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This video documents some of the experiments of making pigment out of a sample of cinnabar. I did not know if it would work out as I began filming the process.

Attempting to use only historical pigments in general, I had grown to love the color Vermillion, a standard on the palette of many of the old masters I admire. Vermillion is an immitation of the natural cinnabr, one of the oldest synthetic colors dating back to China thousands of years ago. Making it takes cooking mercury in sulfur, which releases extermely toxic gasses into the atmosphere.

Early in my daydreaming about the whats and hows of paint-making, I awoke thinking about cinnabar. Not sure how my mind made the connection, but looking into it, many mines for cinnabar did exist relatively close to me .

It would be a project I would abandon, like those mines, many times over the next many years.

Starting at the library, I was able to find old quicksilver maps of the area. Comparing them to modern maps, it wasn't too hard to track down some of the old boarded up mines. One of them, the bars had been pried open enough to fit through. Looking into the opening, I couldn't do it, it looked too unsafe. Searching the area nearby, I found some veins of quartz in the bedrock, but wasn't able to find the red crystals I was looking for.

I moved on to other projects for a while.

But years later I got the cinnabar bug again, and found a source for the stone online. Often, cinnabar forms as red crystals, but the example I found is not as pure. The red is mixed with other impurities that will have to be removed.

The literature I've read describes how to make this color from pure crystals, not how to remove impurities. So we'll see how this goes.

The first step is to crush the rock; a sledge hammer against a cast iron skillet does the trick pretty well. Mortar and pestle grinds the small bits finer.

A method for separating these layers is levigation. What helps with that is adding a protein solution, either casein or egg yolk, diluted in water. Not an easy process. But the colors that it exposes are fascinating. At first a vivid yellow orange rises up, I'm more interested in the medium red, so I remove as much of that as I can.

The levigation is working, but slowly. It's too difficult to isolate the small amount of good pigment from the rest of the foreign debris. After trying a few different things what seemed to do the trick was using a scrap of fabric as a sort of tea bag, and letting the red pigment seep through the mesh. Didn't totally work, but a got me most of the way there.

After a few more levigations, I grind it down further, in water with a mueller. Again, more yellow orange is revealed, which is poured off.

At this point, I believe this pigment is ready, and initial tests with it have been positive. Not quite as red as I was hoping, ended up a touch oranger and muted, I'll see if the next batch works out the same.

Again this documents my first experiments with refining this mineral, I will continue testing. It appears very little pigment was produced from my labors. Maybe the process can be improved upon.

Joseph Besch

April 2020.

 

Michael Price has a great book about historical pigments and recipes, worth checking out.