Blazing Yellow – PART 2



Continue our travels down the yellow brick road with PART 2 of Blazing Yellow.

This time we uncover the lost yellow of the Renaissance and learn about the poisonous hue used by Renior. We travel to India to save some very skinny cows and discover the n PART 2 we uncover the lost colour of the Rennaissance, travel to India to save some very skinny cows and track back to the royal origins of your old school pencils.


Lead Tin Yellow – Forgotten Gold

Lead-tin yellow has a distinct lemon hue and is very light in tone, much nearer white than another common yellow pigment, ochre. 

Lead-tin yellow has had several different names in the past. Italian manuscripts have described a colour, “gialllolino,” which is identical to lead-tin yellow. In northern parts of England the term “massicott” was used to describe the same pigment.

Lead-tin yellow is a result of the components of the pigment lead and tin which combine to form a yellow hue. Due to its high lead content, it is very poisonous. Lead-tin yellow has good hiding power. It is chemically quite stable under normal condition and is also resistant to high temperatures. It is also resistant to acidic and alkaline solutions and can thus be employed in fresco. 

The first occurrences of lead-tin yellow in paintings date from around 1300 by Giotto, and was used in European paintings during the 15th to the 17th century. It was commonly used in drapery, light parts of the sky, foliage with green and earth pigments. 


Renaissance artists such as Titian and Veronese used it for his golden tones. Flemish painters such as  Anthony Van Dyck and Rembrandt used the hue.

Lead Tin Yellow was used by Titian in Diana and Actaeon 1559.

Renaissance artists such as Titian and Veronese used it for his golden tones. Flemish painters such as Anthony Van Dyck and Rembrandt used the hue.

Left: The Allegory of Love III, Respect (c 1575) by Paolo Veronese. Right: Lady Thimbelby and her Sister Dorothy, Viscountess Andover 1637 by Anthony van Dyck.


Belshazzar’s Feast (c 1635-38) by Rembrandt van Rijn

Lead-tin yellow was the principal pigment used by Vermeer for his characteristic yellow draperies, including the fur trimmed jackets. Vermeer also mixed lead-tin yellow with various shades of blue to obtain subtle greens. 

The Milkmaid (1658) by Johannes Vermeer.


Naples Yellow – toxic tastes

Buy some Naples Yellow, though, and you will get a colour mixed from Cadmium Yellow and Chinese White, in all probability – which should be named Naples Yellow Hue.

It is vastly different from the Naples Yellow used by Claude Lorrain. For Claude, it was the highly toxic Lead Antimonate Yellow, and nothing to do with Naples at all.

Naples Yellow was used in Claude Lorrain’s (1600-1682) A Mediterranean port at sunrise with the Embarkation of Saint Paula for Jerusalem.

Naples Yellow is one of the oldest synthetic pigments. Originally used by ancient civilisations in the eastern Mediterranean from about 1500 BCE to colour glass and pottery. The origins of its name are unclear. It is made into a salt of two highly toxic metals, lead and antimonyIn it’s original mix it was extremely poisonous although less well absorbed through the skin Originally the pigment was made from lead antimoniate. This natural deposit was found in the volcanic earth of Mount Vesuvius, a volcano on the bay of Naples.

The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (1777) by Pierre-Jacques Volaire.

By about 300 CE, it had been replaced by Lead Tin Yellow, and fell into disuse. But it starts to appear as a pigment in paintings after 1600, having been reintroduced initially in maiolica (glazed earthenware) about a century earlier.

As its chemical name reveals, Naples Yellow is a salt of two highly toxic metals, lead and antimony, and is therefore extremely poisonous, although less well absorbed through the skin. Despite this, it remained popular during the rise of plein air landscape painting.

By the early 1700s, Naples Yellow was quite widely used in oil painting, although in watercolours it has a tendency to darken in polluted atmospheres.

Naples Yellow used in ‘Monkeys as Judges of Art’ (1889) by Gabriel von Max.

