Current Obsession: Vermillion

April 4, 2014 |

I came into painting through drawing. There was a time when my practice consisted entirely of Sumi ink drawings on paper. Vermillion (which, includes many variations between orangey red and blue-ish red) was one of the first colors that presented itself to me as a possibility. Whenever I’d go to the art store to buy ink, that little palm-sized orange-red bottle sitting there next to the fat green and black Sumi ink bottle would taunt me and tickle my eye until, finally, I bought it. Although at first I used it sparingly, my initial attraction to the color has come full circle and I now often replicate it in Acrylic in my current paintings.

This color has a quality so strong that its visceral response is unquestionable and timeless. I think I am drawn to it, not only because it is just so seductive, but also because of its wide references. It is an ancient color, originally made from a powdered mineral called cinnabar and it is represented in Ancient Roman art, as well as manuscripts from the Middle Ages, Renaissance painting, royal Mughal manuscript painting and the arts of East Asia, particularly Chinese lacquerware (hence the synonymous name of Chinese Red). In all of these instances, it truly pops and has an identity of its own, functioning the way orange traffic cones might function in the midst of a busy intersection, or the way yellow caution tape both draws you towards the incident while also demarcating your position, telling you where to be.


Some examples: in many royal Mughal miniature paintings, vermillion is used to highlight certain moments in the image. It guides the eye and frames or marks each figure and his or her action. Here, also, vermillion denotes a sense of regal authority, adding to the sense of opulence and decoration of the Mughal era. For example, in an unusually intimate painting from 1597 attributed to Manchar that depicts Sultan Murad and a Consort, the Consort’s skirt is made of vermillion and emphasizes her femininity and sexuality. The skirt takes the shape of a flower petal or a gently licking, vibrant orange tongue as it embraces the Sultan. Furthermore, the pillow that the two figures are lying on have two slightly duller vermillion ovals on either end, framing and mirroring the lustful faces of the two figures.  Another example is in Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin (1518). This painting is compositionally driven by the vermilion as it marks the key figures in each of its three levels, the central virgin’s vermillion fabrics serving as a pathway up towards the heavens.

Recently, I’ve found it echoed in Guerra Pigment’s Napthol Red. I was told that this manufactured pigment is actually based off of the original Ferrari-red color. I couldn’t imagine a better color for such a luxurious car built for those whose passion for cars is unparalleled.  Here it acts as a symbol of wealth and authority, mimicking its quality in Persian painting. Another cultural reference resides in South Asia, where vermillion is used as a symbol of fertility. It appears on the foreheads of South Asian women as a bindi, particularly in the marriage ritual of the groom applying it to his bride as a symbol of their marital bond. All of these examples reveal vermillion’s close relationship to the body, it draws attention to the physicality of the object or image being looked at and it even sometimes has the power to arouse.

In other words, this orange-y red color can be traced throughout time as well as throughout the world. It brings with it an air of authority, power, fertility and passion and it has proven itself to be an exceptional pictorial guide for any viewer who has the pleasure of encountering it. This color has opened up my practice and has served as both a grounding tool to fall back on, while also offering endless opportunities to surprise myself. It is a color with many names, or no names, and it has the flexibility to absorb varying degrees of value and hue, while retaining its physicality and powerfully verbal message. I love it.

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