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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
(I have earlier posted this little essay elsewhere.) Vermilion, also called Chinese red, is a sacred colour. Originally vermilion was made from cinnabar (mercuric sulfide). The word cinnabar is derived from the Persian word for "dragon's blood." The transmutations of cinnabar was a central mystery in medieval alchemy, where the conjunction of feminine mercury with masculine sulfur was interpreted as the "Coniunctio Solis et Lunae". The result was the Philosopher's Stone, the magical material, or red tincture, capable of transmuting base metals into gold. During some part of the chemical transformations, it gave rise to the blackness of nigredo, comparable to the solar eclipse. Correspondingly, in ancient Chinese alchemy, cinnabar is an essential ingredient for the elixir of immortality. Only the Chinese emperor had the right to use vermilion ink. In roman times, it was the colour of the emperor. In 1295, it became the colour worn by Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church.

It is a curious hue, because it is neither red nor orange, and therefore it deserves a name of its own. If the primary colours (red, yellow, blue) are blended, we get the secondary colours, such as green, orange and purple. But vermilion doesn't even belong to these, because it is a tertiary colour, that is, a blend of a primary with one or two secondary hues, in this case red with orange, I suppose. So it belongs to these curious tertiary hues, difficult to define, such as magenta and chartreuse. This is according to the RYB colour wheel, for traditional painting (here).

Perhaps this can explain why artists show such a strong preference for the primary colours. According to Mondrian, only the three primaries must be used. Artists have always had problems with green, because it is a secondary hue, and therefore not so easy to pin down and feel certain about. Picasso said that he was never satisfied with green as it came out of the tube. Many artists will never purchase a green paint tube, nor a purple. They are even more reluctant towards the tertiary hues, such as teal or chartreuse. Not many artists purchase such paints, although they would be ideal for landscape painters.

The reason why vermilion has had such great status is perhaps just this, i.e. that it is an unearthly and undefinable colour, and therefore spiritual and divine. Today, however, people don't reason in this way. Although there is a low-price three star vermilion pigment (PR168, Anthraquinone), it is not popular. I think it's only Beckers who has it in their assortment. (In mass tone it tends to become slightly dull, but it can be remedied by blending it with cadmium or pyrrole, I suppose.)

However, had it been medieval times, this pigment would have been hugely popular. Today, we are quite earthbound and strive after the strictly defined. According to Mondrian, we must only use horizontal and vertical lines, because diagonals are unstable. When Theo van Doesburg said that we should also be able to use diagonals, because it introduces dynamism, their friendship was over. Accordingly, since vermilion isn't strictly defined (some will call it red, some orange), we must only use primary red. My idea is that, apart from other aspects, such as shade, tint, warmness, and complementary hues, we should also heed the psychological effects of tertiary colours. Arguably, creating an abstract work with a lot of diagonals, using hues like magenta, vermilion, and chartreuse, will have quite a different impact than a Mondrian painting, which is rigorously defined according to our sensuous faculty.

M. Winther

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