Turner's Mysterious Yellow - Perspectives No. 261

Turner’s Mysterious Yellow

Perspectives No. 261

Abergavenny Bridge, Monmountshire watercolor by J. M. W. Turner
Abergavenny Bridge, Monmountshire     Watercolor     J.M.W. Turner

   A favorite pigment color in our watercolor palettes has always been Holbein's Indian Yellow. We were distraught when it was discontinued in 2012. When we contacted Holbein to ask them why it had been discontinued and if they planned to bring it back, they replied that "changes have been made to the watercolor line," but didn't give a reason for the discontinuation of this wonderful color.

   This led us to doing a little research on the history of Indian Yellow, one of the traditional colors used by J.M.W. Turner. What we thought would be a straightforward fact-finding mission left us scratching our heads. The story of Indian Yellow’s origins and manufacture is shrouded in mystery and contradictory accounts.

   A popular story relies on hearsay and a single letter written by Mr. T. N. Mukharji sent to the Society of Arts in London in 1883. In it, he described the process of making Indian Yellow as consisting of collecting the urine of cattle left to roam in mango orchards in the Bihar province of India. In one version of this story it was said that the cows were made to urinate into buckets on command. The urine was then concentrated over fire, filtered through cloth and made into balls left to dry in the sun. Another version says that the urine was collected somehow, then mixed with clay and rolled into small balls of about three to four ounces. The mystery is deepened by other anecdotal stories, which claim that in the early 1900s, a law was passed in India which prohibited production of the color, due to the cruelty inflicted on the cows. But the law can't seem to be found in historical records. For her 2004 book Color: A Natural History of the Palette, Victoria Finlay searched in both the India Library in London and the National Library in Calcutta for legal records concerning the supposed banning of Indian Yellow production, and found none.

   Because this story comes from a single letter, there has been much dispute over its veracity. In 1839, M.J.F.L. Merinee wrote in the book, The Art of Painting in Oil and in Fresco, that the color may be extracted from a large shrub called memecylon tinctorium (used by natives for yellow dye) which exudes the smell of cow urine. In 1844 a German chemist, John Stenhouse, examined balls of the color and also concluded that it was of vegetable origin. Winsor and Newton, however, reiterates the mango-eating/cow urine story on their website as the explanation for Indian Yellow's origins. Lumps of the pigment can be viewed in the museum cabinets of their headquarters in the UK.

   What we do know is that the Indian Yellow of the last century or so has been manufactured chemically and thankfully does not smell of urine. Why Holbein has discontinued their version of the color (our favorite) is unknown, but Winsor and Newton, Sennelier and other manufacturers still carry their particular formulations of it.

   (Synthetic Indian yellow hue is a mixture of nickel azo, hansa yellow, and quinacridone burnt orange. It is also known as azo yellow light and deep, or nickel azo yellow.)





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