Colours

The Hunt for the Origins of Indian Yellow Pigment

Indian Yellow was clear luminous vivid orange-yellow pigment from India. It was sometimes described as fluorescent and very bright. Indian yellow was used in both oil and watercolour paintings that were great for body and depth of tone. It was from the 15th-century Mughal period. This pigment was a popular choice among fresco painters, oil painters, and watercolorists. The yellow glisten under light.

Hex Code #E3A857 of Indian Yellow

Joseph Mallord William Turner’s painting The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846), had a sheen over the painting when it was in museum exhibits. The painting used large amounts of Indian yellow to create a swirl of yellow glowing light around an angel. A lot of Turner’s paintings used this yellow for sunrises, sunsets, and murky hazy days in his landscape paintings. Turner was a painter that liked using plenty of trendy colours in his paintings. Turner liked experimenting with colours and purchasing newly issued paints when they became available. When he painted with the colour he would grind the colour ball and bind the powder with acacia gum. Other painters used Indian yellow when they could. Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer used Indian yellow in his painting Woman Holding a Ballance (1662-3) in the curtains.

Painting of The Angel Standing in the Sun by William Turner, oil on canvas, 1846
Painting of Woman Holding a Balance by Johannes Vermeer, oil on canvas, 1662-3

They were sold as a large solid form of powdery rotten mustard balls with a bright mango flesh-colour centre. The mounds smelt of ammonia almost like pee. It was the weird urine smell that fueled the rumour of how it was made. The book, The New Pocket Cyclopædia of 1813 said that it was from animal secretions. Many painters like Roger Dewhurst, an English artist, believed this and washed the pigment before use. The animals they thought it was from ranged from camels, buffaloes and cows. Sir Joseph Hooker, a Victorian explorer, botanist and hardened nationalist, decided to research the colour and its weird smell.

A letter from Joseph Hooker was dispatched to Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay (T. N. Mukharji), a civil servant for the Department of Revenue and Agriculture of India, on January 31st, 1883. He wrote back his finding that Indian yellow was only manufactured in Mirzapur, India. The pigment was produced in a tiny suburb of Monghyr, a town in Bengal. Piuri or ‘Indian yellow’ was used to paint the walls, the houses, railing and clothes in Rajput-style. It was made of one of mineral origin and one of animal origin. The colour was prepared by a small group of gwalas (milkmen) herding ill-nourished cows fed exclusively on mango leaves and water. The cows produced three quarts of luminous yellow urine per day. The urine was collected in small earthen pots to be concentrated over a fire to boil each night. The contents from those pots were strained for the sediments which were rolled into a ball by hand. The balls were toasted over a fire then dried in the sun. European importers would wash and purify the balls, separating the greenish and yellow phases. He also sent a sample of Indian yellow to Hooker.

A clay ball of Indian Yellow. Source: Wikipedia.

An alternative theory of the origins of Indian yellow came from was by the Scottish chemist John Stenhouse. He stated that the colour came from plant sap that was precipitated onto magnesium and then boiled down to the consistency of the balls in 1886. In the 1830 book, The Art of Painting in Oil and Fresco: Being a History of the Various Processes and Materials Employed, from Its Discovery, written by French painter Léonor Mérimée wrote that the colour came from sap from a bushy tree.

The colour was banned in 1908, near the end of the Victorian era due to animal cruelty in the marketplace. Not only there were pre-existing laws in the Bengal acts preventing animal cruelty since 1869 but hurting sacred animals was against most people’s religion. The scarce pigment rapidly declined until it eventually disappeared. Indian yellow became commercially unavailable by 1921. It was replaced with lightfast modern chemist-made pigments that are cruelty-free.


Reference:

The Secret Lives of Colour, by St Kassia Clair, John Murray Publishers, 2018, pp. 71–73.

The Brilliant History of Color in Art, by Victoria Finlay, Getty Museum, 2014, pp. 72–73.

BBC Culture – The murky history of the colour yellow

Scroll.in – How the British Raj in India brightened the palette of artist JMW Turner

Artists Network – Turner’s Mysterious Yellow

Royal Talens – Indian Yellow

Banner Credit: Cropped painting of J. M. W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838

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