Blazing Yellow – PART 3



Join me down the golden pathway in PART 3 of Blazing Yellow. In this edition you’ll discover the dark side of Chrome Yellow, the lure of Cadmiums and why your eyes just won’t let you ignore that golden hue.


Chrome Yellow – It’s darker side

This brilliant new yellow was the new kid on the block in vibrance in the 1800s. Pushing Naples Yellow to the side Chrome Yellow could offer a radiance like no other yellow before its time.

The mineral crocoite and the chrome yellow pigment.

Chromium was discovered as a Siberian mineral, called crocoite in the eighteenth century. It occurs naturally as the mineral crocoite but the mineral itself was never used as a pigment for paint. French chemist, Nicolas Louis Vauquelin identified the new element chromium as the source of the colour in 1762. He found that he could make bright yellow and rich orange versions using lead chromate: in an acid medium, it would turn yellow, whilst in an alkali environment it would become bright orange. 

Nicolas Louis Vauquelin
Nicolas Louis Vauquelin discovers the new element chromium in 1762.

These chrome colours were in use by 1816 but on a limited basis. A relatively inexpensive yellow pigment, it was a rich opaque colour embraced by many of the avant garde artists in their quest for vibrant colour. Turner, Manet, Cézanne, Monet, and Pissarro all used the new colour. Some used the neutralizing effect of combining three primary hues of ultramarine, vermilion and chrome yellow to make coloured greys. 

The new colour Chrome yellow was a favourite for Van Gogh. When referring to his irises in a letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh said ‘There is no blue without yellow and without orange.’ He loved it so much it is rumoured that he ate it, believing that it would paint the colour would make him happy from the inside out!

"How wonderful the colour Yellow is. It stands for the Sun." Vincent Van Gogh

But the new colour was problematic. As lead based pigment it was toxic and known to cause delirium. While it provided a solution for the the Impressionists quest to paint sunlight it’s ironic secret was that it darkened upon exposure to light. This was to be it’s downfall. Renoir would refer to this darkening of the colour over time as its ‘nasty tricks’.

The damaging affects of this colour was to have repercussions on many a great master work. The most notable of concerning is the browning of Van Gogh’s Sunflower series. These valuable works are now in danger of disappearing into a brown mass.

Fading flowers

Van Gogh's Sunflowers
Light, the element Van Gogh aimed to fill his canvas’s with, ironically is the contributing factor responsible for dulling his work over time.

The once radiant golden hues are progressively fading to an olive-brown colour. A team of scientists from the University of Antwerp and the Delft University of Technology spent two years studying an 1889 painting from the artist’s sunflower series in the collection of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. They found that the artist’s use of chrome yellow paint made certain works particularly susceptible to discoloration.

“Van Gogh used two types of chrome yellow, which is a synthetic pigment that was widely available at the time,” Frederik Vanmeert of the University of Antwerp told artnet News. “One of these types of chrome yellow is quite stable because it has an orange hue, but the other type, which has a pale yellow color, is quite sensitive to degradation, so it will alter its colour over time.”

In light of these discoveries, the Van Gogh Museum isn’t taking any chances. Curators and conservators are already working to protect the artworks from further deterioration. Five years ago, the museum lowered light levels in its galleries and is currently in the process of reviewing the lighting systems once again.

The complications Chrome Yellow presented lead colourists in search of a more stable opaque pigment. Recent modifications to the original form of the pigment make the current available paints on the market with this name lightfast and resistant to change.

At the time Cadmium yellow was to be the brilliantly bold solution to Chrome yellow’s weaknesses.


Zinc Yellow Header

Zinc Yellow – getting browned off

The bright cool yellow pigment is derived by reacting zinc oxide with potassium dichromate solutions. Shades of zinc yellow are variable depending on the proportions of each component. Vauquelin discovered the zinc yellow in 1809, but it was not developed as an artist colorant until 1847 by Murdock.

Zinc yellow is toxic. It has less covering power than chrome yellow. Just like Chrome Yellow, the main problem with the pigment is that it is not very lightfast and discolours to a grey-green or brown due to the reduction of the chromate ions. The pure material has been used in oil and watercolours, but most zinc yellow is used in mixtures: a mixture with Prussian blue is sold as zinc chrome green and a mixture with strontium yellow and barium yellow is sold under the name lemon yellow or citron yellow.

La Grand Jatte
Georges Seurat, ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte‘ and insert showing the discoloured ochre-brown dots in the area of sunlit grass.

The pigment was used extensively by Seurat for painting the sunlit grass to achieve the impression of shimmering luminosity in the artwork ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ (1884-86). The discolouration and degradation of the colour had been noted shortly after its creation, notably as early as 1892. The zinc yellow had changed its colour to dull ochre-brown.

