~ Vincent Van Gogh Dutch Post-Impressionist Painter, 1853-1890

Today, a painter goes to the art supply store or orders their paints online. In the comfort of his or her studio, they unscrew the paint tube and colors consistent from each tube with information concerning light fastness and intensity appear on their palettes. It’s understandable that not much thought is given to the origin of the color and it’s history. Here are a few insights into yellow.

GAMBOGE: A transparent, bright golden Yellow

Gamboge came from the Garcinia hanburyi tree that is tapped similar to a rubber tree. A large gash is made in the tree and hollowed out bamboo is placed under it. The tree bleeds the resin for a year before it is collected. The yellow paint is poisonous and acts as a powerful diuretic. Watercolor manufacturers have stopped making the paint and have come up with synthetic alternatives. Even today you can pick up a watercolor book and many artists have Gamboge listed on their palettes so it wasn’t until very recently that it was discontinued.

SAFFRON: A brilliant but fugitive yellow

Saffron was used as a vivid dye for cloth but had many other uses in perfume, tea, food and medicine as a pain reliever. It was also believed to be an aphrodisiac that Cleopatra used in her baths. It’s was regularly faked and used as a cheap alternative to gold leaf in manuscripts.

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. The process of extracting the threads from the plant is done entirely by hand.  It is a laborious process where the purple flowers are picked in the morning and the tiny strands removed the same day. Many attempts have been made to mechanize the process but have failed due to the fragility of the flower, hence the exorbitant price.

INDIAN YELLOW: A deep and clean luminescent yellow

I’ve read many articles indicating that Indian Yellow was produced by heating the urine of cattle fed on mango leaves. The process was banned in 1908 due to cruelty. The cows were force fed the leaves (not their natural diet) and ultimately killed them. The paint was said to have an ammonia smell to it…not something you especially want to whiff while painting. I’m not so sure this one is true but it makes for an interesting story.

The next time you’re painting, keep in mind the history of color and what it took for artists to achieve luminosity and brilliance in their paints. Consider the poisonous paint, the duplicity of a substitute yellow for gold leaf or the possibility of a cruel paint from cows.