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In her diary, Frida Kahlo once wrote, “Yellow: madness, sickness, fear (part of the sun and of joy).” As one of the oldest pigments used by humans, the spectrum of attributes associated with yellow makes it an enduring presence in art and design. In this article, we’ll look at the evolution and artistic impact of yellow from prehistoric to contemporary visual arts.
As one of yellow’s oldest embodiments, the sun and yellow are inextricably linked, the qualities of the sun (warmth, energy, and radiance) reflected in human perceptions of the color yellow. Throughout history, the sun came to be viewed by many cultures as a figure of heavenly might. As a result, yellow has also inherited connotations of power, knowledge, imperishability, and status.
Many associations attributed to yellow originate in nature. For example, sunlight shifting the darkness of night has forged a relationship between yellow and joy. Spring-blooming flowers like daffodils, dandelions, wattle, and forsythia draw connections between yellow, rebirth and renewal. The yellowing of Autumnal leaves cultivates associations of change, balance, and age. Vibrant hues of lemons, bananas, and corn characterize yellow as a color of nourishment.
Yellow has strong historical and cultural significance in China, where it is the color of glory, royalty, happiness, and wisdom. However, in many Latin American cultures, yellow is associated with death, sorrow, and mourning. Similarly, yellow is seen as a color of mourning in some parts of the Middle East.
In Japanese culture, yellow signifies courage, refinement and wealth. In Africa, yellow is worn to signify high-ranking members of a community. Saffron, a bright orange-yellow is considered sacred in India, representing selflessness and courage.
Yellow’s high visibility sees extensive use in safety equipment and signage. Due to its reflective properties, however, yellow can also lead to visual fatigue. Yellow’s associations with energy can be related to impulsivity and egotism. A close relative of gold, yellow is associated with money, wealth and sometimes greed. To be called yellow-bellied is to be called a coward.
A natural clay earth pigment, yellow ocher’s availability and versatility saw wide-spread use from the prehistoric period. Gavin Evans, writer of The Story of Colour: an Exploration of the Hidden Messages of the Spectrum, states that “in the Bomvu Ridge area of Swaziland, archaeologists have found 40,000-year-old mines used to dig out red and yellow ochre, thought to be used for body paint.”
Ancient cave paintings made with yellow ochre pigments have been found at Pech Merle in France, Lascaux cave and at the cave of Altamira in Spain. The Aboriginals of Australia have painted with yellow ochres for over 40,000 years.
Today, artists continue to use yellow ochre in traditional forms and in modern paints.
Borrowing its name from the Latin word auripigmentum (aurum meaning gold and pigmentum meaning pigment), orpiment is found in volcanic fumaroles and hydro-thermal veins and hot springs. A richly colored orange-yellow arsenic sulfide, orpiment’s striking color captured the interest of both Chinese and Western alchemists looking for ways to create gold. Although highly toxic, orpiment saw use in Egypt, Persia, Asia, and Rome.
Indian yellow was widely used in Indian watercolor and tempera-like paints. Noted for its use in Rajput-Mughal paintings from the 16th to the 19th century, Indian yellow was also used throughout Europe from the 17th to the 19th century.
Indian yellow pigments were said to have been produced in rural India from the urine of cattle fed solely on water and mango leaves. Today, a synthetic Indian yellow hue is manufactured using a mixture of nickel aso, arylide yellow, and quinacridone burnt orange.
Lead-tin yellow takes on two different forms. According to ColourLex, “the first and more frequently used is called Lead-tin-yellow type I and is a mixed oxide of both elements tin and lead… Lead-tin-yellow type II possibly contains traces of silica and also pure tin oxide.” The earliest occurrence of lead-tin yellow dates back to the 1300s. It was most frequently used in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Johannes Vermeer, Titian and Anthony van Dyck all made use of lead-tin yellow in their paintings.
When chromium was discovered in 1797 by French chemist Louis Vauquelin, lead chromate was synthesized and used as a pigment. In use by the second decade of the nineteenth century, chrome yellow’s toxicity and it’s inherent tendency to oxidize over time and darken on exposure to oxygen meant it was largely replaced by cadmium yellow.
