Thursday, September 9, 2010

More about Yellow

A bright yellow is an important addition to any artists palette. Modern yellow pigments are synthetic, based on mineral or organic mixtures. These colors, such as Cadmium yellow are permanent, and incredibly bright. For a painter wishing to achieve natural effects they demand caution and restraint, otherwise they can become overpowering.

On the other hand, there are less intense and more subtle historical alternatives that are still available today. These are all mineral-based. Natural organic colors such as Weld, are not lightfast, so I would not consider them.


Orpiment is a bright rich yellow, based on the natural mineral arsenic sulfide. The presence of arsenic makes it very toxic. In fact the mineral was once used as a fly poison.

Orpiment was a common feature on palettes going back to ancient times. It was a popular color in Italy during the Renaissance, but was not the preferred choice in Northern Europe. By the 19th century, Orpiment had been wholly replaced by alternatives.

Orpiment's other major flaw is that it is incompatible with lead and copper based pigments. This means it cannot be used in mixtures containing lead white, for instance. I feel that this is far too limiting, so I will not be using this color.

Lead-Tin Yellow

Lead-tin yellow is a synthetic bright opaque yellow, made by combining lead and tin oxide. Most varieties tend to be on the pale side. The color was most popular during the 15th to 17th centuries. Because it contains lead, it is highly toxic. It is also relatively expensive.

An example of lead-tin yellow, from the painting Equestrian Portrait of the Duke de Olivares, by Diego Velázquez.

Naples Yellow

Naples Yellow is also made in the lab, by combining lead and antimony. The color varies depending on how it is made, but tends towards a deeper, more orange opaque yellow. It was gradually adopted as a replacement for Lead-tin yellow, probably around the 16th Century. It is highly toxic.

As lead has been gradually phased out of most products, genuine Naples Yellow has become hard to find. Most colors sold today going by the name are imitations. They are convenience mixtures that lack the beauty or permanence of the real thing. When purchasing the color one must ensure that it is genuine. Real Naples Yellow is expensive, so a low price should raise suspicions.

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