Yellow is yellow. Or so it would seem. Or is it? Yellow has many variations though it doesn’t appear to. When painting a daffodil or a sunflower, are there any yellows that can be used besides Lemon Yellow or Indian Yellow, my favorites? I confess to a dislike of any variations of yellow other than these two. If I need to paint shadows in either Lemon or Indian Yellow, I most often use purple for Lemon Yellow and Prussian Blue for Indian Yellow. But what about painting those little nuances in petals that can quickly go flat with too much of the purple/blue additions? Digging around in my yellow paint drawer, at the very back I come up with Yellow Ochre.
Yellow Ochre comes in just about every packaged starter set of paint, oil, acrylic or watercolor. If you’ve ever bought a set, have a look. In every medium-sized set, yellow ochre is nearly always the second yellow. Sometimes buying a set can be less expensive than a single tube, if there is a sale on. When I get those, it’s usually for the browns. The yellows promptly get thrown to the back of the drawer until spring flowers pop up. Then back in the drawer again until late summer when the sunflowers are in force. That’s when I realize I am dissing a timeless classic.
Winsor Newtontells the story of how Yellow Ochre is an earth-based pigment, a staple of artists until the 19thcentury when synthetic Mars Yellow took over. Pigments through the Ages says that original Yellow Ochre is made from silica, clay and an iron oxide derivative, goethite. Today’s Yellow Ochre is almost entirely made in a lab but don’t let that keep you from choosing this originally earth based paint in the painting of earth subjects.
In painting daffodils and sunflowers, Yellow Ochre is the winner for the subtle variances in petals. Yellow Ochre can also be quite effective in the variations of bird feathers as most birds are colored naturally in earthy hues. While Yellow Ochre comes up as number 6 on my list of essential Yellows, it is never the less essentially, essential. When adding a bit of dirt in your art, don’t forget this important yellow once made from dirt.
“It is not the form that dictates the color, but the color that brings out the form.” Hans Hoffman (from Brainyquote)
The deep rich brown known as Van Dyck Brown is both a paint color and a photographic process. The name is derived from the paintings of early seventeenth century painter Anthony Van Dyck. Van Dyck was a prolific portrait painter whose talents were nurtured by mentors and fellow Flemish painters, Rubens and Frans Haals. Van Dyck’s portraits are noted for the rich brown shadows present in all. Van Dyck’s portraits were very popular and sought after by the royalty of England and France. Van Dyck spent time in commissions for the Pope and the nobility of Italy. Van Dyck achieved great financial success and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle but died at the age of 42.
According to Winsor-Newton, Van Dyck Brown is an earth pigment and can vary greatly between brands. Testing of brands is advised. Winsor Newton states Van Dyck Brown was, “Originally made from a lignite or bituminous earth containing iron oxide found in Kassel or Cologne, Germany, it was known as Cassel Earth and Cologne Earth,” and is permanent, lightfast and transparent.” Stories differ as when the name officially changed but was sometime before the mid-nineteenth century.
A photographic process known as Van Dyck Brown Print Process was developed in 1842 by British astronomer, Sir John Herschel. The process is named for the print color similarity to the paint color. The ingredients for the process can be obtained for those adventurous enough to try this on their own. A video is linked below on the process. Van Dyck Brown prints are an ethereal haunting brown very different from the bluer prints of traditional printing.
With Van Dyck Brown beautiful, striking shadows are a breeze. Or in photography, ghostly, mysterious effects can be created in the processing to achieve a sense of other-worldliness. Van Dyck Brown does not appear to have the problems of Burnt Umber, so go ahead, pour it own. However, caution is advised. A little bit of shadowy mystery could easily become a large bit of depression.
“Yellow-colored objects appear to be gold.” Aristotle (from Thinkexist.com)
Discussions of the origins of Indian Yellow vary though most authorities believe it to have arrived in Europe from Asia in the Fifteenth Century. Conflicting accounts exist as to the truth of a 19th century investigation into the process of creating Indian Yellow. The disgusting smell of the hard brown balls imported from India to make the paint gave credence to the story of how it was made.
