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Paint Pigment: Indian Yellow

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Indian yellow paint pigment at Winsor and Newton museum

Balls of Indian Yellow on display at Winsor & Newton's museum.

Photo © Winsor & Newton

Characteristics: A warm, golden yellow pigment used in watercolors and oils.

Common/Other Names: Called piuri or peori in India.

Color Index Name: -
(Color Index Explained)

Color Index Number: -

Pigment Origin: Organic pigment derived from the urine of cows fed mango leaves (historical pigment). Modern replacements are synthetic pigments.

Used for Painting: From 17th century to early 20th.

Opacity/Transparency: Transparent.
(Opacity Explained)

Tinting Ability: -
(Tinting strength explained)

Lightfastness Rating: -
(Lightfastness explained)

Specific Notes:
Indian Yellow is a pigment which originated, as the name suggests, in India. It is believed to have first been used in Europe by Dutch artists in the 17th century (the Dutch having extensive trading links with India by then) and by the end of the eighteenth century across Europe.

Beautiful as the color was, the pigment was said to be foul-smelling its raw form (hard, dirty, yellow balls of pigment) and the origins much speculated over. An investigation in 1880s by the Journal of the Society of Arts in London1 found it was created in the town of Monghyr in India from the urine of cattle fed only mango leaves.

The urine was "heated in order to precipate the yellow matter, then strained, pressed into lumps by hand and dried."2 It's the mango not the urine that's crucial to the color: "The colourant is a calcium or magnesium salt of an organic acid released by the mango."3 By the early twentieth century the pigment was no longer available, although you can find modern substitutes sold under the name "Indian yellow".

The photo shows lumps of Indian yellow pigment in the Winsor and Newton museum. When I visited in February 2009, W&N Technical Advisor Paul Robinson told me any thoughts he might have had about the balls possibly being replicas rather than real were dispelled by the smell the first time he opened the cabinet.

References:
1. Journal of the Society of Arts, xxxii (1883-84), p16-17; Quoted in Artists' Pigments c.1600-1835 by RD Harley, p117.
2. Artists' Pigments c.1600-1835 by RD Harley, p117.
3. Bright Earth by Philip Ball, p156.

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