Joseph Mallord William Turner made use of chrome yellow for highlights in his dramatic Romantic paintings. In aviation, the well-loved Piper J-3 Cub adopted chrome yellow as its standard color. Because of this, chrome yellow and similar equivalents are known as Cub yellow in aviation circles.
Much of the cadmium produced worldwide is used in rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries. However, a portion of cadmium goes to the manufacture of cadmium pigments, a family of vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges. First discovered in 1817, good permanence and tinting properties mean cadmium yellow has remained in use since it began production in 1840. Claude Monet’s Wheatstacks (Sunset Snow Effect) and Still Life with Apples and Grapes are two examples of cadmium yellow’s application in art.
Arylide yellow (also known as Hansa yellow and Monoazo yellow) are a family of organic compounds used as industrial colorants for plastics, building paints, inks, oil paints, acrylics, and watercolors. Discovered in 1909 by Hermann Wagner in Germany, arylide yellow became commercially available around 1925 and has been used predominantly as a replacement for cadmium yellow since 1950. Alexander Calder and Jackson Pollock employed arylide yellow in their artworks.
Yellow’s propensity to capture attention makes it a commanding presence in visual art. Ancient Egyptians used yellow ocher to paint women’s skin tones and depict deities. Yellow ochre was also a staple on the palettes of Roman artists, who used it to lay down backgrounds and paint flesh-tones.
During the Medieval period, Judas Iscariot came to be depicted in yellow. The exact reasons for this are unclear. Nevertheless, Judas’ portrayal quickly garnered associations between yellow and jealousy, unease, tension, and betrayal. Despite its negative associations, however, artists continued to draw on yellow as a color of life and abundance. As one of the first artists to use commercially manufactured paints, Vincent van Gogh’s famous fascination with yellow culminated in numerous artworks including A Field Of Yellow Flowers, Dunes and his study of Sunflowers.
Painted during his Golden Period, Gustav Klimt’s, The Kiss is structured around luxuriant yellows and gold leaf. Pier Mondrian included yellow within his bold compositions of color and line. Artists like Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning also used yellow to foster lightness and movement within their paintings and Andy Warhol used vibrant shades of yellow to add a blocky, surrealistic tone to his images of pop culture icons and everyday objects.
With the arrival of the 21st century came the rise of new artistic materials and technologies. Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project generates an atmosphere suffused with the breathtaking light of an artificial yellow sun. Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms, seemingly endless fields of yellow pumpkins dotted with black polka dots, play with the nature and psychology of seeing. And James Turrell harnesses the changeable quality of light through his Skyspaces, which hem the yellow light of the morning and evening each day.
The evocative nature of yellow and its associations with treachery, betrayal, joy, warning, and nature remain just as poignant within the frame of the photograph. Street photographer Saul Leiter incorporated swaths of yellow into his street scenes, adding a palpable rhythm to his work. Mark Cohens’ image of a blond boy brashly smoking into the camera lens is punctuated by the boy’s bright yellow skivvy. Gregory Crewdson often incorporates yellow light emanating from lamps or house windows, juxtaposing homeliness with palpable unrest. Frans Lanting’s depiction of a leopard stalking in grass explores yellow in the natural environment. Kyle Jeffers uses yellow to accent architectural landscapes and Annette Horn’s yellow images trace the energetic properties of yellow on the 2-dimensional photographic plane.
Yellow can also be applied as a creative tool in photography. Golden hour, the period of daylight that occurs just after sunrise and just before sunset, has a distinctively yellow hue. During this window, daylight is at its softest and warmest, creating opportunities for dynamic portraiture and landscape photography. Generally the most subtle of colored filters, yellow filters are used in black and white photography to darken skies slightly, and boost the contrast of green foliage. In portraiture, yellow filters also deliver warmer skin tones.
Yellow’s vibrancy has resonated with artists and viewers for thousands of years. As the most vivid color on the visible spectrum, yellow reflects the dynamics of life. Charged with associations of joy, rebirth, renewal, change and energy, yellow’s use in art has also communicated portrayals of jealousy, betrayal, and greed. Yellow’s vibrancy, versatility, and accessibility connects to audiences through associations drawn from both visual arts and the world around us.
Do you use the color yellow in your photography? Feel free to share your images and thoughts in the comments below.