The Story of Yellow
Warm sunshine, happy smiley faces, Sesame Street’s Big Bird…all the positive associations to yellow that our culture holds near and dear! Yellow is a complex colour with not only a positive side to it, but some other interesting associations that have been made to it over the centuries. But one thing is for sure: it is definitely bright!
Yellow Ochre pigment is naturally occurring, found in clay in many parts of the world. It is non toxic and has been used in painting since prehistoric times. This material has appeared in cave paintings and other depictions all over the world given its easy accessibility.
“Indian” Yellow is a pigment used centuries ago named for its formation in India. It is a transparent and fluorescent material that was used in oil paintings. It was claimed to have been produced from the urine of Indian cows fed only on Mango leaves! This is a local tale but interestingly, yellow, and shades derived from it like ochre have their own tales specific to the region in which it was obtained.
During the 15th century and up until modern and synthetic pigments were created, yellow was produced from saffron. This is a Mediterranean crocus from which its stamen was dried for the colour. You can still purchase saffron today and when mixed with water, see its bright yellow pigment exposed.
Yellow and its Use
Uses of yellow over the centuries have been varied. It has had a dubious history as the colour assigned to the star of David, a symbol forced to be worn by Jewish slaves in Mediterranean and European Medieval kingdoms.
In the tenth century, it was customary in France to paint the doors of felons and criminals in yellow so that they could be identified in the local area.
But by the 16th century and the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, yellow had come to signify hope and renewal. During this time, however, clothing colours were dictated by your rank and class so it was really the upper crust who enjoyed the positive benefits of yellow apparel! Yellow dye was very costly and only the very wealthy could afford it anyway.
Yellow and the Brain
Yellow has been recently seen as the colour most associated to high intelligence. Studies have suggested that citrus and pine smells (both often produced in the colour yellow) to have the greatest affect on mental abilities. In jest, it has even been pondered that those who select yellow as their favorite colour, have a higher IQ than others who choose different hues!
And then there are also other less positive studies which have shown that babies cry more in yellow nurseries! Perhaps this has less to do with the baby’s distaste for the wall colour but rather that bright yellow can have a rather unappealing refection on skin-tone resulting in parents being more apt to pick their baby up thinking its ill. Thus an infant’s learned response to colour!
But yellow sure can be bright! It has the highest Light Reflective Value (LRV) of any colour, so if you want a bright room, select yellow not white (a great ‘happy’ but livable yellow is Benjamin Moore’s Honey Harbour CC-170 – not a tacky yellow).
And finally, the age-old myth that yellow cabs began in New York City: NOT true! Yellow cabs actually began in Chicago when John D. Hertz painted his taxis yellow based on a University of Chicago study that said it was a good colour to see at a distance. He saw this as a smart business opportunity.
Yellow and Pop Culture
Whether you love or hate yellow it is certainly a colour that is all around us from school buses to street lines, to being enshrined in popular music like the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” (1966) to Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow” (1967) and most recently Cold Play’s “Yellow” (2000).
Yellow is a happy colour to some, too bright for others but one thing is for sure, if you are ever asked your favorite colour, choose yellow to show your intelligence!