Colour story: 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 and 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 showed cadmium yellow at the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition.

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, artists used a similar colour called orpiment – a rich, deep yellow from the mineral of the same name which derives from the Latin auripigmentum (aurum meaning “gold” and pigmentum meaning “pigment”). Like cadmium it had good covering power and colour stability; orpiment was popular with Renaissance painters like Titian, and is found in historical Egyptian works and paintings from all over Asia. As an arsenic sulfide compound, it was replaced in palettes by cadmium yellow due to its toxicity.

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