Colour story: Gamboge

Gamboge yellow, also known as rattan or wisteria yellow, gummi gutta and drop gum, is an organic pigment. Well known 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.

It’s made from the resin of the garcinia evergreen tree, found across south-east Asia. The trees need to be at least 10 years old before the trunks can be lacerated or the branches broken to collect the poisonous, milky yellow resin. This is gathered in empty bamboo shoots, which are then roasted over fire to evaporate moisture, and then 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 watercolours in east Asia; it was also used in Thailand in the 12th century on a black (khoi) paper scroll. 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. But as even a small dose it 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 the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden. JMW Turner also used gamboge as an oil colour, though he 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.

In 2013, due to the discontinuation of the former pigments, New Gamboge was reformulated again in both Professional Watercolour and Cotman Watercolour, and with advances in pigment technology the colour is much closer to its original namesake, delivering greater authenticity.