Colour Story: Naples Yellow

Modern Naples yellow by Winsor & Newton is made from chromium titanate mixed with titanium white; its close relative, Naples yellow hue, is made of synthetic iron mixed with titanium white.  Both are opaque and permanent colours.

The origins of Naples yellow remain unclear, but it’s one of the oldest known pigments.  We know it was used by Egyptians as far back as circa 1500 BC to add yellow colour to glass, and originally the pigment was made from lead antimoniate. Since other yellowish minerals occur on Mount Vesuvius, a volcano on the bay of Naples, there has long been speculation that this might explain the name ‘Naples Yellow’, but there isn’t any solid evidence to support this theory yet.

This colour is also known as jaune d’antimoine and is noted to be present in the palette of the Old Masters, as well as more contemporary artists, such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir; he used Naples yellow in his ‘Chrysanthemums’ (1881-82).

Naples yellow pigment properties were very similar to the popular flake white, another lead-based warm pigment valued for its opacity. To avoid the use of lead and the troublesome discolouration, our modern Naples yellow doesn’t follow the original recipe but retains the valued properties of opacity and permanence.

There are various shades of Naples yellow, ranging from a greenish yellow to a pink-orange yellow. Often a range which includes Naples yellow will also include either a Naples yellow deep or a Naples yellow light. It is a dense pigment whose various shades make it an important addition to any artist’s palette.