Spotlight on Colour: Gamboge


Gamboge yellow, also known as Rattan or Wisteria Yellow, Gummi Gutta and Drop Gum, is an organic pigment. Well know for its transparency, the warm golden pigment derives its name from its country of origin: Cambodia, itself named after the Latin word for pigment gambogium.

Made from the resin of the Garcinia evergreen tree, found across South East Asia, trees need to be at least 10 years old before the trunks can be lacerated or the branches broken to collect the tree’s milky yellow resin. The poisonous resin is collected in empty bamboo shoots, and roasted over fire to evaporate moisture, after which the bamboo shoots are broken to reveal dull yellow resin cylinders. Only when this resin is pulverised does it become a brilliant yellow.

Unfortunately genuine Gamboge is a colour whose poor lightfastness has meant that finding traces in old paintings can be difficult. The first appearance of Gamboge was in 8th century water colours in East Asia; it was also found in Thailand in the 12th century on a black (khoi) paper scroll of The Tale of the Genji. In the Middle Ages Gamboge was used to paint ornamental letters and illustrations.

First brought to Europe in 1603, it was also used as a cure for rheumatism, high blood pressure and as a purgative cleanser, however as even a small dose was lethal, it quickly lost popularity.

The Flemish painters used Gamboge as a transparent oil colour. It can be found in Rembrandt’s works in Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden. English artists J M W Turner and Townsend also used Gamboge as an oil colour though Turner quickly realised that it worked best as a watercolour.

Winsor & Newton stopped its production of Genuine Gamboge in 2005 due to its toxicity and replaced it with the best lightfast and permanent alternative possible at that time. Due to the pigments then available, this replacement was a different shade and was renamed New Gamboge.

This year, due to the discontinuation of the current pigments, New Gamboge, in both Professional Water Colour and Cotman, has been reformulated again and, with advances in pigment technology, the colour is much closer to its original namesake, delivering greater authenticity.