Colour Story: Cadmium Orange

cadmium orange colour story

Cadmium Orange is a bright, warm and opaque colour from the cadmium family of pigments. Its name derives from Kádmos, the founder of Thebes in Greek mythology, credited for bringing the alphabet from the Phoenicians to Ancient Greece. Cadmium is a rare element which can occur naturally in minerals such as zinc ores.  

Origins of orange 

Orange itself is a complex colour. In the natural world it shares its name with the citrus fruit brought to Europe from Asia in the late 15th and early 16th century, referred to in Sanskrit as naranga—which became naranja in Spanish and laranja in Portuguese. In English, from the Old French and Anglo-Saxon orange, it was known only as ‘red-yellow’ until the arrival of this fruit. 

orange fruit
Keilidh Ewan keilidhewan, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


Orange in daily life 

The colour sparks mixed connotations, from kitsch Halloween plastic pumpkins to cast iron pots, road signs and traffic cones, all the way through to high fashion such as Hermès Orange, and the orange dresses of Jil Sander Fall 2009 collection and knits of Loewe Spring 2019.


nasa astronaut suit
NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Orange is the colour of NASA's Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES), referred to as 'pumpkin suits' which are worn by astronauts during launch and re-entry. The lighter orange known as 'safety orange' is a colour or nomenclature which emerged in the US in 1950s technical manuals as a colour designed to contrast with the natural environment, hence its use in construction and outdoor safety. A variation is ‘GGB International Orange’, the colour chosen by the architect Irving Morrow in 1935 for the famous Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco; Morrow felt this colour would blend in best against the hills but stand out against the water and sky. 


golden gate bridge orange
Wattewyl, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


The invention of Cadmium 

The artist’s palette is one of the many beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution's discoveries and inventions in chemistry and metallurgy. As a result, Cadmium Orange was discovered relatively recently during the 19th century. Having observed zinc compounds, cadmium was discovered by the German chemist Friedrich Stromeyer, who encountered the element in the impurities formed in zinc ore during smelting. He named this laboratory discovery after the element's Latin name, cadmia.

In 1817, Stromeyer found that when cadmium was combined with sulphur, he was able to synthesize a bright yellow compound, which became known as Cadmium Yellow, and that by altering the conditions in which elements combined one could also produce an orange version of cadmium sulphide, a new synthetic inorganic pigment which became known as Cadmium Orange.

Cadmium Orange in popular culture 

Unlike Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Orange has been found in very few paintings, though it has been used in oils, acrylics, and watercolour paintings. In Claude Monet's painting Impression Sunrise (1872), a vivid Cadmium Orange sun emerges from the waters punctuating the work, and it is this pivotal painting that gave the Impressionism movement its name. In contemporary artwork industrial references to orange are never very far away; Donald Judd uses Cadmium Orange tacitly to refer to machine-like production in his minimalist sculptures.


Ministério da Cultura, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

But it is in fashion that Cadmium Orange flourishes. Russian costume designer Léon Bakst designed clothing for the Ballet Boutique Fantasque in 1917, and applied Cadmium Orange in dress designs using small amounts of selenium and adding it to cadmium sulphide. The colour has continued to be a popular choice in the world of fashion – most recently, Cadmium Orange was one of Pantone’s Fall colours of the year, and it is often seen gracing wardrobes on the catwalk in autumn each year.

At Winsor & Newton we offer a Cadmium-Free alternative across our range of Artist Oil Colour and professional Watercolour. Learn more here. 


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