Here Comes the Sun

Bright yellow paint strip


Yellow is the brightest, most active colour. Put a dab of yellow into your painting and see how it zips about!

Being brightest and warmest of the colours, yellow also inhabits the closest part of the picture plane. Notice how yellowish greens seem to sit forward of the bluish ones.

Being the brightest sometimes has its disadvantages. Yellow is quickly changed into another hue with the smallest addition of another colour. On either side of the colour wheel, a pinch of green and yellow becomes a bright, acidic green, and a touch of orange pulls it into a deep saffron. Mix across the colour wheel and violet rapidly turns yellow into lovely, dirty, quince-like tones.

Its brightness also tempers the covering power of even the most opaque yellow. Several coats are necessary to achieve brilliance when painting Cadmium Yellow over dark grounds.


Top left to right: Golden Acrylic Titanate Yellow, Golden Acrylic Cadmium Primrose, Golden Acrylic Cadmium Yellow Light, Golden Acrylic Cadmium Yellow Medium, Schmincke Norma Oil Cadmium Yellow Deep. Bottom left to right: Schmincke Horadam Rutile Yellow, Schmincke Horadam Chromium Yellow Hue Light, Schmincke Norma Oil Chrome Yellow Hue Middle, Schmincke Chrome Yellow Hue Deep, Schmincke Horadam Turner’s Yellow.


Of course, within the hue “yellow”, there are varying degrees of brilliance, colour temperature, and opacity. Metals and manmade yellows are much brighter than yellow earths, and even within the range of Cadmiums, the yellows range from cold lemon yellow to deep, warm egg yolk. Many yellows are opaque (with the proviso above), with only a couple of translucent ones commonly available outside of watercolours: Indian Yellow and Nickel Azo Yellow.

These variations and the inherent brightness of yellow make it highly nuanced for mixing. When we mix paint, the result is always darker, so starting from the brightest possible point gives us most variance. Make very small additions of another colour to your yellow, and watch to see when the required tone is reached.


Left to right, top to bottom: Schmincke Horadam Watercolours Aureolin, Chromium Yellow Hue Deep, Rutile Yellow, and Yellow Raw Ochre are mixed with Cobalt Blue Light to produce four very different greens.


As well as creating greens when combined with green, blue or black, yellow makes a great base for orange, browns, and greys. Mixed with the same blue, a bright cool yellow will create a totally different green than a warm yellow or an earth yellow. 


Left to right: Schmincke Norma Oil Naples Yellow Deep, Schmincke Norma Oil Yellow Ochre, Schmincke Horadam Yellow Raw Ochre, Schmincke Horadam Transparent Ochre, Schmincke Horadam Raw Sienna.


Until the late 19th Century, painters had to make do with just a few yellows. Earth yellows made from clays containing iron were readily available, but bright hues were in short supply and usually highly toxic, made from lead or arsenic. While some of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings have suffered from his use of the first, unstable batches, Cadmium Yellow was a major breakthrough and has since developed into a stable, much loved range of yellows. Normal use of Cadmium, avoiding any dust, is considered safe, but more modern pigments offer heavy metal-free alternatives: vanadium and benzimidazolone also provide opaque, highly lightfast yellows. Manmade alloys and azo pigments fill out the offering, and today we have dozens of exciting yellows to choose from.


Top left to right: Schmincke Aqua Drop Lemon Yellow, Schmincke Aerocolor Primary Yellow, Schmincke Aerocolor Sunbeam Yellow, Schmincke Horadam Chromium Yellow Hue Deep, Schmincke Norma Oil Indian Yellow. Bottom left to right: Schmincke Horadam Transparent Yellow, Schmincke Horadam Aureolin Hue, Schmincke Horadam Pure Yellow, Schmincke Norma Oil Brilliant Yellow, Golden Acrylic Bismuth Vanadate Yellow.


While many painters stick to standard yellows such as Lemon or Cadmium Medium, there are 25 yellows across acrylic, watercolour, and oilcolour shown above, all with unique character either used pure or in mixtures. So whether you’re wanting mellow yellow or sunshine superman, let this feisty segment of the colour wheel bounce around your painting, either pure or in combination with your other colours. It’s a ray of sunlight!

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