Zinc yellow is also used as a rust inhibitor and as a plastic colourant.


Cadmium Yellow – the power yellow

In 1817, German scientist Friedrich Stromeyer discovered a new metallic element, called cadmium, by accident when heating zinc in his laboratory. Typically, zinc remains white when heated, but while conducting routine tests, he observed a sample of zinc carbonate that formed a bright yellow oxide rather than white. Stromeyer suggested it was suitable for artist pigments.


Cadmium Yellow… from zinc to pigment to paint.

It wasn’t until the 1840s that the colour began being produced industrially due to the scarcity of the metal. Cadmium yellow (cadmium sulfide) replaced Chrome yellow. Both colours are toxic, but cadmium yellow remains bright and exhibits a better tinting strength. Cadmium yellows dry more slowly than chrome yellow.

Cadmiums come in a range of yellows to reds. Cadmium pigments are classified as absolutely permanent for interior applications, but are not suitable for the exterior applications or for mural painting techniques as they are vulnerable to light & oxygen.

Cadmium pigments can come in a range of hues from light yellow to deep red.

All of the cadmiums possessed great colour brilliance with the deeper shades having the greatest tinting strength. Cadmium pigments were used in both oil painting and watercolour but could not be combined with copper-based pigments.

Artistic ambitions

While Max Ernst, Joan Miró, René Magritte and Paul Gauguin used cadmium paint, Monet was particularly associated with the pigment in such paintings as Autumn at Argenteuil and some of the the Water-Lilies believing the new golden colour would help his work last longer.

Autumn effect at Argenteuil 1873 by Claude Monet.
Water Lillies 1919. Monet used many of the new colours including Cadmium Yellow and Zinc Yellow in this piece.
Water Lillies 1919. Monet used many of the new colours including Cadmium Yellow and Zinc Yellow in this piece.

The colour of sound

Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky was an advid fan of the new colours. Much of his work focused on colour relationships and interpretations. His colour theory was published in 1911 in an attempt to explain the painter’s palette in two ways: the effect on the eye (person’s physical understanding of the colour) and “inner resonance”, phycological effect, when it effects your spiritual experience. He believed the colour yellow to be warm, cheeky and exciting, and could be disturbing for people, or reflect attack or madness.

Kandinsky was rumoured to have had Synesthesia ( whereby he experienced letters, numbers and sounds as colours. This may have been sparked when he experienced a concert by Arnold Schoenberg in 1911. Kandinsky’s use of the word ‘impression’ referred to paintings that reproduce a direct expression of an internal nature. This painting is a response not a replication, to his impression of the performance. 

In Impression III (Concert) Kandinsky attempts to evoke the idea of a concert and explore the deconstruction of  composition, as did Schoenberg ,in his musical compositions. 

Impression III (Concert) 1911 by Kandinsky.


Kandinsky conceived four “colour-tone dramas” for the theater between 1909 and 1914; The Yellow Sound was the “earliest and most influential” experimental piece originated by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. It combinined colour, movement, speech and music (pantomime, colored projectors, orchestra and singers). The work was first published in The Blue Rider Almanac in 1912. It was never performed during his lifetime. Its belated world premiere happened in 1972 at the Guggenheim Museum and has since been staged at the Theatre des Champs-Élysées, Paris (1976) and in 1982, at the Marymount Mahattan Theatre in New York City.

Giedrius Mackevicius, composed by Alfred Schnittke 1984

Industrial gold

The great leap for artists during the nineteenth century meant they no longer needed to grind and mix their own paints. Manufacturers offered ready-made oil paints in newly developed collapsible tin tubes. This openened up a world of opportunities including consistency of colour, as well as the chance to paint ‘plein air’. Pigments were no longer made specifically for artists’ use, but now available for larger industrial coatings and printing industries. 

The colourant was employed industrially in batteries. It was to be used for many industrial plastics and paints in the future that would have toxic implications. (See the Colour in Society section in this blog for more info on this). 




Ever wondered why so many street signs are in yellow?

Yellow is the most noticeable of all colours by the human eye. Yellow is the brightest colour of the visible spectrum with a wavelength of 575-585 nm. Scientists explain “Lateral peripheral vision for detecting yellows is 1.24 times greater than for red.” This explains why you can even see a yellow object much sooner and from a greater distance, than any other colour, even if it is out the corner of your eye. Colours such as yellow or greenish­yellow are also more visible to the human eye under dimmer conditions compared to red.

Yellow lies between orange and green on the spectrum of visible light.
Image Source: performance/visible-light-spectrum-chart/

Understanding the quick visibility yellow hold, it is easy to understand why so many traffic signs, earth­moving, road­building and other outdoor machines are yellow. Just like that yellow New York taxi, it is important that you identify them immediately. Even when weather conditions are murky, in rain or on a foggy day, your eye will notice a yellow vehicle more than any other colour. 

