Wednesday, October 30, 2013
My friend Linda brought me a little treasure from Italy, a small cake of vermilion watercolor made by Zecchi of Firenze. Zecchi is a lovely art supply store near the duomo in Florence. They make their own paints, many of them from pigments from nearby Monte Amiata. So I decided to make this a day of vermilion, and when I went out walking I collected vermilion things, easy to do after the frost we had earlier this week. At the top left is the opened cake of watercolor. To its right are some rose hips from our front yard. In the middle of the page are some berries from a bush in our yard that people call a burning bush, although I don't know its real name. Underneath is a leaf from the burning bush. On the right is one of many vermilion maple leaves from the woods, and at the bottom is the watercolor with its wrapper replaced.
Vermilion was one of the three most valued pigments of the Middle Ages, along with ultramarine (lapis lazuli) and gold. Philip Ball in Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color says that vermilion was the medieval prince of reds. During the eleventh century it was as costly to cover a page with vermilion as it was to cover it with gold. There is evidence that vermilion was possibly synthesized as early as 300 C.E. in China. The synthesizing of vermilion from mercury and sulfur is first described in an 8th century alchemical manuscript, Compositiones ad Tingenda (Recipes for Coloring). The natural form of vermilion is the mineral cinnabar, which served as a pigment from antiquity. The problem with vermilion from cinnabar is that over time its ions can reshuffle from their usual positions and form the compound metacinnabar. Metacinnabar absorbs red light along with blue and green and so it appears black, not good when this happens on a canvas.
If this kind of discussion interests you as much as it does me, I strongly recommend Bright Earth:Art and the Invention of Color (2001, University of Chicago Press) to you.