This article on yellow pigments is by Michael Chesley Johnson. For more information about yellow pigments and and how to take advantage of their various characteristics in your paintings, see the Michael Chesley Johnson’s Brushing Up column in the March 2016 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
Note: All paint swatches in this article are of Gamblin Artists Colors oils.
Before the dawn of the Industrial Age, the only yellow pigments available to painters were mined from the earth.
One of the oldest pigments, yellow ochre, was used by the ancient Egyptians to paint the skin tones on their murals. It’s still popular with artists today, partly because it’s opaque and harmonizes well with other colors or grays them down.The color varies among manufacturers and even from batch to batch, ranging from a pale earthy yellow to a dark brown. This all-purpose yellow creates realistic flesh tones and convincing landscape color. Being an earth color, it dries more quickly than mineral and organic colors.
The Babylonians used Naples yellow (lead antimoniate) on ceramics. True Naples yellow is an earth color containing lead and is thus highly toxic. Modern replacements (or “hues”) usually contain white, yellow ochre and a red. I sometimes warm up my white with just a touch of Naples yellow hue to increase the overall warmth of my landscapes.
Older Pigments (But Not Ancient)
The earliest use of gamboge was in East Asia in the 8th century. It was once made from the toxic pigment arsenic sulfide. In China it was used for illuminating manuscripts. The pigment wasn’t derived from the earth but from an amber-like substance harvested from trees. Later it was used on paintings for glazing.
Indian yellow replaced gamboge as a glazing color in the mid-19th century. True Indian yellow, which dates back to the 15th century, is no longer available. It was said to have been made in India from the bladder stones of cows fed on mango leaves; recent research doesn’t support this, but it still makes for a good story. The replacements used today are transparent and have a high tinting strength.
19th and 20th Century Pigments
The 19th century also saw the creation of modern mineral pigments such as chrome yellow (lead chromate), which was used by Vincent Van Gogh and George Seurat. True chrome yellow is highly toxic, discolors quickly and has a low-tinting strength.
Around 1840 cadmium yellow (cadmium sulfide) replaced chrome yellow. Monet used it in his paintings. Both colors are toxic, but cadmium yellow remains bright and exhibits a better tinting strength. The light version is actually a different pigment from that used in the medium and deep versions. Cadmium yellows dry more slowly than chrome yellow.
Hansa yellow was first made in Germany before World War I. Many painters worried about the toxicity of cadmium are now moving to the Hansa colors. Hansa yellow is similar in hue to cadmium yellow, but Hansa is transparent, brighter and has a higher tinting strength. Because of the latter, it goes further in mixtures. It’s also less expensive and weighs less per ounce, which is important to the plein air painter.
“Hue” in a Color Name
The word “hue” in a manufacturer’s color name indicates that the color is made with of a replacement pigment (or pigments) for another color. For example, Naples yellow hue is a replacement for genuine Naples Yellow. Hues are created either because the genuine pigment has become too expensive, is no longer being mined or is considered too toxic. In some cases, the hue may have more desirable properties than the genuine pigment.
Pigments and Color Index Name Codes
The paint name, however, won’t give you nearly as much information as the color index name code (C.I. name code). Paint manufacturers use these codes on tube labels to more clearly identify the paint’s pigments. For example, cadmium yellow deep contains PY37. “P” means pigment, “Y” means yellow and the number following it designates a specific pigment, in this case cadmium zinc sulfide. These numbers are important because two tubes of paint by different manufacturers may have similar color names and yet be composed of different pigments. Be aware, though, that even when manufacturers use the same pigments for a particular color, the actual paint color may vary, depending on the oil used as a vehicle, the quality of the pigment, grinding time and other factors.
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