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Vermeer's Palette: Vermilion

vermilion pigment

Origin, History and Characteristics

(Zinnober, cinnabar, cinnabar)

Vermilion is the standard name given to the red pigment based on artificially made mercuric sulfide. The common red crystalline form of mercuric sulfide is cinnabar (fig. 1), a name reserved only for the natural mineral. The natural product found chiefly in Almaden and Idria has been eliminated for practical purposes. The properties of both natural and artificially prepared are practically identical. The best cinnabar came from Spain, but there were deposits of it in Italy at Monte Amiata, not far from Siena, and elsewhere in Europe. Upon grinding the red color begins to appear, and the longer it is ground, the finer the color becomes. It was widely used in the art and decoration of Ancient Rome, in the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages and in the paintings of the Renaissance. The color was most famously used in creating Chinese lacquerware, which was exported around the world, giving rise to the term "Chinese red."

The traditional use of red glazes of madder, kermes and cochineal lakes over vermilion underpaint (fig. 2) not only increases the purity of the color but has been shown to reduce the tendency to darken as well. It is also known that the farther light can penetrate into the binding medium, the more quickly the vermilion will darken.

Cinnibarfig. 1 Lustrous, radiating, acicular, red cinnabar crystals richly cover the vertical matrix on this excellent specimen from the famous Almaden Mine of California.
Andrea de Sarto (detail of an unfinished painting)fig. 2 The Sacrifice of Isaac (detail)
Andrea del Sarto
c. 1527
208 x 171cm.
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio

Detail of an unfinished drapery of the saint modeled in vermilion

Vermilion in Vermeer's Painting

Girl with a Wine Glass, Johannes Vermeerfig. 3 The Glass of Wine (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1658–1661
Oil on canvas, 65 x 77 cm.
Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz,
, Berlin

Vermeer used vermilion in the traditional manner under glazes. The striking red satin gown in the Glass of Wine and that of the Girl with a Wine Glass (fig. 3) were probably first modeled with shades of vermillion and white lead and perhaps small quantities of black or natural ultramarine in the deepest shades. The whole gown was then glazed with madder lake. The same technique was also used to paint the fanciful read plumed hat worn by the Girl with a Red Hat.

Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder is a comprehensive study of the materials and painting techniques that made Vermeer one of the greatest masters of European art.

Bolstered by the author's qualifications as a professional painter and a Vermeer connoisseur, every facet of 17th-century and Vermeer's painting practices—including canvas preparation, underdrawing, underpainting, glazing, palette, brushes, pigments and composition—is laid out in clear, comprehensible language. Also investigated are a number of key issues related specifically to Vermeer's studio methods, such as the camera obscura, studio organization as well as how he depicted wall-maps, floor tiles, pictures-within-pictures, carpets and other of his most defining motifs. Each of the book's 24 topics is accompanied by abundant color illustrations and diagrams.

By observing at close quarters the studio practices of Vermeer and his preeminent contemporaries, the reader will acquire a concrete understanding of 17th-century painting methods and materials and gain a fresh view of Vermeer's 35 works of art, which reveal a seamless unity of craft and poetry.

While not written as a "how-to" manual, realist painters will find a true treasure trove of technical information that can be adapted to almost any style of figurative painting.

author: Jonathan Janson
date: 2020 (second edition)
pages: 294
illustrations: 200-plus illustrations and diagrams
formats: PDF | ePUB | AZW3

Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder


  1. Vermeer's Training, Technical Background & Ambitions
  2. An Overview of Vermeer’s Technical & Stylistic Evolution
  3. Fame, Originality & Subject Matte
  4. Reality or Illusion: Did Vermeer’s Interiors ever Exist?
  5. Color
  6. Composition
  7. Mimesi & Illusionism
  8. Perspective
  9. Camera Obscura Vision
  10. Light & Modeling
  11. Studio
  12. Four Essential Motifs in Vermeer’s Oeuvre
  1. Drapery
  2. Painting Flesh
  3. Canvas
  4. Grounding
  5. “Inventing,” or Underdrawing
  6. “Dead-Coloring,” or Underpainting
  7. “Working-up,” or Finishing
  8. Glazing
  9. Mediums, Binders & Varnishes
  10. Paint Application & Consistency
  11. Pigments, Paints & Palettes
  12. Brushes & Brushwork

Woman with a Water Pitcher, Johannes Vermeerfig. 4 Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas, 45.7 x 40.6 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Vermeer also made use of vermilion to paint the oriental carpets (fig. 4 & 5) which appear on the tables in many of his interiors. Again he seems to have employed the same technique described above. In its purer form, vermilion may be observed in the various ribbons and trimmings worn by his sitters.

The Music Lesson, Johannes Vermeerfig. 5 The Music Lesson (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas, 73.3 x 64.5 cm.
The Royal Collection, The Windsor Castle

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