Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The joy of vermilion, take 2

My recent post on the ambiguity of the word "vermilion" sparked some interesting discussions with a few of my friends. In this blog post and the next, I will share their expert perspectives. Today, I bring the expert perspective of a portrait artist, Jean Kelly.

Some of my favorite paintings by Jean Kelly

As you will remember, based on my analysis, I concluded that vermilion fits in the category of color names that people can't quite agree on. Jean argued with me that vermilion really should be pretty well defined. It is the color of a specific pigment used in paint, cinnabar. Since it is a specific thing, clearly it has a uniquely defined color, right?

On to the meaning of cinnabar!
One little fact that should be added is that vermilion is, according to some definitions, the color of cinnabar. Cinnabar is mercury sulfide, a naturally occurring ore. It has been known since ancient times and has been used as a pigment ever since.

The Sinner Bar welcomes you

Cinnabar has a lovely rich color, but there are just a couple of tiny problems. The first problem is that unlike Cinnabon, you don't just find cinnabar in every shopping mall. Ingenuity prevailed, and a synthetic way to produce pure cinnabar was discovered. The trick of heating a mixture of mercury and sulfur and then condensing the vapors was developed in China is the fourth century BC.

This did reduce the cost a bit, but there were a few other tiny problems. The second problem is that, unlike Cinnabon, Cinnabar contains mercury, and most all compounds with mercury in them are poisonous. 

Just a few men driven mad by mercury, the Mad Hatter, and Isaac Newton

But still, there is another little problem with the ore cinnabar when it comes to using it as a pigment. It has some issues with color management. First off, if one starts with the ore, the color depends on how it is prepared. The raw ore has to be ground into a powder, and the more finely it gets ground, the richer the color gets. Well, maybe that's not such a big problem. Particularly if you make the synthetic kind. Being formed through condensation, it is naturally in pretty tiny particles.

But then there is the issue of "fugitive colors". Fugitive colors are those pigments that change color over time. In this case, cinnabar is like Cinnabon. The color can degrade over time. Cinnabar turns to metacinnabar. It's the same mercury sulfide, but this particular form is black in color. Not so good to paint with. 

So, cinnabar can have a wonderful rich color, but it is expensive, poisonous, and can change color over time. Maybe not one's first choice?

A little entomological etymology

The words crimson, carmine, vermin, vermicelli, vermilion, and ingrained are all related through a little insect called kermes vermilio. These are soft scale insects that can be found in the Middle East and France. This little insect has been used to make a rich red colorfast dye since at least the Middle Ages. The dye was naturally named after the insect.

Kermit eating vermicelli, which has nothing to do with this narrative

The Latin name for the insect, kermes vermilio, literally means "worm worm". The first part, kermes, is derived from the Sanskrit word for worm, "krmih". Those clever Sanskritians added "ja" onto this word to make kmrih-ja, which means "red dye made from a worm". Kmrih-ja is where the English words crimson and carmine come from. The second part of the name, vermilio is derived from the Latin word vermis, meaning "worm", from which we get the modern words vermin and vermicelli. Isn't that appetizing?

Ok, that brings together crimson, carmine, vermin and vermicelli. Next up? Vermilion. This little bug, the worm worm, was used to make a brilliant dye that was colorfast. Naturally, the dye was named after the insect. And... since the color of the dye was very similar to the color of cinnabar pigment, the two became linked. Technically, "cinnabar" is the name of the pigment made from mercury sulfide ore, and "vermilion" is the organic dye of that same color that is made from the kermes vermilio insect. 

I have one last word to tie in with this insect: ingrained. From the photo above, on the left, it can be seen that kermes has the look of a berry, or of grain on the branch. Although they are not actually part of the tree, it was quite natural in the Middle Ages to refer to these things that you made dye from as grains. Chaucer referred to a garment that was "dyed in grain", which meant, it was dyed red by virtue of our cute little friends.

Finally, ingrained. I said that the vermilion dye made from the kermes "grain" was colorfast, that is, it is firmly fixed. Hence the transition.

Three references were helpful in this...

Linking cinnabar and vermilion

So. We have two chemically different things: the inorganic pigment cinnabar and the organic pigment that the Sanskritters called kmrih-ja. Both come to be called vermilion. Throughout the Middle Ages, these names were used interchangeably. How did this come to be? 

How a term for an organic dye extracted from an insect became applied to an inorganic pigment made by alchemy is a puzzle that makes sense only within the context of the medieval view of coloration, whereby similarly colored substances of very different origin might end up with conflated names because hue was deemed to be closely linked to composition.

I don't know about any of you, but henceforth I am going to only use "cinnabar" to refer to mercury sulfide, and vermilion to refer to that organic dye that came from the worm worm.

One last unanswered question

Years ago when I started this blog post, I had a basic question to answer. Is the artist's notion of the color vermilion a little more tightly constrained than that of the companies that make house paint?

Jean (Jean Kelly, the artist, remember her?) supplied me with links to three brands of vermilion paint that real artists might use. The companies are LeFranc and Bourgeois, Old Holland, and Holbein. The artist supply house Dick Blick provided pictures of actual paint as laid down with a brush. In order to make a fair comparison, I did a little bit of work and averaged the RGB values of ten dark pixels from each of the images in order to get a representation of that version of vermilion.

I went to one other source, just for comparison. A chap by the name of Nathan Moroney ran an online color name survey a few years back. The website got 1.3 zillion visits from people who were shown an RGB value and asked to name it. From the responses, he did quite a bit of data mining. As a result of his labor of love, you can go to his webpage, type in a color name, and it will tell you the group consensus for the RGB values.

Based on these three sources, I have redone the vermilion-ogram from the previous post. From this diagram, I think there is a consensus on what the word vermilion means. At least among real artists.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A new expert in town

There is a new expert in town. Well, in the town of Here are some of his more recent articles:

Kepler's Laws
Johannes Kepler developed three simple laws that described the motion of the planets. Not only was the model simpler than that of Aristotle, but it fit existing data better.

What Is "Colligation"?
Colligation is that magic AHA! moment in science. It happens when one is presented with a number of facts, and there suddenly comes a simple idea to tie all the assorted facts together.

A Matter of Gravity
In Aristotle's physics, gravity was the effect of objects seeking that proper place in the universe. There were many incorrect ideas that were tied up in this explanation. Each of these ideas had to be individually challenged before an accurate theory of gravity could be developed.

How Does a Scanning Electron Microscope Work?
This article describes how a scanning electron microscope works.

Aristotle's Universe
Aristotle brought together all the knowledge of the time and fused it into a coherent explanation of the universe. His system of physics was so tightly woven and comprehensive that it dominated European thought for nearly 2,000 years, despite that a great deal of what he taught was just plain wrong!

Four Fates of a Photon
When a photon - a tiny particle of light - hits an object, it has four possible fates. It may reflect directly from the surface, it may get absorbed by the material, or it may get scattered by the material. If these first three fates are avoided, it will pass through the object.

Yup. You may have guessed that the author is John the Math Guy.