Yellow- Art meets Chemistry -third date























There are some things that happen to us and you do not know how you got into them.

Then you feel so connected with the subject that occupies your attention to this level that almost everything you think is about that.

That is how I got into writing a post about the origination of colour pigments.

Now I see minerals, vegetables and elements and I keep thinking if colours which colours are made from them…

And after my previous posts about Red and Blue, at this Summer post, I will be talking about YELLOW and how they made it, through history.

Because it was widely available, yellow ochre pigment was one of the first colors used in art.

Ochre is the natural clay earth pigments that range in colour from yellow to deep orange or brown.

The word ochre is derived from the Greek ‘Ochros’, which means ‘yellowish’.

The natural pigment is seen everywhere in the world, especialy where there is relatively large amounts of iron in the ground.


yellow pigment in natural form
Yellow ochre quarry in Roussillon, France – photograph by Fulvio Spada from Torino Italy –


The Lascaux cave in France has a painting of a yellow horse 17,000 years old.


yellow, pigment story through history
Yellow pigment made out of ochre.


In Egyptian tombs, ochre and orpiment pigments were used to represent gold and the colour of the skin.

They believed that yellow was associated with gold

and that the skin and bones of the Gods were made from that (gold).

yellow ochre, egypt , skin , pigments
skin made of gold or better said  ochre pigments for Ancient Egyptians


In ancient times the best ochre came from Sinopia, a city on the Black Sea.

Its exceptional quality made this ochre valuable and led to it being transported carrying a quality seal.

Australia also is rich in ochres.

When flying across the continent on a clear day, one will see nothing but the colours familiar to us from aboriginal paintings as the patterns we see from the sky are also the same.


aboriginal paintings and pallete with yellow ochres
This is an idea of what is Aboriginal Art which is made usually with dots and its preferred tins are those of the ochre pallet – as found in Australian land.


Aboriginals had this  wonderful and almost mystical experience, completely in harmony with many aboriginal paintings that served as maps.

The best red ochre was also cloaked in mysticism. Only the men of certain tribes had access to the ochre sites.

Once a year they would go on a pilgrimage lasting days that would lead them to the ochre sites that for the Aboriginals was sacred ground.


Orpiment is another element to make yellow colour.

It was a mineral that was found in volcanic fumaroles.

orpiment , toxic mineral that they made yellow- orange color
Orpiment mineral found under volcanos

This has a deep orange colour but it is highly toxic

as it is a byproduct of another arsenic mineral, realgar.


In the murals in the Roman villas, the yellow colour was very present and it was derived mainly from ochre.

They used eggs or other animal glue to make the pigment ready for painting.


bowls of roman painter containing and yellow ochre pigment
Six pottery bowls containing Roman pigment used by a fresco painter. 1st Century AD Roman but found in a tomb in Hawara, Egypt. Now in the British Museum, London.


Especially in Pompeii, yellow it is frequently found on murals.

Yellow to orange or brown as it depends from the origin of the pigment.

Yellow murals on Pompeii
Fresco-Melpomene (muse of tragedy),from the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii, 62-79 AD


In medieval time in order to colour the manuscripts, they used the  Safran flower in order to have a deep yellow to orangish colour.


Thomas Becket , medieval manuscript with yellow colors from crocus
Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. (Circa 1200)


Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the “saffron crocus”.

Saffron, is among the world’s most costly spices by weight.


saffron flower , yellow color derived from stamens


They collect the beautiful red strings of the flower that produce this orangish yellow.

It was probably first cultivated in or near Greece.


akrotiri , santorini, greece, women collecting crocus flowers
Akrotiri on the Aegean island of Santorini- crocus flowers, represented as small red tufts and  two women are gathering them in this Minoan fresco


It is not exactly clear when Indian  yellow was first introduced into Europe.

yellow indian
Indian Yellow swatch








It is known, however, that between the 15th and 18th-century,brown, rather smelling balls, were imported into Europe from Asia.

Once they were broken into pieces  they revealed a wonderful warm yellow powder.

The origins of the pigment lay somewhere in Persia, China or India.

But regarding the exact origins, there are many wild stories:

yellow balls from Indian pigment
The preparation of Indian Yellow was a mystery until its secrets were revealed in 19th century


Indian yellow has a unique story as far as it concerns its preparation.

It was made from the urine of cows that were fed only with mango leaves!!!

They believe that they were making it in the Indian village of Mirzapur.

Yellow pigment was refined by heating the liquid (urine) and pressing it into round balls.

Cow is a sacred animal in India. Those cows were poorly nourished as mango leaves did not supply them with sufficient nutrients, and so they lived for a very short time.

The process was considered inhumane and since 1908, Indian Yellow pigment has been prohibited from the market.


In the 18th and 19th century they have discovered synthetic pigments, which quickly replaced the traditional yellows made from arsenic, cow urine, and other elements…

About 1776, Jean-Honoré Fragonard painted  “A Young Girl Reading” painting.

She is wearing a bright saffron yellow dress.

This painting is considered by many critics to “be among Fragonard’s most appealing and masterly”.


yellow dress, painting , girl reading
Jean-Honoré Fragonard – Girl reading (1776)


The British painter J.M.W. Turner has been among the early painters of the 19th century that used yellow , to create moods and emotions

in the way the romantic musicians were using sounds to compose music.

His painting Rain, Steam, and Speed – the Great Central Railway was dominated by glowing yellow clouds.


Turner steam rain yellow clouds mixing impressionism
JMW Turner (1884) – All the elements in the painting blend and merge into one another – except for the train that stands out like an iron beast in yellow-blue-gray background.


Famous about the yellow sunflowers that has painted in two series of paintings (five paintings all of them) is the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh.

The painter is famous for the “impasto” technique.

An Italian word for “paste” or “mixture”, impasto is used to describe a painting technique where paint (usually oil) is laid on so thickly, that the texture of brush strokes or palette knife are clearly visible.

Using the “impasto” technique he took advantage of the new pigments that were about forty years discovered in 1883 when he painted Sunflowers.


van gogh , hello, sunflowers
Sunflowers is the name of two series of still life paintings by the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. The first series, executed in Paris in 1887.The second set, executed a year later in Arles, shows a bouquet of sunflowers in a vase.


Actually, the medical notes of Dr Peyron, Vincent’s physician, reveal that Vincent wanted to poison himself by eating paint and drinking turpentine.

That’s probably why they did not allow him to stay into his studio while he was suffering from attacks of psychotic episodes!


My inspiration for yellow colour  was the mango fruit and the painful story (or myth) of the Indian cows.

I used WINSON &NEWTON  watercolour for the mango fruit and black ink in order to paint the cows cute face.

Then scanned them and used photoshop to combined them both in one theme.

I named it ‘the dream of the cow”, which must be a nightmare for the cow if this story is true!

yellow, cow, mango leaves
watercolour and black ink


Thank you for following along.



Discover the magic time line for yellows in this link in


My Resources is mainly Wikipedia about pigments, chemistry and history

and also , ,,,

About Van Gogh

About Turner painting …..

About Indian Yellow story

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