“Let not your flesh colour freeze; let it not be too cold or purple, for a carnation which approaches the whiteness of linen cannot bloom with the signs of life. But vermilion makes it glow with a more fleshy hue. Endeavour to produce this warmth.”
– Karel Van Mander, flemish painter and art theoretician of the 16th century.
Vermilion was one of the most important red pigments used by painters through ages, until the 20th century. It was made of cinnabar, a mineral of mercury sulfide. Depending on the size of the pigment particles, it may provide a fiery orangish-red, or even a dull red. There is a couple of issues with vermilion that led to its disuse nowadays – though there still are a synthetic genuine vermilion pigment (PR-106), and some brands that sell oil paints based on it (i.e. Michael Harding, Blockx, Holbein, Robert Doak, Rublev). True vermilion is toxic, then turning its usage less rational. Besides, its lightfastness is not reliable: vermilion pigment may show darkening or discoloring under light – due, actually, to its impurities
What about substitutes? Cadmium red, invented in the late 19th century, was largely adopted as a new primary red. Obviously, pigments substitutes are not the same colour, neither have the same properties, what doesn’t mean that they’re worse. Current “vermilions” are made of PO-73, pyrrol orange. This is a bright semitransparent pigment (PR-106, genuine vermilion, is opaque) with great lightfastness.
Raphael often painted his lively reds using lake red glazes over vermilion (pure or mixed with another pigment).
Curious fact: The word crimson came of an insect called kermes, from which, formerly, a red dye was extracted. Similarly, the name of vermilion came from the word vermeillon, also owning its origin from the “Kermes vermilio” (the insect species name).
I think that one of the best qualities in an artwork is when it doesn’t have any superfluous touch. When it comes to painting, such works seems to have no unnecessary brushstrokes. Otherwise, they seem to be utterly finished.
We can’t disregard the hard work behind them. Usually, what appear to be effortless required hours of study and dedication, and, a number of times, some frustration.
Sargent’s hands are a great demonstration of that quality. Using apparently few, but strikingly precise brushstrokes, these hands are perfectly defined: color, gesture, motion. They are living flesh, with rosy fingers, superficial veins, and the natural texture of the skin. They need no extra touch of the brush – Bravo!