From the archives: Mars yellow

Mars Yellow Colour

There are so many of these small sample pigment bottles in our archive, but they never fail to fascinate. The handwritten labels are also intriguing – from an era when handwriting was almost an art itself. The Mars yellow label here is as beautiful as the colour inside.

This rich pigment was also called crocus martius, a name describing its colour and origin. Crocus refers to saffron or yellow, while Martius is Latin for “of or belonging to the god Mars”, as well as the ancient alchemical name for iron.

Its earth-based pigment predecessor is yellow ochre – in the eighteenth century, a man-made process produced a synthetic version by the aqueous precipitation of iron salts. From this initial discovery, the other Mars colours (orange, brown, red and violet) were developed by further roasting the yellow.

In Thomas J Salter’s 1869 edition of George Field’s Chromatography, he gives jaune de Mars, jaune de fer and iron yellow as synonyms for the pigment. He also notes that orpiment or lead chromate was often added to make the colour more brilliant. We don’t know if this sample is simply Mars yellow or a version that was tweaked for brightness, but it is lovely.