Artist Tonya Lee explains why she loves modern Indian Yellow watercolour pigments and how you can get the most from this unique colour. The original Indian Yellow pigment, whose history is very mysterious, went out of use before 1900 due to concerns of animal cruelty. Since then many alternatives have been developed to mimic the original colour. Tonya shares her favourite modern Indian Yellow watercolours.
By Tonya Lee
Spring announces its arrival with budding leaves and lanes of daffodils. Summer clothes itself with fiery sunsets and flowers feasted upon by bumblebees. Fall ignites entire mountains and hills in rich golds, while winter displays its gentle warmth in sunlit snowdrifts and radiant morning mists.
A perfect colour for capturing all of the seasons is Indian Yellow and this warm, adaptable yellow can be an excellent choice for a watercolour palette. The deep yellow-orange pigment used to create the colour originally dubbed “Indian Yellow” was imported from India, hence the name, and produced a paint that was hailed as bright yet luminously rich and lightfast. Throughout its long period of usage, it was beloved by many great artists such as Turner and Van Gogh.
[Editor’s note: Traditional Indian Yellow was used mainly between the 16th and 19th century. There has been much debate over how it was made and what it was made from. This is because different paint samples called Indian Yellow during this time were made from different things—some were salts, others plant dyes and some came from animal origins.
The Indian civil servant T. N. Mukharji recorded in the 19th century that Indian Yellow was made from the concentrated urine of cows that had been fed only on mango leaves. Recent tests done by scientists on an Indian Yellow sample, collected by Mukharji in 1883, support his explanation for that particular sample.]
Although the origins of Indian Yellow are a bit murky and its original formulation has long since been removed from production, there are several alternatives on the market that work exceptionally well. Deep yellow-orange watercolours are still called “Indian Yellow,” but manufacturers also use names such as Turner Yellow, Yellow Deep, Gamboge, and more.
Many of these Indian Yellow substitutes are blends of two or more pigments, and although convenience shades can be useful, there are several single-pigment options available. Jackson’s along with a few other manufacturers produce a single pigment Cadmium Yellow Deep (PY35) that displays traditional yellow-orange hues, and Winsor and Newton produces a colour called Turner’s Yellow (PY216) that is based upon the classic Indian Yellow colour.
These colours may be similar to the original Indian Yellow, but their pigments are rather opaque. Although opaque pigments are perfect for certain techniques and can be very useful in a palette, transparent pigments often make better mixers and minglers overall and are much more suitable for glazing.
Deep yellow-orange watercolours that are comprised of a single pigment and also transparent aren’t plentiful, but they can be found. A reliable Indian Yellow substitution is the yellow pigment 110, or PY110, currently produced in a single-pigment watercolour by a handful of manufacturers. PY110 is highly transparent, has little drying shift, excellent lightfast ratings, and is staining but still lifts easily even when dry.
However, PY110’s most remarkable characteristic is visible in dilution and application where it will often display a lovely luminescence, a feature that was also prized with the original Indian Yellow. It’s especially talented at imparting a realistic warmth to rural landscapes and capturing the reflective illumination of city scenes. In other words, it can make a painting glow!
Not only is PY110 highly translucent and has excellent lightfast ratings, but it also has a manageable flow rate. When dropped into wet-in-wet applications, PY110 is willing to move but not so much that a painter is forced to chase it around the page. Of course, the flow rate of any colour depends upon several factors including its manufacture and application (e.g. paper sizing and weight, saturation and humidity levels, etc) but PY110 is generally well behaved and rarely blossoms or cauliflowers without permission.
All of these properties combine to make PY110 a fantastic mixer. A quick mix for a wide range of greens from green gold to deep olive is PY110 combined with Phthalo Green, or try it with Viridian to gain similarly natural greens but with a pop of granulation. Of course, a beautiful range of natural greens can also be created by mixing PY110 with any palette blue from Cerulean to Cobalt, and mixing with blue will also produce several striking neutrals.
Combining PY110 with any red from cool to warm produces a nice range of brilliant oranges and warm reds that are useful for painting florals, butterflies, and more. PY110 along with Quinacridone Rose dropped into or pulled across a wet skyline will create an awe-inspiring sunset, and adding PY110 to warm reds like iron oxide earths results in deep golds and dusky oranges that are perfect for painting everything from pumpkins to persimmons.
Regardless of PY110’s excellent mixing capabilities, this colour also works well solo and is the best way to take advantage of PY110’s transparent and luminance qualities. Straight from the tube, PY110 is perfect for painting a variety of subjects from sunflowers to traffic cones.
If you’re interested in trying this colour, Jackson’s offers a choice of brands that currently manufacture a single-pigment PY110 watercolour paint:
Daniel Smith Permanent Yellow Deep
Holbein Isoindolinone Yellow Deep
M. Graham Indian Yellow
Rembrandt Azo Yellow Deep
Schmincke Yellow Orange
If your favourite watercolour brand isn’t listed, look for single-pigment PY65 colours, often labelled Hansa Yellow Deep. This yellow-orange pigment is very similar to PY110 albeit slightly less orange. However, it’s also wonderfully transparent and works very well in application. Although slightly less transparent than PY110 or PY65, another single-pigment option is PY139. All of these pigments mix extremely similar hues and are worthy considerations for a watercolour palette.
Tonya Lee is a self-taught nature sketcher and watercolour painter. She’s also the author of ScratchmadeJournal.com where you can find many more examples of modern Indian Yellows. She lives and works with her family on their small, rural farm in the U.S. Appalachian mountains.