The color yellow is the black sheep of the primary color family. While red signifies luxury and passion and blue the beatific and ethereal, yellow denotes illness and malady. And artists have made maximum use of this meaning throughout history. But how should today’s artists use yellow?
The trouble with yellow
For any painter, yellow is the trickiest of all colors. Work wet on wet paint, and yellow quickly becomes dirty. Even a tiny drip of cross-contamination with blue turns yellow into green. Meanwhile, accidental contact with red will quickly create a mirky brown. Worse, yellow has the very bad habit of being translucent, so it struggles to cover even a plain white canvas.
But despite its shortcomings, expert painters through history accepted the challenge and applied yellow thickly and with relish.
Earthly beginnings: a 10-second history of yellow
Crushed beetle blood produced red, while the more-precious-than-gold lapis lazuli created blue. But yellow’s origins are less dramatic. In fact, yellow pigment originated from everyday ingredients: mud and ferrous metals.
Unearthed burial sites prove the color dates back at least 40,000 years in Europe and the Middle East, and the experts clock its first use in Africa to a staggering 285,000 years ago.
The earliest yellow was made from yellow Ochre, which comes from a naturally occurring iron oxide. Yellow ochre was the most commonly used pigment for painted walls in ancient Egypt. Ironically, they associated it with their precious and far more rare gold, and artists used the muddier-toned ochre to depict skin tones, the sky, and to symbolize the divine and eternal.
Arsenic yellow: a poisonous beginning
In art, the color yellow has long been used to denote physical and mental illness, but the use of yellow pigment itself put painters’ physical health in peril because the pigment derived from arsenic.
Painters often licked their brushes for fine detailed work, and those artists who used yellow slowly poisoned themselves, like the heroine in an Agatha Christie novel.
During the Roman Empire, traders introduced the pigment known as Orpiment, an arsenic sulfide mineral. Soldiers dipped their arrow tips in the substance to create poisoned arrows, while other civilizations believed that its yellow-orange color meant it could transform into gold. Orpiment paint decorates the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb and graces the Taj Mahal.
Alas, replacing the deadly arsenic ingredient in yellow paint didn’t yield any great health benefits. In fact, artists began using Uranium Yellow to create yellow and green-tinted glass and ceramics during the Roman Empire, and glaziers continued using the pigment through the 19th century.
It didn’t glow, but Uranium Yellow carried its own health warning. It was created from – you guessed it – uranium dioxide, which was radioactive.
A yellow to Dye for
Uranium Yellow continued to be used into the 20th century for commercial purposes, but artists have slowly replaced this toxic paint with organic dye-based colors. Thanks to innovations in chemistry, the 20th century produced the cadmium yellow favored by Mondrian and the chromium yellow that inspired Cezanne.
Highly prized: Golden yellow
In contrast to the toxic yellows of arsenic and uranium, there is gold. Far from associations with sickliness and death, gold consistently appears in the history of art as the symbol of luxury and riches. Renaissance painters used it to enhance paintings of Jesus Christ, Mary and the apostles. In more modern times, Gustav Klimt (son of a gold engraver) took inspiration from the use of gold leaf in Byzantine mosaics to create sensual portraits of women. Set against his more traditional use of yellow paints like ochre and cadmium, he used gold (and silver and platinum) to underscore the ethereal beauty of his subjects, elevating their sexuality to the realm of the sublime.
Why does everyone think yellow is about illness?
Illness and maladies are commonly represented with yellow paint. Perhaps the fault rests with the Greek physician Hippocrates, who created the body’s four humors. According to his 5th century BCE medical wisdom, a surfeit of yellow bile made you choleric. (In contrast, blood made you sanguine, black bile made you melancholic and phlegm, more obviously, made you phlegmatic).
A Traitor’s Yellow
Equally, medieval scholars associated the choleric humor with the qualities of lying, cheating, greed and ill humor. For that reason, Judas Iscariot was recognizable in medieval and Renaissance art by his yellow cloak. In the 14th century, Giotto used yellow iron earth and lead tin yellow to create the luminous golden hue of Judas’s cloak, which envelops Jesus as the traitor leans in for his infamous kiss.
Van Gogh, Gaugin and the “beauty of color”
But Hippocrates was not always right. In the history of art, yellow has represented teeming nature as often as it has represented bile, jaundice, sickliness, duplicity and death.
Few artists better illustrate the full scope of yellow’s symbolic versatility than the duo of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gaugin. In 1888, Gaugin stayed for nine weeks at Van Gogh’s rented home in southern France, aptly named the Yellow House for his famous painting of the same name (below). Gaugin later wrote extensively of his time in the Yellow House, and their lively artist debates, “both of us mad and at constant war over the beauty of color.”
A daring pioneer who deployed color with unconventional flair, Gaugin hewed more closely to orthodoxy in using yellow to denote people living in poverty. In his 1889 painting, The Yellow Christ, Christ appears sublimely tranquil in his death, fully aware of his manifest destiny. His unhealthy (yellow) pallor marks him for imminent death, as three devout Breton women in a state of peaceful repose attend to him. The bucolic landscape behind the crucifix is the landscape of Brittany in France and not that of the Holy Land. The yellow-toned Christ mimics the color of a wooden crucifix. This is a personal Christ, rooted very much in the domain of the believers. Like other Impressionists, Gauguin favored the new hues of cadmium yellow and chrome yellow in his work.
