The colour Yellow

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This week I wanted to focus on colour again and so the next primary I want to look at is yellow.

Yellow symbolises happiness, the summer sun, warmth and is said to promote happiness more than any of the many other colours around us, and that is the same in most cultures. Yellow is thought to influence the left side of the human brain which helps to promote analytical thinking.

We artists are told that the three primary colours: red; yellow; and blue cannot be made, hence their name primary but as I disproved with red, I shall do the same here with yellow. Yes, yellow can be made. I do hope all of you who tried out making red for yourselves after my post will have a go at this, too.

So, the two colours you need to make a yellow hue are a combination of red and green. In equal parts they can make a vibrant bright yellow shade. So, you artists out there, just ponder on this for a moment. Red and green can make yellow. Well, green is made using blue and yellow so all I ever knew about the colour wheel and primary colours etc., has gone out the window. I would love to know if you feel the same.

Historically, yellow can be found in paintings going all the way back to both ancient Egypt and Rome. In fact, it has even been found in cave paintings dating back to prehistoric times (45,000 BCE, apparently).

As yellow is associated with the sun and early religions worshipped the sun, yellow was present in the works showing sun gods. With its association with sun and sunlight, yellow is seen as a warm colour adding to the notion of happiness and optimism.

I said in the first of my red blogs that we have come to associate colours from an emotional standpoint, but the science is different. Being short, blue wavelengths transmit more energy than the longer wavelengths transmitted by red and yellow tones.

As I said before, consider flames. Blue flames actually burn hotter than orange or yellow ones so, from the scientist’s perspective at least, yellow and red really are “cooler” than blue.

If you really want a bit more of the science the chart below shows the wavelengths of colour, measured in nanometres (nm), which might help to make sense of all this. By the way, a nanometre is equal to one billionth of a metre, whilst the wavelength is the spatial period, i.e. the distance over which a wave’s shape repeats.

The wavelengths of visible light are:

•       Violet: 380–450 nm (688–789 THz frequency)

•       Blue: 450–495 nm

•       Green: 495–570 nm

•       Yellow: 570–590 nm

•       Orange: 590–620 nm

•       Red: 620–750 nm (400–484 THz frequency)

THz (the abbreviation of terahertz) is a unit of measurement equal to one trillion hertz. That’s probably more than you need to know.

Anyway, back to the religious bit. Yellow is often used in religious paintings when depicting Judas, as in Christianity the colour symbolises deceit. I don’t want to get into a big religious argument here but take any pre-Christian celebration, or any element of positivity really, and when the Christians rolled in, they turned those ancient and pagan festivals, positive thoughts and celebrations into negatives and the colour thing is really another example. Just like All Hallows was turned into Halloween and then a positive Christian element was added. In this case, All Saints Day was introduced to counter what the Christians decided was the “evil” of All Hallows.

I am not a Paganist, but I have done some fairly in-depth research into Paganism and the impact of the Roman Catholic church on the people of Great Britain but, for now, let’s get back to the colour yellow. So, as the church decided that Judas Iscariot should be depicted wearing a yellow robe, yellow became a symbol of cowardice and/or duplicity. People outside of the Christian faith were shown in yellow and during the Renaissance for instance Jewish people were always shown wearing yellow.

According to French historian Michel Pastoureau, author of Yellow: The History of a Colour, negative associations of yellow began to dominate from the 14th century as it became the colour of “envy, jealousy, lying, dishonour and treason”. From the late Middle Ages onwards, yellow was regarded as “a false, duplicitous colour that cannot be trusted”. Such ideas were reinforced by the humoral medicine of the period, according to which yellow bile was associated with a choleric temperament which was thought to be violent, unstable, rancorous, and hypocritical.

Sadly, this association was resurrected for the Jewish population in Europe during the second world war. The Nazis made them wear a yellow star to show their “difference” from the rest of the people they had conquered. In America, men who refused to go to war were called yellow bellies. We human beings are revolting sometimes.

Yellow ochre is thought to be one of the oldest pigments in existence and is also one of the darkest of yellows. This pigment was made from the natural ochre mineral. In the 1920s an artificial substitute was discovered and that it still used today.  

When thinking about more recent uses of yellow, Vincent Van Gogh is notable for using it in his sunflower paintings and the painting Yellow House. He also contrasted yellow with blue in both The Starry Night and Irises. A lesser-known artwork by Van Gogh, Quinces, Pears, Lemons and Grapes, was painted almost exclusively in yellow but it shows his skill as an artist in producing a coherent still life.

Picasso used yellow during his blue period as a contrast to and a highlighter for objects and faces in his works. Renoir used yellow to give hair a shiny quality as well as to highlight where he wanted the viewer to look as seen on the boat in The Skiff.

There are many more example of how artists used yellow but outside of the world of painters, yellow has been employed by The Beatles as in their famous song Yellow Submarine, Coldplay wrote an entire song called Yellow. In marketing, yellow is the livery colour for big names like MacDonalds, Hertz, Subway, Good Year, Best Buy and in the Batman symbol. In New York the majority of taxi cabs are yellow (as they are in many cities throughout the world) so that they stand out on the city streets and yellow is often incorporated into emergency vehicles as it stands out so well against black.  

Surprisingly, despite being so closely associated with warmth and happiness, yellow is not a popular colour. The majority of people cite blue as their favourite with as few as six percent preferring yellow compared to about 45% of people opting for blue. 

Yellow is still widely used in the art world, not only to make greens but also to represent gold in paintings. Whilst gold is a colour I will no doubt touch on in the coming months, it is worth mentioning here that gold has been revered, celebrated, admired and valued throughout time and thankfully still is today.

NB Just for the record, I do not get paid to endorse any of the people or brands I have mentioned above.

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