The original colour Naples Yellow was used up until the 1930s.  After 1800, the original toxic colour was discontinued, being replaced by chrome yellow, cadmium yellow, and cobalt yellow. Modern painters who continued to use real Naples Yellow, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir even when the new Cadmium Yellow was becoming more affordable.

The Bay of Naples (1882) by Renoir.

When suppliers reformulated their Naples Yellows in the twentieth century, all traces of its original lead antimonate had gone, in favour of a hue created from more modern, and less immediately toxic, substitutes. 


Indian yellow

Indian yellow pigment and the purree pigment balls.

Indian yellow is believed to have originated in India during the 15th century, specifically in Monghyr (a city in Bengal). The colour owes its translucence and near fluorescence to its water-soluble structure. Originally Indian Yellow was known as a lake pigment. Over time, several manufactures have chosen to drop the ‘lake‘ designation, as these volatile pigments are unstable when exposed to light. Known as fugitive pigments, these colours lighten or darken over time in certain environmental conditions (such as heat, light, humidity or pollution).

Holy Cow

The ingredients of Indian yellow were a mystery until its secret was revealed in the 19th century. The colour arrived in Europe as balls of the pigment. It was claimed the pigment was created from the urine of cows, which were encouraged to defecate into sand pits, where the dark yellow and brown lumps that remained were collected, cooled and then concentrated in pots over a fire. Once the solution had completely liquified it was then strained through cloth, and the remaining sediment was compressed into balls. The balls were then heated over the fire before being left out to be dried through by the sun. The final round product was called ‘Purree‘ or ‘Piuri‘. Painters would refer to it as as ‘peori’ but also as ‘gao-goli’, meaning the ‘pellet that comes from a cow’.

The purree pigment balls that made its way to Europe were subjected to additional processes, including another round of washing and drying before finally being powdered. This final state then saw the purification of the colour, as green and yellow phases were separated.

J.M.W. Turner’s watercolour painting ‘Abergavenny Bridge, Monmountshire of 1812.

Joseph Mallord William Turner so loved the colour that contemporary critics mocked the British painter, writing that his images were “afflicted with jaundice,” and that the artist may have a vision disorder. 



The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846) by Turner.
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1935) by Turner.

In the late 1800s people began to investigate how the pigment was being produced. An investigation launched by The Journal of the Society of Arts in London released a report detailing the inhumane treatment of the cattle involved in the production process. In order to increase the saturation of their urine, cattle were being fed an exclusive diet of mango leaves and water (occasionally with a little turmeric thrown in for good measure). As well as leaving the cows extremely malnourished, the cattle were also being negatively impacted by the high levels of the toxin urushoil found in the mango leaves, which also can be located in large quantities in poison ivy. The original colour method for making this colour was banned in 1883 for the inhumane cruelty to the cows. Legal steps were taken to ban the Indian Yellow pigment in 1908, and the efforts of The Journal of the Society of Arts and other activists ensured that the original cattle-produced pigment could not be found commercially after 1921.

Check out the video on the secrets of Indian Yellow >



Did you ever wonder why your school lead pencils were always yellow on the outside? Today graphite (not lead) pencils come in an array of colours but the reason we associate yellow to that school pencil is thanks to a smart marketing department in the 1900s.

The world famous Exposition Universelle of Paris in 1889 was a showcase of modernity and innovation. Under the shadow of the brand new Eiffel Tower visitors could be wowed at the new inventions and spectacles on show.

Hardtmuth Pencil was a Czech manufacturing company showing off its latest creation at the show. This latest creation was promoted as a “luxury pencil”  and the luxury came in a yellow coating.

Prior to 1889, the highest-quality pencils were left “natural polished.” Manufacturers usually painted their pencils if they were looking to cover up imperfections in the wood, typically using dark paint colours such as purple, red, maroon, or black.

Hardtmuth decided to use the colour yellow to show a sign of quality, not imperfection. They used the colour to showcase the caliber of its graphite rather than its wood casing. In the past, the best graphite had a reputation of coming from England. The very first graphite deposit was discovered in Borrowdale, England, in 1564,  but the British supply of graphite eventually ran out a new and superior source was found in Siberia.

