women often use the pigment (locally known as sindoor) along their hair parting lines as a symbol that they’re married. Hindu men also wear vermilion on their foreheads during important religious ceremonies.

Many cultures also consider vermillion as the color of luck. People from such cultures are eager to invite vermillion-inspired designs into their living spaces as a sign that great things are on the way.

Symbolism Of Vermillion

At some point in history, the vermillion color was so rare that only the mighty and affluent could afford it. This led to the color being associated with wealth and status.

The Romans added yet another meaning to vermillion color by associating it with blood. In this respect, the pigment could resonate with life, victory, or success.

The fact that vermillion is a shade of red means it could convey feelings of love, passion, and energy. You’ll never go wrong choosing vermillion as the theme color for your upcoming romantic dinner.

However, as a shade of red, vermillion can also evoke negative emotions like anger and fear. It’s always best to use fainter tints of the color or blend it with other less intense pigments.

What Are The Noteworthy Uses Of Vermillion?

Uses Of Vermillion

Vermillion can suit a variety of art and design projects. But as already indicated, the color would look exceptionally great on designs with romantic or religious tones.

The following are some of the noteworthy mentions and applications of vermillion throughout history;

1. Art and Literary Applications

One of the most vivid historical applications of vermillion was in the painting of Saint Jerome by Masaccio (1401 – 1428).

In literature, ‘Vermilion Sands’ is a title for a collection of science-fiction short stories published in 1971 by J.G Ballard. The stories revolve around an imaginary future resort that uses cutting-edge technology to attract its patrons.

Vermilion shades

2. Religious Applications

a) Biblical References

There’s a mention of vermillion in the Book of Ezekiel 23:14, where it’s described as a pigment used in creating art that portrayed Chaldean men. The color is also listed in Jeremiah 22:11 – 30 as a common pigment that was used for painting buildings during the reign of King Shallum.

b) Buddhist References

The Shaolin temple is regarded as the temple where Buddhist monks and Bodhidharma established Zen Buddhism, the new sect of Chan Buddhism. This iconic temple, which was featured in the television series Kung Fu (1972 – 1975), is colored in bright tones of vermillion.

3. Mythological Applications

The Vermilion Bird is a mythological reddish bird considered in Chinese as one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese Constellation. The bird stands for the Fire element and the south direction, which explains why it’s sometimes known as the Vermilion Bird of the South.

How to Make Vermillion

From at least the 17th century, vermillion has been manufactured synthetically by mashing mercury and melted sulfur. This results in black mercury sulfide, which is then heated in a retort to give off vapor. Manufacturers then condense the vapor to produce a bright reddish crystalline form of mercury sulfide.

The next step entails scraping off of the mercury sulfide and then treating it using a strong alkali solution to dissolve the sulfur. Finally, manufacturers obtain the final vermillion pigment by washing and grinding the residue underwater.

Vermillion is also manufactured naturally on a large scale in cinnabar mines. Most active mines are found in Almadén in Spain as well as in the Hunan, Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guizhou provinces of China.

However, there are easier and cheaper ways to create vermillion using readily-available supplies. A typical process would unfold as follows;

i. Mix mercury with sulfur to form mercury sulfide.

This form of mercury sulfide is blackish in color and is technically known as aethiopes mineralis.

ii. Heat the aethiopes mineralis in a flask.

Aim for a temperature of 583.5°C (1,082°F) as this is the temperature at which mercury sulfide vaporizes. The compound will vaporize and recondense in the top of the flask.

iii. Break the flask and collect the vermillion crystals.
iv. Grind the crystals to produce vermillion powder.

When first collected, the vermillion crystals will be somewhat black. However, the color changes to red upon grinding. The more finely you grind the crystals, the more refined the color becomes.

v. Add water or other solutions to make vermillion paste.

Remember to only make vermillion that you can use up in a few days. The color has one notable drawback – the susceptibility to darken or develop a purplish-gray tint when exposed to air.

Another drawback to making vermillion using the above method is that you could be exposed to the highly toxic mercury fumes.

Long-term exposure to mercury sulfide is linked to brain damage. Aspirating mercury vapor may also cause damage to other vital organs, such as your lungs and kidneys. Mercury sulfide is even worse if ingested. So, be sure to take all the precautionary measures when using the above method.

Alternatively, you can save yourself all the potential risks of mercury sulfide exposure by creating vermillion using the below procedure;

i. Add small amounts of cadmium red deep to a color mixing bowl.
ii. Introduce even smaller amounts of titanium white to the bowl to create some opacity.
iii. Now, add cadmium red to the mixture to enhance its intensity.


Wrap Up

Vermillion is undoubtedly one of the most mesmerizing colors. This exquisite shade of red is best suited for occasions with romantic, religious, or dramatic themes.

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