Yellow, is it really so mellow?

Yellow is found between green and orange on the spectrum of visible light. It is the colour the human eye sees when it looks at light with a dominant wavelength between 570 and 590 nanometres.

Traditionally, the complementary colour of yellow is purple; the two colours are opposite each other on the colour wheel long used by painters. Vincent Van Gogh, an avid student of colour theory, used combinations of yellow and purple in several of his paintings for the maximum contrast and harmony.

Because of the characteristics of paint pigments and use of different colour wheels, painters traditionally regard the complement of yellow as the colour indigo or blue-violet.

Orpiment was a source of yellow pigment from ancient Egypt through the 19th century, though it is highly toxic.

The 18th and 19th century saw the discovery and manufacture of synthetic pigments and dyes, which quickly replaced the traditional yellows made from arsenic, cow urine, and other substances. The 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner was one of the first in that century to use yellow to create moods and emotions, the way romantic composers were using music. His painting Rain, Steam, and Speed – the Great Central Railway was dominated by glowing yellow clouds.

Van Gogh was one of the first artists to use commercially manufactured paints, rather than paints he made himself. He used the traditional yellow ochre, but also chrome yellow, first made in 1809, and cadmium yellow, first made in 1820.

Indian yellow pigment

In the 20th century, modernist painters reduced painting to its simplest colours and geometric shapes. The Dutch modernist painter Piet Mondrian made a series of paintings which consisted of a pure white canvas with a grid of vertical and horizontal black lines and rectangles of yellow, red, and blue.

Chrome yellow was discovered in 1809.
  • Yellow ochre , is a naturally occurring pigment found in clays in many parts of the world. It is non-toxic and has been used in painting since prehistoric times.
  • Indian yellow is a transparent, fluorescent pigment used in oil paintings and watercolours. Originally magnesium xanthate, it was claimed to have been produced from the urine of Indian cows fed only on mango leaves,  now replaced by synthetic Indian yellow hue.
  • Naples Yellow (lead antimonite yellow) is one of the oldest synthetic pigments, derived from the mineral bindheimite and used extensively up to the 20th century. It is toxic and nowadays is replaced in paint by a mixture of modern pigments.
  • Cadmium Yellow  has been used in artists’ paints since the mid-19th century. Because of its toxicity, it may nowadays be replaced by azo pigments.
  • Chrome Yellow (lead chromate, derived from the mineral crocoite, was used by artists in the earlier part of the 19th century, but has been largely replaced by other yellow pigments because of the toxicity of lead.
  • Zinc yellow is a synthetic pigment made in the 19th century, and used by the painter Georges Seurat in his pointillist paintings. He did not know that it was highly unstable, and would quickly turn brown.
  • Titanium Yellow  is created by adding small amounts of the oxides of nickel and antimony to titanium dioxide and heating. It is used to produce yellow paints with good white coverage.
  • Gamboge is an orange-brown resin, derived from trees of the genus Garcinia, which becomes yellow when powdered. It was used as a watercolour pigment in the far east from the 8th century – the name “gamboge” is derived from “Cambodia” – and has been used in Europe since the 17th century.
The Garcinia tree of Southeast Asia, whose resin is used to make the yellow dye called gamboge.



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