According to a late nineteenth century investigation by The Journal of the Society of Arts in London, the hard brown balls of pigment were made from the urine of cows fed only a diet of mango leaves and water. The urine was collected and dried to form the hard brown balls that were imported intact and later ground down to create the paint. The paint was banned when news of the treatment of the cows became known. The cows fed the mango leaf diet exclusively were severely undernourished to the point of starvation. Synthetic forms of the paint began appearing shortly afterward. Winsor Newton has some of the original imported brown balls on display in the Winsor Newton Museum. However, they are quick to point out that the balls are in a sealed glass case to prevent the smell from escaping.
Indian Yellow is a rich, beautiful color making its origins hard to fathom. Frequently used in glazes and for tinting, Indian Yellow makes jewel-toned greens when mixed with ultramarine blue. Alizarin crimson, zinc white and Indian Yellow make a nice warm orange. The Dutch Masters used Indian Yellow to create the luminescent glazes so characteristic of Dutch painting. It was also a favorite with the Scottish Colourists of the early Twentieth Century. The picture at top by Scottish painter, Lesley Hunter, is a perfect example of the beauty of the warm, glowing gold the liberal use of Indian Yellow can produce.
Fortunately, today’s painters don’t have to deal with the disgusting smell of the original Indian Yellow. In both oil and watercolor, Indian yellow is highly transparent and lightfast. As a tint, Indian Yellow gives depth and richness to the paint. On its own, it is beautifully golden.
Enjoy your Indian Yellow with gratitude for the synthetic process we have today. Thankfully, we don’t have to deal with the smell or the knowledge of the disgusting origins of the paint, true or not. Aren’t scientists wonderful!
“There are connoisseurs of blue just as there are connoisseurs of wine.” Colette (from The Painter’s Keys)
Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy” relied on a newly discovered blue. Picasso could not have managed his “Blue Period,” without this very unique blue paint. Many artists look for ways to save money on supplies without compromising quality. Such was the case with eighteenth century Berlin artist, Diesbach when he stumbled upon the ingredients for making a new blue paint later called Prussian Blue.
Blue was expensive for artists in the early seventeen hundreds. Painters used very little blue in their works, reserving it for the most reverent religious depictions. Diesbach was actually working on a mix for reds when his local chemist sold him iron sulfate and contaminated potash. Oil made from animals was the contaminant. It was this potash that set up the chemical reaction that became Prussian blue. It gained in popularity throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Winsor Newton began selling Prussian Blue in 1878. The name derives from its use as the color of the uniforms of the Prussian Army in the early eighteenth century on.
Chemistry World gives a detailed description of the actual chemical reaction that creates Prussian Blue. Since I barely muddled through college chemistry, I won’t attempt to describe the process and suggest following the link to Chemistry World for a fascinating account. Their essay also outlines the use of Prussian Blue on patients with certain radioactive poisoning or thallium contamination. Good to know if you are ever in that situation!
Prussian Blue’s name was changed by Crayola to Midnight Blue in the 1950’s because it was felt few would understand the name. Prussian Blue continues to be a popular paint to many painters, myself included, though some complain that its light fastness might be lacking. I exercise care when using Prussian Blue because of its ability to quickly overtake other colors. For some fun reading on Prussian Blue try Joshua Cohen’s “Thirty-six shades of Prussian Blue” (though not to be confused with a book of a similar title concerning grays!). And if you would like to imitate those eighteenth century artists and make your own Prussian Blue, here is a YouTube demonstration by Dr. Mark Foreman:
“It has the quality of appearing to recede into the picture’s distant plain (sic) (un)like other yellows that sit in front of the plain(sic).”– Pigments Through The Ages
All of the Naples colors are favorites of mine but especially Naples Yellow. I just love it. It squishes so nicely. Naples Yellow mixes well with just about all the colors of a sunset, even purple. Naples Yellow is one of those colors I will drive miles to get if running low. Could there be anything worse than being forced to paint without Naples Yellow?
Apparently, Naples Yellow has been around for quite some time. It has been found in ceramic glazes of pottery found in ancient Babylon from 1500 B.C. Most of the Old Master’s worked with Naples Yellow. The websites of Winsor Newton, Gamblin and Golden all state it was originally made from lead antimoniate but all three makers use various synthetic chemicals to simulate the original color today. Winsor Newton’s website says” Its name probably comes from its presence as a natural deposit that could be found in the volcanic earth of Mount Vesuvius, a volcano on the bay of Naples.”
Naples Yellow is so popular it has its own Facebook page! Who knew?? I guess lots of artists would drive miles to get Naples Yellow.