Vermilion and Prussian Blue

Why do Japanese red-and-blue pencils so often incorporate these two particular shades? Why not scarlet, carmine, ultramarine, or cobalt blue? In the case of vermilion, it’s easy to answer: the pigment was available from ancient times, and was the orthodox “red” to the primary black of sumi ink in East Asia. Even today, personal seals are stamped in this particular color. Western manuscripts also make heavy use of this pigment: in fact, the use of vermilion is so pervasive across cultures that we might ask why Western pencilmakers don’t use vermilion more often.

(Splashes of vermilion in manuscript fragments, McGill University Library)

(Modern vermilion ink, and a calligraphy textbook written in the medieval bicolor scheme of black and vermilion)

The case of Prussian blue is more interesting. I recently came across this paragraph in Sarah Thompson’s catalogue for the exhibition of the ukiyo-e master Hokusai that just ended at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (yes, I live within driving distance of Boston but didn’t get to see it. *sob*):

One major source of inspiration for the Fuji series seems to have been the introduction of a new pigment to the printmakers’ palette, the synthetic color known to the Japanese as Berlin blue and to Europeans as Prussian blue. Invented in the eighteenth century, the pigment had already been known in Japan for some time, but when the Chinese as well as the Dutch began to import it, the price dropped sufficiently to make it practical for use in prints. Around 1830 there was a craze for “blue-printed pictures” (aizuri-e) done entirely, or almost entirely, in shades of blue. (p.21)

This exciting new pigment, which did not fade easily, got Hokusai started on the series that he became most famous for: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. (There are actually forty-six pictures in all.)

The first designs in the series were printed almost entirely in shades of blue, to capitalize on the fad for the newly introduced pigment. A little later, when the public had become accustomed to the new colorant, additional colors were used for subsequent designs in the series, and for reprints of the earlier ones. (p. 21)

In other words, Prussian blue made a pretty sensational entry into Japan. One of the major appeals of Hokusai’s art is surely the dramatic and abundant use of that particular color: the most famous picture in the series (and at the same time arguably the most recognizable image in all of Japanese art), The Great Wave off Kanagawa, is practically awash in Prussian blue.


However, it would be simplistic to argue that Mitsubishi and Tombow chose Prussian blue as their standard just because it was Hokusai’s signature color. According to stationery journalist Tsuchihashi-san, the answer is more prosaic: when the Mitsubishi 2667 was first produced in 1914, it was still difficult to manufacture bright, vivid colored cores for pencils, and therefore Prussian blue had to stand in for a brighter blue. Perhaps they chose it over other blue hues simply because the pigment was cheap and easy to handle. But I’d still like to think that Prussian blue lives on because of this small but very real connection to the nineteenth century, when it, however briefly, ruled the world.


12 thoughts on “Vermilion and Prussian Blue

  1. 이지적인 분석문에 감사합니다! 정말로 궁금했던 주제입니다. 미쓰비시에서는 지워지는 Prussian Blue와 Vermilion 색연필이 나오기 때문에 저도 다스째 사서 항상 한 자루씩을 휴대한답니다. 어느 날은 연필 대신 저것들만을 쓰기도 해요.


    1. 저도 우키요에에 관심을 가지기 시작한 지 얼마 안 되어서 정말 우연히 발견했답니다. 항상 느끼는 거지만 서양의 문물을 차용해서 지극히 일본적인 것을 만들어 내는 능력이 정말 감탄스럽다니까요.
      색연필은 잘 지워지지 않는다는 선입견이 있었는데, 최근에 이것저것 써보니 의외로 잘 지워지는 듯해요. 오히려 “지워지는 색연필”이라고 광고하고 나오는 것들이 필기감이 뻑뻑해서 쓰기 불편하더라고요. 미츠비시 지워지는 버전은 어떤지 나중에 써봐야겠어요!


    1. Yes it is, and they are wonderful! I was prejudiced against Faber-Castell colored pencils before because I expected them to be hard and light like their pencils (haha), but they’re not. They’re round and soft and slightly chubby and have names like Chromoxydgrün stumpf (Prismacolor has names like “sunburst yellow” and “mulberry”). The pencil above that is a Caran d’Ache Pablo.

      P.S. Hmmm… it seems that the Polychromos Preußischblau is a rarity, and not only because it has a bit more green than other Prussian blues ;) Thank you for educating me on the capital ß!


  2. Thanks for this informative post. I know a bit about Prussian Blue and its use in Hokusai’s painting, but I didn’t know anything about Vermilion. I kind of thought it’s a made up name (despite me having a Vermilion pencil). Now I want to find out even more.
    Is the Polychromos new? I thought the capital ß has only recently been introduced. I don’t think I ever saw one when I was still living in Germany.


    1. Yes it’s a recent purchase, and I’m glad I got a new one instead of vintage, for once :) Vermilion seems to have its own story, but I felt the subject was too big to be included in this post. The history of pigments is very interesting!


  3. Ever since I became more interested in pencils, I kept coming across these red-and-blue pencils and wondered if there were particular reasons for them. I remember hearing about Prussian blue’s influence on Hokusai’s work but didn’t know about vermillion, so thanks! :) This also reminds me of an interesting trivia: Crayola had a crayon called Prussian Blue but they changed the name to Midnight Blue in 1958, apparently to be less political. I kinda like the sound of Prussian Blue.. ^^ Oh and have you seen this cute book on red/blue illustration by Yuzuko? I see she uses leather caps ;)


    1. OMG this book is incredible! Just the kind of thing you’d see in Japan ;) I don’t think the two colors go naturally together but they do seem to work well in this way. I suspect she uses up her pencils pretty quickly – in my experience the Mitsubishi red/blue is pretty soft and you would need to sharpen it very often in order to produce such clear, sharp lines.

      Right now there seem to be so many leather workshops producing pen/pencil protectors and other accessories. The small caps don’t loosen up as much as the longer ones, so do try some if you find any near you :)


  4. I’ve just discovered your blog and I love it! Will probably lose hours now reading your archives… About the book Written Letters, do you recommend it to someone learning calligraphy such as myself?


    1. Hi Soobin, thank you for your comment! I hope you will find some topics worth reading :) It’s been some time since I studied calligraphy so I am sure there are better books out there now, but personally I’ve found the following most helpful:

      Foundations of Calligraphy by Sheila Waters (good overall review of the major broad-edged pen scripts, good theoretical grounding)
      Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy by Eleanor Winters (if you’re interested in pointed pen calligraphy)

      If you’re based in Montreal, there is a society of calligraphers there and you can sign up as a member ($40 entitles you to quarterly newsletters). Many famous calligraphers regularly pass through Montreal and hold workshops too; it can be a thrilling experience. I encourage you to join the fellowship! :D


      1. Thanks for the recommendations! I have Winters’ book and will now pick up Sheila Waters’ as well.

        I am in Montreal actually! Are you also former Montrealer (I read you left Canada)? I didn’t know we had a guild here, will definitely join!

        Thanks again!


      2. I guessed from your email address, it’s a very familiar institution 🙂 and yes we lived in Montreal for three years. Avenue des Arts on Victoria Avenue was my go-to arts and nibs supplier, and one floor down from Simons was my pen shop. And of course you have Nota Bene. I don’t miss the snow yet 😉
        I didn’t find many calligraphy classes on offer while I was there (I ended up taking private lessons), but if you’re interested in Copperplate, I think Joy, the president of the guild, offers beginners’ classes. You could go on from there 🙂


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