It makes sense that yellow and safety go hand in hand but it wasn’t always so easy to make others implement the idea. It took a National Conference in America to implement a code for all school buses…

The Yellow School Bus

School bus yellow has been a colour specifically formulated for use on school buses in North America since 1939. Now officially known in Canada and the U.S. as National School Bus Glossy Yellow it was originally called National School Bus Chrome. The colour chosen because it attracts attention and is noticed quickly in peripheral vision, faster than any other colour. 

In April 1939, Dr. Frank W. Cyr, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York organised a conference that established national school-bus construction standards for the U.S., including the standard colour of yellow for the school bus. It became known officially as “National School Bus Chrome”. The colour was selected because black lettering on that hue was easiest to see in the semi-darkness of early morning.

The conference met for seven days and the attendees created a total of 44 standards, including specifications regarding body length, ceiling height and aisle width. Paint experts from DuPont and Pittsburgh Paints participated. Dr. Cyr’s conference, funded by a $5,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, was also a landmark event in as much as it included transportation officials from each of the then-48 states, as well as specialists from school bus manufacturing and paint companies. 

The colour was adopted by the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) as Federal Standard No. 595a, Colour 13432.

Dr. Cyr became known as the “Father of the Yellow School Bus.” This united approach to school bus safety, and the implementation of ‘safety yellow’ continues onto this day keeping kids safe and drivers aware.

PS. So why don’t we have this in Australia? I’m pretty sure we want to keep our kids safe here too? In my home state the local trains (Transport NSW) have all undergone a new branding look, and what do you know… its a deep yellow and orange colour… fancy that!



Are your rubber duckies cadmium free?

The advent of Cadmium Yellow since the industrial revolution it had been the solution to maintaining a vibrant yellow in manufactured items. From house paint to safety equipment and children’s toys it was the ‘go to’ colour for yellow. But cadmium yellow is toxic. An ongoing battle for safety over economy ensues.

Aussie acts for safety

Australian consumer activist, Michael Vernon successfully banned the use of cadmium pigments in plastics often used for toy manufacture, owing to the toxicity of cadmium. Mattel was forced to recall millions of toys in 2007 due to the lead in the cadmium paint used. So take note., not all quality control systems are the same in all countries. That toy ‘Made in China’ that looks the same but at half the price just may have the toxic stuff in it you want to avoid.

Toys from the ‘Cars’ movie using cadmium paint were recalled in 2007.

The cadmium battle continues…

Cadmium colours faced a ban in the European Union in 2014 while the European Chemical Agency considered a complaint from one of the member states. Sweden called for the ban in the European Union, over fears that when artists rinse their brushes in the sink, cadmium enters the water treatment plants and thus seeps into the waste sludge. That sewage is then spread on agricultural land and the Swedish government fears people will become exposed to cadmium through food.

On average, people consume about 30 micrograms of cadmium daily through a normal diet, absorbing 1 to 3 micrograms. There is currently no evidence that these trace levels pose a hazard to healthy adults. Humans can be harmed by a single large exposure to cadmium, and by long-term exposure to higher-than-usual concentrations. 

In agriculture, crops can absorb cadmium from the soil, creating unsafe percentages of metals in food. Some plants such as willow trees and poplars have been found to clean both lead and cadmium from soil. 

Most of the cadmium used today is for nickel-cadmium batteries. Paint suppliers insist that it is not cadmium paint that is responsible for pollution, but rather nickel-cadmium batteries that have been dumped into landfills. However due to the inquiry the sale of cadmiums has been regulated.

New alternatives

Artists concerned about studio safety, price or scarcity of cadmium colours can explore chemically derived yellow pigments such as Hansa Yellow, Azo Yellow, or Indian Yellow. 

The industry has not laid idle since the concern though. You will see many paint companies now offering a new range of Cadmium free colours as safer alternatives to the original colours.

Just one of the many art brands now offering a range of Cadmium Free colours.


A fun ditty to wrap up part 3 of Blazing Yellow by The Beatles – Yellow Submarine



Do you need a colour fix? Here’s a few of my artworks using golden hues available now.

Vine Ripened
Golden Cadenza
Golden Cadenza
Buzz – Streets of New York



Upcoming in the final part of Blazing Yellow you’ll discover what the ‘modern yellows’ have to offer, how yellow doesn’t always mean sunshine and rainbows to all cultures.

Missed Part 1 and 2?

BLAZING YELLOW – PART 1 > Click here

BLAZING YELLOW – PART 2 > 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
© Kristine Ballard 2019