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Indian Yellow: Liquid Light

By Mary Gilkerson
“Last Winter Light”, oil, 4 x 6″, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

“Last Winter Light”, oil, 4 x 6″, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

I call Indian Yellow, one of my favorite colors, liquid light. It’s a strong dye color that mixes incredible yellows and oranges all the way from lemon yellow to something that matches cad yellow deep.

It’s what I use to make the intense colors of reflected light in”Last Winter Light”, above, and the mango color of the late winter sky at sunset in ”Weston Fields, Winter Sunset” below.

“Weston Fields, Winter Sunset”, oil, 4 x 6″, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

“Weston Fields, Winter Sunset”, oil, 4 x 6″, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

But it plays a role in nearly every painting I make. Williamsburg’s Indian Yellow is a rich transparent yellow that shows up in my greens and the colors I use for reflected light. I’ve found that many other brands just don’t have the same clear intensity as the Williamsburg IY.

painting palette

Painting palette.

The story of Indian Yellow has taken on mythic proportions in the history of pigments. The color’s been described since ancient times, supposedly being introduced into India from Persia.

Writers in the 18th and early 19th centuries described several different sources for the early pigment ranging from the urine of animals fed large quantities of turmeric to the urine of cattle force fed on mango leaves. Supposedly the original pigment became rare when the practice of animal cruelty to produce artists pigment was banned in the late 19th century, and this is why we use synthetic versions of the color today.

It seems that the truth is much more pragmatic, both about the color’s origins and its falling out of favor. The chemical compound for the original pigment is magnesium euxanthate, with a plant-based source. The original pigment isn’t very lightfast and also takes an unusually long time to dry, a much more likely reason for its use to be discontinued.

The synthetic Indian Yellow in use today is a combination of nickel azo, hansa yellow and quinacridone burnt orange and dries at roughly the same rate as other colors with a high degree of lightfastness.

Absolutely safe to use and no cow p*** involved at all.

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