Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Better Know the Historic Palette:
Who You Callin' Yeller?

Hal Jordan AKA Green Lantern

"You say his name is 'The Yellow Fellow'?  Sorry Justice League," (cough, cough). "I don't think I can help you save the world today.  Er, I think I'm coming down with a cold."

The one weakness of Green Lantern's Power Ring :  The color yellow. 

Before reading too much further, take the time to see if you can correctly identify which color swatch in the chart below is Naples Yellow.

Yellow.  When I was younger, I could not imagine disliking a hue more than I disliked yellow.  If there was crayon in my crayon box that always looked unused, it had to be yellow.  It was just so garish! 

But when I began oil painting in college, I knew I could avoid yellow no longer.  It is such an important hue, it had to be on my palette.  I just had to find a yellow pigment I liked;  unfortunately, some bad choices made sure that yellow was still far from being endearing to me.

The first three tubes of yellow oil paint I purchased were very basic colors.  They were Winsor & Newton Yellow Ochre, Winsor & Newton Naples Yellow, and Winsor & Newton Winton Cadmium Yellow Medium Hue.  I am pretty sure I purchased the yellow ochre at the recommendation of a friend with more painting experience than I (it could not have been the teachers, who were too free from stricture as to advise a particular palette - they instead suggested that, were I to complete my assignments in "wax and chicken blood," it was fine with them).  My friend probably also recommended I purchase Cadmium Yellow, but I could not afford a tube of the real stuff, so I bought the student grade hue instead;  it was my aesthetic decision to pick up the "Medium" hue as opposed to the "Light" variety.  The final tube I picked up was Naples Yellow, which just looked like a color I could work with;  its chroma was more on the neutral side, and I thought I could make use of it in skin tones.

Now, before this begins to sound like an article aimed at criticizing Winsor & Newton oil paints, I must say that that is not my goal at all.  I think you should always buy the best paints you can afford, and at the time, Winsor & Newton were the best I could afford.  They were also the easiest to buy, as the student store and the local art store both carried the brand, and little, if any, of their competitor's products.  And though Winsor & Newton now makes up the smallest portion of my regular palette, I probably own more tubes of Winsor & Newton than all of the tubes I have from other manufacturers, combined.  I find Winsor & Newton paints superior to many of the other brands out there;  it just happens that this story involves a beginner painter using their paints.

These first three tubes of yellow oil paint were disappointing.  The Yellow Ochre was a nice hue, but I hated the feel of it;  it was too gritty. The Cadmium Yellow Medium Hue was too transparent and lacking in pigment density, plus, as it turned out, adding white to the Medium hue did not make the Light hue, as I had naively hoped when I made my purchase.  But the worst to me was the Naples Yellow, which I think hurt me so much because I thought we were going to be the best of friends, and instead it stabbed me in the back.  Squeezing it out of the tube seemed much like pushing Play Doh through a toy extruder . . . and trying to paint with it, well, did not improve upon the comparison with modeling clay.  Other artists suggested I just mix my own Naples Yellow from Titanium White and Raw Sienna, so I did, and though it was not an exact match, it was close enough, and I liked the resulting paint handling much better than that of the tubed variety.  In the end, buying the Naples Yellow just felt like a waste of money, and on a college student budget, that was painful to bear.†

Naples Yellow color swatch from the Winsor & Newton website

As I got older, and was exposed to more artists of the past, I was surprised to see how often Naples Yellow appeared on their palettes.  Were they using it because the alternatives were so few?  Couldn't they just mix a suitable replacement?  Was it just a color of convenience?  It didn't make sense to me.

The solution to that perplexity is in the history of Naples Yellow, and in that little color chart earlier in the post.

So which color swatch did you pick?  What if I told you it was a trick question?  Not the kind where it turns out that all of the colors are actually labelled as "Naples Yellow," (I thought about doing that, but that would have meant buying up a bunch of paints I probably wouldn't end up using, and since my budget now is only slightly better than that of a college art student's, I decided to save some money, and use tubed colors out of my own paintbox).  It turns out that two of the swatches are Naples Yellow:  #3, Winsor & Newton Naples Yellow, and #5, Natural Pigments Rublev Genuine Naples Yellow.  And they don't look much alike.

L:  Natural Pigments Rublev Genuine Naples Yellow Light
R:  Winsor & Newton Naples Yellow

The color which became known as "Naples Yellow" is an ancient, artificial pigment, historically made by fusing lead and antimony oxides together through controlled heating.  By such a process, it has been manufactured since the 14th century B.C.E., and was, for many years, the only yellow colorant available.  As an artist's pigment it reached the height of its popularity between 1750 and 1850 before being replaced by lead chromate yellow and finally by cadmium sulfide yellow.¹

