Color test: Vermilion

This is the first part in a series I intend on doing over the winter where we try all the various brands for each color on my palette to see which is the best. I’ll start with the four colors I use in portraits: Red, Yellow, Black, and White.

Today we spent the day grinding every hand-ground vermilion we could get our hands on and comparing them to each other as well as the pre-ground tube paints on offer.

When I say ‘best’ I am referring entirely to what I, personally, am looking for in a vermilion. I only use 4 colors in my flesh palette and I need each to be perfect for the way I paint. By this I mean that the red has to mix beautifully with the white and ocher to give me my flesh tones, and to make rich purples when mixed with black. Here is the run-down of images from the test-canvas:

I realize the images don’t really show the best pigments. Luckily I took notes.

For me the best of the hand-ground paints was Robert Doak’s vermilion, which I believe is either cut with cadmium if not entirely cadmium-based. That said it is extremely similar to the old Zecchi cadmium vermilion they stopped selling 8 years ago (which we all remember fondly). I would prefer a cadmium based red anyways as historically real vermilion has had issues at times. Doak prices the stuff like it was cadmium as well.

The Sinopia cadmium #2 was really interesting as well, I hope to try it this winter on portraits.

Of the real vermilions, the ‘Sparrel’ (Daniel Graves gave me some of his stash, no idea where he got it) had the highest chroma. The Phase (a restoration store here in Florence) was pretty impressive as well. The Zecchi Cinabros were dull in comparison, though the Zecchi ‘Monte Amiato’ vermilion deserves a special mention for the chroma and tinting strength. I’ve never used it in a painting before, but I was very impressed in this brief color testing.

Of the tube paints the Zecchi was a surprising first for me (cadmium based again, but I was surprised by the tinting strength). The Harding was too cool and dull for my tastes, and the Zecchi cinabros were too blue as well.

These are just my personal opinions, I’ll post my notes tomorrow.


  1. Hello Martinho,

    Old Holland in the past only made the cooler shade of vermilion which doesn’t interest me. There are the Chinese and French varieties and only the ‘orange’ one works with my limited palette.

    Is Old Holland making an orange vermilion now?

  2. Hey Marc,
    Great blog! Thanks for these tests, you beat me to it. The only thing I was going to add to mine was a pic of a rock from the Amiato mine. I kind of have a little Vermilion museum going in a corner of my studio 🙂

    A bit west of SMN is an art supply shop called Poli (I think?). Anyway, back on ’04 I bought some Vermilion from them that is pretty good as well. All in all however I prefer Zecchi Monte Amiato.

    The fact that the mine is closed as well as the various laws regarding lead, etc. just goes to show that when one finds a good thing, stock up!

  3. The Monte Amiato is really, really impressive. Unfortunately Zecchi doesn’t sell it anymore. I wonder if there is a little art shop in a village somewhere around Monte Amiato full of the stuff and no one realizes it…

  4. You steal your studio mate’s pigments when he isn’t around?!

    Wow..excuse me, but I’d kill you!

    Thanks for taking time Marc. Greetings also fro FI.

  5. Hello Marc!

    Love your site. Got a tip from Valdemar Lehtin to dig in on your site. I must say I´m really blown away by your work. Makes me want to burn every painting I ever made 🙂

    Anyway this color test is really interesting and I wonder what your take is on the Schmincke Mussini colors?

    I really haven´t tried out many sorts but my favourites is Mussini and Lefranc (finest).

    Best regards

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