Definitions

chinese vermilion

Vermilion

[ver-mil-yuhn]
Vermilion, sometimes spelled vermillion, when found naturally-occurring, is an opaque orangish red pigment, used since antiquity, originally derived from the powdered mineral cinnabar. Chemically, the pigment is mercuric sulfide, HgS, and like all mercury compounds it is toxic. Its name is derived from the French vermeil which was used to mean any red dye, and which itself comes from vermiculum, a red dye made from the insect Kermes vermilio. The words for the color red in Portuguese (vermelho) and Catalan (vermell) derive from this term.

Today, vermilion is most commonly artificially produced by reacting mercury with molten sulfur. Most naturally produced vermilion comes from cinnabar mined in China, giving rise to its alternative name of China red.

History

There is evidence of the use of cinnabar pigment in India and China since prehistory. It was known to the Romans as minium and was their most valuable pigment, being used to colour the faces of triumphant generals in imitation of the vermilion visage of the image of Jupiter Capitolinus in the Temple on the Capitoline Hill where the triumphant processions would conclude; Pliny the Elder records that it became so expensive that the price had to be fixed by the Roman government at 70 sesterces per pound, ten times more expensive than red ochre, due to the rarity of sources of pure cinnabar.

The synthesis of vermilion from mercury and sulfur may have been invented by the Chinese; the earliest known description of the process dates from the 8th century.

The synthetically-produced pigment was used throughout Europe from the 12th century, mostly for illuminated manuscripts, although it remained prohibitively expensive, often costing as much as gilding, until the 14th century when the technique for synthesizing vermilion became more widely known in Europe. Synthetic vermilion was regarded early on as superior to the pigment derived from natural cinnabar. Cennino Cennini mentions that vermilion is

...made by alchemy, prepared 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 receipts. Because, if you want to take the trouble, you will find plenty of receipts 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.

In the Dutch method of manufacturing vermilion used from the 17th century, which was a modified version of the Chinese method, mercury and melted sulfur were mashed together to make black mercury sulfide, which was heated in a retort. This caused it to give off vapor which condensed as the bright red crystalline form of mercury sulphide, which was then scraped off and treated with a strong alkali solution to remove sulfur, then washed and ground under water.

The names "cinnabar" and "vermilion" were used interchangeably to describe either the natural or manufactured pigment until the 17th century when vermilion became the more common name. By the late 18th century the name cinnabar was applied only to the unground natural mineral.

"Chinese vermilion" was described in 1835 as a cinnabar so pure that it only had to be ground into powder to become a perfect vermilion. Chinese vermilion was considered of a more crimson tone than the vermilion manufactured in Europe from less pure cinnabar. European vermilion of the time was often cut with various materials due to its high cost; adulterants included brick dust, orpiment, iron oxide, Persian red, iodine scarlet, and red lead, an inexpensive bright lead oxide pigment that was too reactive to be trustworthy enough for use in art.

Modern day

Vermilion has largely been replaced in painting by the pigment cadmium red, a pigment that is less reactive due to the replacement of mercury with cadmium, especially in certain applications such as watercolors. The last mainstream commercial source in watercolors was from the Belgian artist's materials company Blockx, although the pigment can still be obtained in oils, where it is considered more stable. Unlike mercuric sulfide, cadmium sulfide is available in a large range of warm hues, including hues obtained by the addition of selenium or zinc. The range is from lemon yellow to a dull deep red, sometimes referred to as "cadmium purple".

Vermilion is also the name of the typical color of the natural ground pigment, which is a bright red tinged with orange. It is somewhat similar to the color scarlet. Vermilion is not on the color wheel since the color is mixed with a slight amount of grey. As with cadmium sulfide, mercuric sulfide can be found in a range from a bright orange-toned red to a duller slightly bluish red. The differences in hue are due to the range in the size of the ground particles. The larger the average crystal is, the duller and less orange-toned it appears. It has been theorized that the more coarsely ground "Chinese" form of vermilion is more permanent than the more orange "French" variety. It is also theorized that purification leads to increased stability, as with many other pigments.

Hindu women use vermilion along the hair parting line known as Sindoor, to signify that they are married. Hindu men often wear the vermilion on their forehead during religious ceremonies. Vermilion is part of all religious ceremonies and festivals.

China red

"China red" is another name for the pigment vermilion, which is the traditional red pigment of Chinese art. Chinese name chops are printed with a red cinnabar paste, and vermilion (or cinnabar) is the pigment used in Chinese red lacquer. Cinnabar also has significance in Taoist culture, and was regarded as the color of life and eternity.

Orange-Red

Displayed at right is the web color orange-red, which has a special significance in hacker culture. The documentation for Digital Equipment Corporation's VMS version 4 came in memorable, distinctively-colored orangish-red ring binders, and "China red" was Digital's official name for this color. (According to http://www.inwap.com/pdp10/usenet/history.9612, 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.)

See also

Notes

References

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