Spotlight on Colour: Cadmium Yellow


Describing a set of tonal variations of opaque yellow rather than a single pigment, the yellow cadmiums range from the lightest: Cadmium Lemon, to the darkest: Cadmium Yellow Deep. Formulated on the inorganic pigments cadmium sulphide and cadmium sulphoselenide, cadmium based pigments are very versatile, mix easily with different mediums so are available in all media. Completely permanent with good tinting strength, Cadmiums are lightfast and beautifully brilliant.

Discovered by German chemist Friedrich Stromeyer in 1817, Cadmium Yellow became popular in the UK in the latter half of the 19th century, after initial difficulties of supply and quality had been resolved. Winsor & Newton exhibited Cadmium Yellow at the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition.

The famous neo-plastic painter Mondrian often used two cadmium colours in his limited palette: Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Red. Alongside Flake White, Ivory Black and French Ultramarine, the cadmium pigments provided strong, brilliant colours that make Mondrian’s paintings distinctive to this day.

Before the discovery of Cadmium Yellow in the 1820s, artists used a similar colour called Orpiment; a rich, deep yellow from the mineral of the same name which derives from auripigmentum (aurum meaning "gold" and pigmentum meaning "pigment"). Like Cadmium it had good covering power and colour stability, Orpiment was popular with Renaissance painters such as Titian, and is found in historical Egyptian works and in historical paintings from all over Asia. As an arsenic sulfide compound, it was replaced in palettes by Cadmium yellow due to its toxicity.

Like Orpiment, Cadmium Yellow provides a similar hue, good coverage and high tinting strength; these qualities apparent in all Cadmium colours are unmatched by any other pigments available, even today.

Why would artists use alternatives to Cadmiums?

Cadmiums are the most popular reds, yellows & oranges used by painters and as artists' colours in normal use, do not present a health hazard to the user. Some painters consider cadmium colours to be harmful and though there has been public concern about cadmium compounds used by other industries and their impact on the environment, it should be noted that cadmium pigments used by Winsor & Newton are practically insoluble.

Cadmium Yellow is available in the following ranges. As Cadmiums can be expensive due to the intensive and lengthy production process, hues are also offered as an alternative in some ranges.