Cinnabar reviewed: characterization of the red pigment and its reactions

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Publication Type:

Journal Article


Renate Nöller;


Studies in Conservation, Volume 60, Number 2, p.79-87 (2015)


In the majority of cases, the red color of cinnabar on objects of cultural heritage is well preserved, though turning black is often claimed and has been the subject of investigations. To evaluate conditions for the stability of the pigment and understand the reactions, in this paper the problem is approached from various viewpoints. First of all the natural form cinnabarite is compared with the artificially prepared pigment vermilion. This establishes a differentiation of types in terms of quality, depending on structural impurities. With regard to the pigment's reactions influencing the discoloration, the most commonly mentioned environmental factors, such as radiation or halogens, are evaluated. In relation to various usages, the pigment's structural stability is then viewed in connection with adjacent pigments, glues, and the substrate, which may lead to a brown or black coloration or even the release of mercury, whereas the color is preserved in most cases when used on lime or in ink and lacquer. Due to the materials’ properties, attention is drawn to the fact that discoloration to a brownish-black is not necessarily a sign of damage and harmful reaction products, but may indicate good preservation of the painted material, provided that the mercury can be bound in the substrate.