“A good painter needs only three colors, black, white and red.” Titian (from The Painter’s Keys)
Older than Ultramarine from Lapis Lazuli, probably as old as ivory Black, the warm orange-red known as Vermilion has ancient roots. From Chinese laquerware to the villas of Pompeii to illuminated manuscripts and more, Vermilion was the red anchor of artist’s palettes up to the nineteenth century where it was replaced by the less toxic cadmium red. Other less expensive reds were made from clay and similar “earth” sources but these lacked the depth, richness and opaqueness of Vermilion. Vermilion was the red favored by Titian.
The mineral cinnabar, primarily derived from mines in Spain has long been the main source of true Vermilion. The breakdown of cinnabar reveals the main component as the highly toxic mercury. Despite the toxicity, Vermilion remained the red of choice for artists who could afford it, for centuries. Vermillion is also used in the ceremonies and symbolism of several major religions. Today’s Vermilions are entirely synthetic without a trace of mercury.
Vermilion is so named from its similarity to a red dye made from an insect, kermes vermilio. Other sources claim the name Vermilion is from the Latin word, vermiculus, for the small worm known as vermis, also used for red dye. Maybe the worm, vermis, is actually the insect kermes verilio. It could possibly be a wormy, red insect used for the dye. Whether named for the vermis worm or the buggy verilio, Vermilion, the paint, was still made from the expensive, highly toxic, mercury-laden mineral, cinnabar.
Why couldn’t all those brilliant medieval Illuminated manuscript artists conceive of a way to make paint from the wormy, red insect dye instead of the highly toxic expensive mineral? Maybe they weren’t all that illuminated, after all. Its probably best to stick with Cadmium Red and avoid wormy, red insects altogether. Better yet, go for Naphthol red or Winsor Red for the least likelihood of toxicity in beautiful reds.