Why and when lead antimony yellow took on the name "Naples Yellow" is unclear.  Typically, a pigment which takes on a place name does so because its source material is from that region – e.g. Raw Sienna pigment was originally made from soil taken from the area around Sienna, Italy – however, there are no antimony deposits of significance in Naples, Italy.  But there are large sources of antimony just up the coast from Naples in southern Tuscany, and directly west of Naples on the nearby Mediterranean island of Sardinia.  Since Naples Yellow is an artificial color, perhaps the city of Naples was where the raw materials were brought to be transformed into lead antimony, and therefore it was the distribution center for the pigment.  According to Jean-François-Léonor Mérimée, author of the the early 19th century book, The Art of Painting in Oil, and in Fresco (1839), the appellation "Naples Yellow" (jaune de Naples) was likely bestowed upon the color by the French, who would have called it such because they felt Naples produced the highest quality of the pigment.² 

Genuine Naples Yellow Light (Natural Pigments)

There were several different methods for producing Naples Yellow, but by 1835³, it seems the various makers had reached a consensus as to what was the accepted, best recipe for making the pigment.  By changing the proportions of the lead and antimony within that recipe, a variety of yellows could be produced, from a bright lemon⁴ to a deep, warm, gold⁵ (similar to the range found in cadmium yellows).  No matter the shade, lead antimony Naples Yellow was a reliable, opaque, and  rapid-drying paint.

Genuine Naples Yellow, Reddish (Kremer Pigments)

It was not long, however, before paint makers began substituting the materials in Naples Yellow, while still selling it under the same name.  According to Leslie Carlyle, Head of Conservation at the Tate Museum, London, by 1859, much of the Naples Yellow being sold was actually a mixture of cadmium yellow and lead white.⁶  By 1892, many colormen had replaced lead white with zinc white, and some had even begun replacing cadmium yellow with Indian Yellow.⁷  In time, Naples Yellow pigment was generally divided into two separate colors:  one that resembled the original - an opaque, greenish yellow - and a second which became known as French Naples Yellow - an opaque orange-yellow.⁸

L:  Vasari Genuine Naples Yellow Light
R:  Vasari Naples Yellow Extra (a lead-free imitation;  a paler version of their Yellow Ochre)

So why does the Naples Yellow sold today by Winsor & Newton (and a few others for that matter) seem less chromatic and more "earthy" than we would expect from early descriptions of lead-antimony yellow, and from what other modern color makers sell as "Genuine Naples Yellow"?

L:  Michael Harding Genuine Naples Yellow Light (Lead Antinomiate)
R:  Michael Harding Naples Yellow (Titanium Antimony Chromiumoxide)

Rest assured, the Naples Yellow oil paint Winsor & Newton sells is a quality product.  It is made from basic lead carbonate, Zinc oxide, Oxide of Chromium, Antimony, and Titanium;  or in other terms, PW1 (lead white), PW4 (zinc white), and PBr24 (chrome titanate brown).  So technically, Winsor & Newton's Naples Yellow is still a lead-antimony yellow, just like those made by other manufacturers and labelled as "genuine."  But brown?  Why is brown in there?

PBr24 can often be purchased from China

It's likely that the current Winsor & Newton Naples Yellow is a modern substitution for their own pigment of the same name from much earlier.  In a letter written to the artist George Frederick Watts in 1879, Arthur Newton explained what was in his company's Naples Yellow pigment:  Flake White, Oxford Ochre, and a small amount of Cadmium Yellow (with more Cadmium in the pale varieties).⁹  This means that before the end of the 19th century, Winsor & Newton was already using yellow-brown earth in their Naples Yellow paint.  Again, why?  

Gamblin Colors asserts on their website that "'Naples Yellow' means more a color than a chemical composition."
Gamblin Naples Yellow Hue
(Zinc oxide, concentrated cadmium sulfide, natural hydrated iron oxide - PW4, PY37, PY43)

I can offer two possible answers, but both are just suppositions on my part.  By the time Arthur Newton detailed the ingredients of his Naples Yellow, there had already been concerns expressed about lead white in paint - not because of lead's toxicity to painters, but because some worried it was harmful to the permanence of paintings.  If Winsor & Newton reacted to these concerns, they may have decreased the lead in their Naples Yellow pigment, increasing the proportion of antimony to lead in their mixture. And when too much antimony is used, the result is a yellow which is darker and earthier.¹⁰  The second possibility is that lead-antimony yellow, is not "genuine Naples Yellow" after all, and that Winsor & Newton's recipe containing yellow earth may actually be more genuine.  There are those who believe that the original Naples Yellow, which the Italians called "Giallolino," had as its source material a yellow, volcanic sand found in deposits around Naples.¹¹  Lead-antimony yellow would then have actually been a replacement for the original, and that Winsor & Newton's Naples Yellow is, in appearance, truer.  I cannot, however, verify either of these hypotheses.

