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Yellow, the bright multifaceted colour of sun, energy and a cautious optimism.

Updated: Jun 23

Yellow paint
Image by Luis Quintero -

This is my very first post about each individual color on the color wheel and I'm starting with the color "yellow".

Yellow is the chromatic color between green and orange in the light spectrum and has a dominant wavelength of around 575-585 nm. It is the brightest color on the color wheel, which we automatically associate with sun, summer and warmth, and one of the primary colors in the subtractive color mixing models RYB and CMY(K).

In the additive RGB color mixing model, however, it is a secondary color made from the union of red and green.

In this post I will talk about the origin of the color name itself, its meaning in psychology and symbolism, as well as the main pigments and standards for art. I hope you will enjoy it.

Where does the colour name "yellow" come from?

The word “yellow” comes from the old English words geolu, geolwe meaning yellow/yellowish.

What does the colour yellow mean in psychology?

Yellow is the colour of the sun and as the sun is bright, warm intense. It is no accident that yellow is usually used to symbolize strong feelings such as joy, happiness, optimism and wealthy. Opposite to black, which usually is a synonym for dark and dull, it is the embodiment of enlightenment and enthusiasm. In combination with other colours (tertiary colours) it underlines the sense of energy and vitality of the shade.

Nevertheless the colour yellow, in a negative way, can be also used to signalize caution, dishonesty, cowardice, jealousy, deceit, illness (in the past it was related to different deseases such as the yellow fever), hazard and betrayal.

What are the most important yellow pigments?

Yellow pigments came in past mainly from highly toxic substances such as cadmium, chrome, lead or orpiment from arsenic sulphide. For this reason they are nowadays been substituted by synthetic pigments such as azo-dye based pigments like Hansa Yellow or aryalide yellow. The other non-toxic and oldest source for yellow pigments are the earth ochres.

Yellow (absorption) pigments are indicated with the letters PY in the The Color of Art Pigment Database.

The most important pigments are:

  • PY1/PY3 Hansa Yellow – usually considered a primary colour.

  • PY35/PY37 Cadmium yellow (cadmium sulphite)

  • PY42 Yellow Iron Oxide

  • PY43 Natural Yellow Iron Oxide

  • PY74 Arylide Yellow

  • PY126 Diarylide Yellow

  • PY175 Benzimidazolone Yellow

What are the most common shades of yellow?

The colour yellow can range from more cool tones, such as lemon yellow or yellow-green to more warm tones such as yellow ochre or yellow-orange.

Some of the most important yellow variations are cream (a pale tint o yellow), royal yellow (or Chinese/Imperial yellow), pear, chartreuse yellow, safety yellow.

Below I have listed the most important yellows in paints.

Indian Yellow

It is a warm yellow whose name derives from the fact that the main pigment (obtained by concentrated urine of cows that had been fed only on mango leaves.) was imported from India. Nowadays the colour has been substituted by other pigments such as Cadmium Yellow Deep (PY35) or Diarylide Yellow (PY216), which is based on the classical Indian yellow.

Lemon Yellow

Lemon Yellow is a very versatile cool yellow with a colour range that varies from creamy, butter-like shades, to powerful and bright greenish hues. Due to the fact that it is produced using different pigments such as Cadmium Yellow Lemon (PY35), Hansa Yellow Light (PY3), Benzimidazolone Yellow (PY175), etc., it can behave differently when mixed with other colours. (Read more).

Naples Yellow

Naples Yellow is a lead antimoniate based yellow pigment and one of the most ancient synthetic pigments ever produced. The very first manufacturer of this were most probably the ancient Egyptians.

The name “Naples” appeared only during the 17th century, when it was largely widespread the (wrong) idea that the pigment was obtained from the Neopolitan volcanic stone.

In paintings it was at first as a pure paint until the 17th century. Then, during the 18th it was substituted by a mixture of pigments included zinc white, chrome yellow, yellow ochre. Today the colour Naples Yellow is made of different pigments ranging from yellow, brown, to orange. (Read more).

Yellow Ochre

Yellow Ochre (also called Gold Ochre) is an earthy tone (together with sienna and umber), produced either from a synthetic iron oxide pigment (PY42) or a natural yellow ochre alternative (PY43), and almost used for painting landscapes. It is one of the members of the ochre family which includes red ochre, purple ochre and brown ochre.

Cadmium Yellow

The most important cadmium sulphide based yellow pigment is PY35/PY37 Cadmium Yellow.

Cadmium Yellow pigment belongs to the cadmium pigments family and its tone varies from Light, Medium and Deep. The light shade is usually called Cadmium Yellow Lemon; the darkest Cadmium Yellow Deep.

The pigment Cadmium Yellow was first discovered in 1817 by the German chemist Friedrich Stromeyer, who observed that the metal cadmium combined with zinc sulphur created a yellow compound. Before then the main yellow pigment used by artists was “Orpiment” (PY39), from the Latin word “auripigmentum” meaning “gold pigment”. This was substituted by cadmium yellow due to its high toxicity (it contains arsenic).

Tertiary shades of Yellow


Yellow-orange is a colour made of 50% orange and 50% yellow. It is a tertiary colour and its complementary is blue-green. Similar to yellow, it symbolizes excitement, vitality, energy and warmth. Shades of yellow-orange are gold (or golden), tangerine, saffron.


Yellow-green is a colour made of 50% green and 50% yellow. It is a tertiary colour and its complementary is red-violet. Sometimes it is called lime green or chartreuse.

  • Chartreuse. The colour “Chartreuse” owes its name to the French liqueur, produced by monks in the French Chartrusian Mountains, called “green chartreuse”. The colour chartreuse symbolizes acceptance, distinction, cheerfulness, imagination.

  • Lime. Lime is another yellow-green shade, whose name derives from the citrus fruit called the same way. Sometimes it also called yellow-green, lemon-lime (a fluorescent chartreuse tone), lime green, or bitter lime. Other variations of it are Bright lime, Arctic-lime, Peridot, Volt, Electric lime and French lime.

Final words.

This was my first stop on our journey to discover the color wheel. As we have seen, yellow is a very complex colour, full of vitality, with wonderful shades and rich in meaning. Is yellow your favourite colour?

Thank you for reading. If you like the post, leave a like, a comment and don't forget to follow my blog, Instagram and Threads and share the content on your social media.

In my next posts I will have a look at the next energizing colour on the wheel: orange.

Until then I hope you will have a great creative day!



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