Colorful Fridays–Expensive, Wormy, Insect Red

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“A good painter needs only three colors, black, white and red.” Titian (from The Painter’s Keys)

Older than Ultramarine from Lapis Lazuli, probably as old as ivory Black, the warm orange-red known as Vermilion has ancient roots. From Chinese laquerware to the villas of Pompeii to illuminated manuscripts and more, Vermilion was the red anchor of artist’s palettes up to the nineteenth century where it was replaced by the less toxic cadmium red.  Other less expensive reds were made from clay and similar “earth” sources but these lacked the depth, richness and opaqueness of Vermilion.  Vermilion was the red favored by Titian.

The mineral cinnabar, primarily derived from mines in Spain has long been the main source of true Vermilion.  The breakdown of cinnabar reveals the main component as the highly toxic mercury.  Despite the toxicity, Vermilion remained the redScreen Shot 2014-03-27 at 7.33.18 PM of choice for artists who could afford it, for centuries. Vermillion is also used in the ceremonies and symbolism of several major religions.  Today’s Vermilions are entirely synthetic without a trace of mercury.

Vermilion is so named from its similarity to a red dye made from an insect, kermes vermilio. Other sources claim the name Vermilion is from the Latin word, vermiculus, for the small worm known as vermis, also used for red dye.  Maybe the worm, vermis, is actually the insect kermes verilio. It could possibly be a wormy, red insect used for the dye.  Whether named for the vermis worm or the buggy verilio, Vermilion, the paint, was still made from the expensive, highly toxic, mercury-laden mineral, cinnabar.

Why couldn’t all those brilliant medieval Illuminated manuscript artists conceive of a way to make paint from the wormy, red insect dye instead of the highly toxic expensive mineral?  Maybe they weren’t all that illuminated, after all. Its probably best to stick with Cadmium Red and avoid wormy, red insects altogether.

Pack Animal or Solitary Traveler

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The only competition worthy of a wise man is with himself.” Washington Allston (from The Painter’s Keys)

Whether or not competition between artists is a good thing is the subject of opinion.  Some believe competition inspires creativity.  Others do not.  Rivalries among artists are not new. Perhaps, it is human nature for some to be competitive.  For artists, it can be a blessing or a curse depending on the individual.

Stories abound of famous rivalries.   The competition between Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci is said to have been fierce, especially on the part of Michelangelo.  According to an article for The Guardian by Jonathan Jones, the competition Michelangleo felt towards Leonardo was so bitter, Leonardo left Italy for France to escape it.  Leonardo strongly felt the need to be removed from the fierce rivalry.

On the other hand, Michelangelo, was reported to have been inspired by the competition he felt for Leonardo, Titian and other great artists.  Martin Gayford revisits the Michelangelo/Leonardo rivalry for The Telegraph.  Gayford states of Michelangelo, “his career was fired, and darkened, by bitter, personal rivalry with other artists.”  Michelangelo was driven by a deep competitive nature.

Much of the art world is geared toward competition.  Juried shows are everywhere and have a long history.  Many artists repeatedly enter multiple juried shows creating for the themes of the shows.  A theme can inspire artistic direction.  Installations and exhibitions are based on the judgment of the installation directors and are also frequently based on specific themes or goals.  Artists find fuel in these directions, as well.

But what of the artist who is not inspired by the Michelangelo competition? What of the artist who prefers the Leonardo escape? This artist may follow a different drummer or no drummer at all.  While the outward push may be to travel with the competitive pack, the lone artist must be true to the personal inner direction.   There is a place for both.  One artist may lead the pack in Italy while the other follows the road to France.  Great art is made in both places.   It is up to the artist to choose.  Michelangelo or Leonardo?  You decide.