It is possible that the earlier lead-antimony yellow, which was used in ceramic glazes was more of an earth color, but by the time the pigment was being used in oil colors, I believe it was a more chromatic yellow, like that being sold today under the name "Genuine Naples Yellow."  The main reason for this is that the color of the paint sold by Winsor & Newton, Holbein, Gamblin, Old Holland, Lefranc & Bourgeois, Rembrandt, et al., and called Naples Yellow can easily be reproduced with other colors on the palette.  Arthur Newton offered one mixture (lead white for opacity, ochre, and cadmium yellow), and other recipes (including lead white, raw sienna, and cadmium yellow;  zinc white, raw sienna, and chrome yellow;  etc.) abound.  Antimony yellow, particularly the lightest variety, would have been an unique color on the palette, which could not have been reproduced by an admixture of other pigments (much in the same way Cadmium Yellow Light cannot be made through the mixing of, for example, an earth yellow plus white).  An earthy Naples Yellow is unnecessary, and just a color of convenience, whereas a pure, chromatic yellow would have been a treasure.  I believe it is this bright yellow which was being called "Naples Yellow" when the production of the color had been standardized in the 1830s.

What does this all mean then?  A pigment is more than just the name by which it is sold.  Be wary of names, and instead pay attention to the composition.  This is especially true if you are trying to replicate a historic palette, where it is very likely that artists of the past were using paints which only loosely correspond to the majority of their modern-day namesakes.

The yellows in the background of this painting were created using Natural Pigments Rublev Genuine Naples Yellow Light,  Natural Pigments Rublev Lead White, and Old Holland Italian Brown Pink Lake.

I for one still dislike Winsor & Newton's Naples Yellow, and all those other Naples Yellows that resemble it in color.  But in Antimony Yellow (Genuine Naples Yellow), I have found my favorite chromatic yellow.  It has great covering power, dries quickly, and is as bright as cadmium yellow, but greys more quickly in tints.  If this was indeed the "Naples Yellow" on a historic palette (specifically one used in the 19th century), I can definitely see its appeal.


1.  Old Holland Brilliant Yellow Light*
2. Vasari Brilliant Yellow Light*
3. Winsor & Newton Naples Yellow
4. Robert Doak Lead Tin Yellow
5. Natural Pigments Rublev Genuine Naples Yellow Light
6. Winsor & Newton Cadmium Yellow Light
7. Michael Harding Bright Yellow Lake

*Brilliant Yellow (jaune brilliant) was originally created as a substitute for Naples Yellow.  It first appeared in the Winsor & Newton catalog in 1883.¹²  It was first made from chrome yellow and lead white, but is now often made from a white, yellow, and either a red or orange.

† I feel I should point out here that my favorite color at the time was also a yellow, but I just did not think of the color as being part of that hue family.  The color was Raw Umber, which I considered "brown;"  it would be years before I saw Raw Umber as a yellow.  Also, I should add that tastes change with experience.  I understand my paints better today then I did when I first began, and see a use for paints with "more body" now, than I did then.

¹ O'Hanlon, George, "Naples Yellow Light:  Origin and History," retrieved February 27, 2013 from [www.naturalpigments.com/detail.asp?PRODUCT_ID=437-54S]
² Mérimée, Jean-François-Léonor, The Art of Painting in Oil, and in Fresco, (Whittaker & Co., London, 1839), p. 99.
³ Carlyle, Leslie, The Artist's Assistant, (Archetype Publications, London, 2002), p. 528.
⁴ Ibbetson, Julius Caesar, An Accidence, or Gamut, of Painting in Oils, (Harvey And Darton, London, 1828), p. 6.
⁵ Field, George, Chromatography or a Treatise on Colours and Pigments, (Tilt and Bogue, London, 1841), p. 145.
⁶ Carlyle, p. 528.
⁷ Carlyle, p. 529.
⁸ Edwards, J., The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Colours, (Winsor & Newton, London, 1859), pp. 18-19.
⁹ Carlyle, p. 528.
¹⁰ Carlyle, p. 528.
¹¹ De Massoul, Constant, A Treatise on the Art of Painting, (self-published, London, 1797), p. 137.
¹² Carlyle, p. 526.


Theresa Grillo Laird said...

Very interesting and well researched. Funny how people react differently to color. Yellow in all it's shades is my favorite color, while purple actually made me angry to look at as a young child.

Wim Van Aalst said...

Maybe the reason genuine napels yellow was abandoned was the fact that the pigment turns grey when it makes contact with metal; it therefor needs to be ground on a stone mill, not a steel one...

innisart said...

Hi Wim-

From what I understand, it's not contact with metal that turns the pigment grey, per se, it's the grinding of the pigment particles against steel which introduces small particles of steel into the powder. The Naples Yellow pigment remains yellow; there is just a contaminant introduced into the pigment. It won't "infect" the pigment, it's actually steel being added to the mix. It's the shape of the Naples particles that abrades the steel.

I mix mine on a glass slab with a plastic knife. Historically, an ivory knife was recommended, but I've yet to see one, and don't expect I will!

Good to hear from you.

Luana Manhães said...

Great post!

Jen Sendall said...

I made up my own (also using a plastic knife)and was very surprised at the brilliance and coolness of the colour, I used the pigment put out by Cornelissons of London, it looks very much like the Rublev in your list.
I've done my first couple of paintings with it and find it holds up very well in a mix, and is capable of warming a white with very little loss of value.