Indian Yellow

Indian Yellow Turner

I think that if I should sing a love song to a pigment – which I’m fairly certain I could, I think it would be very likely I would start with Indian Yellow. If for nothing else, I would sing to note its drippy golden urine, like an afternoon sun, and the yellows in the reds of apples, peaches, and mangoes.

Of all the paints I buy, I find more joy in choosing yellows than in choosing any other color. It’s not that I paint with yellow more than any color, although I do use it to mix into other colors quite a bit. Yellow, like its cousins the incandescent lightbulb and gold, seems always to glow. Even in the tube it seems to draw the eye.

And perhaps of all the yellows I purchase there is none I enjoy more than transparent and delicate Indian Yellow. A color that adds a kind of glazy energy to any color it is mixed with, and maintains a deep earthy awareness of itself despite any surface its laid upon.

The legend, or possible truth, of traditional Indian Yellow, claims that it is made from the urine of cows force-fed mango leaves, collected, dried, and baked in the sun. Although the idea of force-feeding is repellant, I admit  the idea that urine could produce such a lovely hue brings a smile to my face. And certainly the thought is much more dramatic and interesting than any contemporary manufacturing of its magnesium salts. As a pigment, Indian Yellow is often seen in small clumpy muddy balls. These look exotic and delicious, like a sweet you would encounter in a small rural town in Asia or South America.

In any event Indian Yellow is a source of a lot of conversation among those who go geeky at the site of paint and pigments. An excellent post on the subject can be read here.

It seems difficult to say exactly which notable artists have used Indian Yellow. Except of course for Vermeer, who seemed to use every expensive and exotic pigment to its fullest. Certainly, there are a number of contemporary painters who use the current form of the pigment, but when I think of its liquidy golden sunshine state in use, I always tend to think of Turner’s watercolors. Those sunrises and sets, built with layers of urine.

And then of course the pure summer light across John Singer Sargeant’s studies of florentine architecture.