Many pencil manufacturers, including Hardtmuth, sourced their graphite from Siberia. The Russian province shares a border with China. In China, yellow had long been tied to royalty. The legendary ruler considered the progenitor of Chinese civilization was known as the Yellow Emperor.  Centuries later, this colour was still reserved, only to be worn by the royal family. Eventually, the golden shade came to represent happiness, glory, and wisdom.

Hardtmuth used the graphite’s geographical origins and Chinese associations of royalty to promote their pencils of ‘ superiority’. To support this angle, they called the yellow pencils “Koh-I-Noor” after the world-famous diamond from the British Crown Jewels. Diamonds are graphite, and the name Koh-I-Noor was deliberately chosen to suggest a premium quality of graphite in the pencil. The title was such a success that the company actually changed its own name to Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth.  

Although Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth was the first to produce yellow pencils, others would soon follow in the race to elevate the perceived quality of theri pencils. Faber and Dixon Ticonderoga coloured their pencils yellow too and gave them Oriental names to suggest that the graphite they contained was equally good.

How easily we are lead…

An experiment conducted by Faber in the middle of the 20th century was used to test the ‘quality theory’. The company distributed 1,000 pencils, half yellow, half green to a test group. The test group returned the green pencils en masse with complaints about their shoddy quality even though both sets of pencils were identical apart from their colour. 

Today we still associate yellow with glamour and wealth, its making its way back into our homes and wardrobes. Promoted as the hue of optimism but I can’t help thinking we still clamour for a little opulence when we don the colour.



Why Do Book Pages Turn Yellow Over Time?

Ever wondered why your old book pages turn yellow over time?

The paper pages yellow over time because they are exposed to oxygen. Most paper is made from wood, which largely consists of cellulose and a natural wood component called lignin that gives land plant cell walls their rigidity and makes wood stiff and strong. Cellulose is a colourless substance and remarkably good at reflecting light, which means we perceive it as being white. This is why paper is usually white. 

When lignin is exposed to light and the surrounding air, its molecular structure changes. It is susceptible to oxidation. The added oxygen molecules break the bonds that hold those alcohol subunits together, creating molecular regions called chromophores. Chromophores (meaning “colour bearers,” or “color carriers” in Greek) reflect certain wavelengths of light that our eyes perceive as colour. In the case of lignin oxidation, that color is yellow or brown.

Paper manufacturers try to remove as much lignin as possible by using a bleaching process. The more lignin that’s removed, the longer the paper will remain white. Newspaper, because it is made cheaply, has more lignin in it than a typical textbook page, so it turns a yellow-brown colour faster than other types of paper.

Producers of brown paper grocery bags and cardboard shipping boxes take advantage of lignin because it makes their products sturdier. These paper products aren’t bleached, leaving them much browner than a typical newspaper, but also stiff enough to give a bag carrying a milk carton and other groceries its strength.

Preservationists, archivists and librarians wage a constant war against paper degradation and oxidation. Preserving important historical documents requires an awareness of what environmental factors can damage paper products. While oxygen-rich conditions are bad for paper, sunlight and high-moisture levels can also negatively impact paper preservation. All the things we love about nature, fresh air and sunlight a the enemy for all your favourite old books.

Click here for full article > 



In Part 3 you’ll discover the dark side of Chrome Yellow, and why your eyes just won’t let you ignore that golden hue.

Check out the Part 1

BLAZING YELLOW – PART 1 > Click here


This blog focuses on one of my great passions … colour. I will bring you tall tales and tidbits about the origins and uses of  colour and how it impacts our world. Colour has held many great powers throughout the ages. It plays many a leading role throughout history. It has been a killer, a saviour and a revolution maker. I thank the pioneers of colour who continue to pursue inventive ways for how colour can improve our lives. It is because of them that we can all be Colour Warriors and stay bright beyond beige. Thanks for joining me on the amazing adventures of colour!

Colour Warriors is a monthly blog, written and produced by Visual Artist and Arts Educator, Kristine Ballard on
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