Interestingly, he also created a similar work called The Green Christ. Was his yellow paint in an accidental brush with its blue neighbor? I have always wondered.
Van Gogh: sunflowers, wheat fields and the smell of Provence
Legend has it, Van Gogh’s enthusiasm for yellow was such that Gaugin had to ask him to remove some of the brightly-hued paintings from the guest bedroom during the latter’s stay in the Yellow House.
Certainly, the jaundiced tones of Gaugin’s Christ would have made a cheerless interior design choice. But for Van Gogh, yellow was the color of the harvest, of blooming nature and starry nights. He pronounced yellow his favorite color, and once said that, for him, the sunflowers that bedecked Gaugin’s walls symbolized gratitude.
Indeed, yellow is the color we most associate with Van Gogh through his paintings of sunflowers and the wheat fields of Provence. During his self-proclaimed Yellow Period (1886-1890), the prolific artist often completed two canvases in a single day.
In 11 separate paintings, he conjured sunflowers almost entirely from different shades of yellow. The paint of the sunflowers is thick. You can practically smell nature and oil paint mixing in a heady miasma of summer. We can imagine the sunflowers eventually rotting in their vase, stinking up the room in a pungent mass of rotting vegetation.
Early in his career, he used the ancient yellow ochre of so many artists before him. Later, innovations in chemistry produced cadmium yellow and chrome yellow. Van Gogh embraced the new pigments, finding they brought a vibrancy to his yellow palette that made yellow ochre appear dull in comparison.
Sadly, the exuberant color that brought so much joy to his art also played a role in his undoing. During a stay in a mental health facility, he confessed to his brother that he ate yellow paint and turpentine in an effort to poison himself.
The yellow of modern art
With all its varied uses and symbolic weight, in the past century the color yellow has proved as versatile as its fellow primary colors. As with so much in modern art, we see traditional themes and representations of yellow echoed, refracted, challenged and brought fresh life.
Rothko: a doorway to the sun
In his later years, abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko used yellow (and orange) to create luminescence – works of art that appear to generate their own light. His work Orange and Yellow (1956) is like a doorway to the sun.
The abstract expressionist painter created these large paintings to overwhelm the senses. In fact, Rothko wanted viewers to move close enough so the work took up their entire field of vision. But don’t take my word for it: enlarge the image on your screen and move close to it to feel its warmth.
He wanted his work to “express basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” And his series with yellow was all about ecstasy.
For Rothko, both painting and viewing his work were religious experiences. In his immersive canvases, however abstract, it’s not so hard to see the joyful intoxication of Van Gogh’s light-infused Provencal summers or the rapturous repose of Gaugin’s mourners.
Andres Serrano: a controversial yellow
Yellow is found in less celestial substances, as the yellow Christ in Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph Piss Christ demonstrates. This controversial picture features a small plastic crucifix decanted into a vessel filled with Serrano’s urine.
It is a strange, hallucinogenic piece where a jaundiced Christ and the head of the cross glow yellow, or golden if you prefer, and the rest of the picture fades into a hot amber tone. It is a wonderful and oddly moving image. Serrano professed to be a sincere Catholic and expressed surprise when some denounced his work as blasphemy.
Like Gaugin, Serrano employed yellow to convey a Christ sickly and suffering. In lieu of a stylized crucifixion, he commands viewers to confront the very human (and filthy) agony of Jesus’s final three days on the cross. Yellow is our vulnerability, imperfection and animal nature.
Maybe if the Piss Christ upsets you, it’s because it gives some sense of what the crucifixion actually was like.Andres Serrano
Piet Mondrian: yellow and the connective tissue of primary colors
Thankfully, one artist has freed up the use of yellow so we can approach it without its heavy history. Enter Dutch artist Piet Mondrian.
Mondrian’s work is instantly recognizable. Famed for using only primary colors, black and white in his work, he believed artwork based on this pared-down but universal palette would create a global connection. However, this master colorist used different hues of yellow oil paint, which he always mixed himself. Like all experts, he made it look easy.
Wolfgang Laib: the color of the sun, part 2
In modern art, yellow has become a life force. Contemporary artist Wolfgang Laib creates his yellow color field works by collecting pollen from flowers and plants. In a nod to the earliest artists, he painstakingly collects a natural ingredient that grows in abundance near his home. Then, he grinds the pollen into a yellow dust that serves as his pigment, as it might have done for the early humans who created the cave paintings at Lascaux. Finally, he scatters it across his canvases to create works like Pollen from Hazelnut or Pollen from Dandelion. For Laib, yellow is the color of creation, of continuity.
Pollen is the potential beginning of the life of the plant. It is as simple, as beautiful, and as complex as this. And of course it has so many meanings. I think everybody who lives knows that pollen is important.Wolfgang Laib
So what have we learned?
Artists have constantly reinvented their use of yellow, and so should we. Yellow is the color of bees and pollen; it is the color of America’s favorite family, The Simpsons. It is the color of buttercups and roses. It is the color of the ribbon we tie around a tree to await the return of loved ones. Yellow is also the color of the sun: the source of all life on earth.
Our favorite yellows
- Yellow ochre
- Naples yellow
- Cadmium yellow
- Chromium yellow
- Lemon yellow hue