Pigment of the Month: Indian Yellow

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This month at The Conservation Center, we were inspired by the marvelous hues of autumn, as our hometown of Chicago is being swiftly engulfed by red, orange, and yellow leaves. So we decided to revive our Pigment of the Month segment. For the month of October, we chose a beautiful and historically fascinating yellow pigment- perfect for fall- with a very interesting story behind it.

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Indian Yellow is a vivid orange-yellow pigment that originates from India in the 15th century and was mostly used there during the Mughal period. It was introduced to European artists shortly thereafter, where it was used until it became commercially unavailable in the early 20th century. This pigment was a popular choice among frescoists, oil painters, and watercolorists, although it was said to have an unpleasant odor.

 “Shankara Ragaputra,” Megha Raga, 1610-1620

“Shankara Ragaputra,” Megha Raga, 1610-1620

This odor may stem from the alleged original source of the pigment— cow urine. Story goes that the cattle responsible for Indian Yellow were only fed water and mango leaves, ingredients that supposedly made their urine (and thereby the pigment) especially luminescent.

 “Sun Setting Over a Lake,” JMW Turner, 1840

“Sun Setting Over a Lake,” JMW Turner, 1840

The cow urine would be collected and dried, creating a raw pigment that could then be mixed with oil, water, or any other binder. However, this grueling process left the cows malnourished and was eventually outlawed.

 “Woman Holding a Balance,” Johannes Vermeer, 1662-3

“Woman Holding a Balance,” Johannes Vermeer, 1662-3

The bright color is known in many Indian paintings as well as European works, especially Northern Europe, since the Dutch had strong trading links with India. Some of these works include “Woman Holding a Balance” by Johannes Vermeer and “Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh, and various landscapes of JMW Turner.

 “Starry Night,” Vincent van Gogh, 1889

“Starry Night,” Vincent van Gogh, 1889

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