The Story of Cadmium Yellow

Cadmium yellow is a bright and vibrant yellow colour that has been used prominently on artists palettes in the early 1800's and been popular in art and design ever since. It is named after the metal cadmium, which is used to create the pigment that gives the colour its distinctive hue. In this essay, we will explore the history, properties, and uses of cadmium yellow.

Firstly lets start from the top! Cadmium paint is a type of artist's paint that uses cadmium pigments. Cadmium pigments are made from cadmium sulfide or cadmium selenide, and they produce bright, vibrant colours such as red, orange, and yellow. The use of cadmium pigments in artist's paints dates back to the mid-19th century.

Where it began

The story of cadmium yellow begins with the discovery of the element cadmium by German chemist Friedrich Stromeyer in 1817. It was not until several decades later, in the 1840s, that French chemist Georges Audemars first synthesized cadmium sulfide, the main ingredient in cadmium yellow pigment. Audemars found that when cadmium sulfide was heated with sulfur, it produced a bright, lemon-yellow pigment that was highly stable and resistant to fading.

Few artists could afford to use Cadmium Yellow until its price fell late in the nineteenth century. Claude Monet was among its early users, in this painting of The Artist’s House at Argenteuil from 1873. Before this, William Holman Hunt and others had reported that its colour was “capricious”, sometimes fading rapidly to “the colour of dirty beeswax”. With the alternative of Chrome Yellow more readily available and much cheaper, most artists steered well clear of the new pigment.

One of the most significant advantages of cadmium yellow was its lightfastness, which meant that it could resist fading over time. This quality made it a favorite among artists who wanted their works to last for generations. Cadmium yellow was also highly versatile and could be mixed with other colours to create a wide range of hues.

"SOME PAINTERS TRANSFORM THE SUN INTO A YELLOW SPOT, OTHERS TRANSFORM A YELLOW SPOT INTO THE SUN'

PABLO PICASSO

Cadmium yellow plays a prominent role in Vincent van Gogh's famous series of sunflower paintings. Van Gogh used the pigment to create the bright, glowing yellow hues that give the sunflowers their iconic appearance.

Image: 'Sunflowers' 1888, Vincent Van Gogh

Sunflowers, Vincent Van Gogh

In his paintings, van Gogh employed a technique known as impasto, in which the paint is applied in thick, textured layers. This allowed him to create a three-dimensional effect that gives the sunflowers a sense of depth and dimensionality. The use of cadmium yellow, which is known for its brightness and intensity, was essential to achieving this effect. Van Gogh's sunflower paintings are considered some of his most iconic works, and they continue to inspire and captivate viewers today. The use of cadmium yellow in these paintings highlights the importance of colour and pigment in art, and the role that these elements play in creating meaning and emotion in a work of art.

Did you know?

Our Founder and CEO Mark's great great uncles Paul and Bruno Cass(irer) were pivotal figures in the early 20th century art world, whose Gallery (Die Berliner Kunstsalon) in Berlin was largely responsible for bringing French impressionism to Europe. Renowned artists such as Van Gogh, Degas, Monet and Cezanne were just a few of the artists whose work they introduced to Berlin.

In April 1905, Paul Cassirer hosted a show of Vincent Van Gogh’s work. Until this point, there had been little interest in the artist, and within a few years, he had created a booming market. Cassirer bought nine Van Gogh artworks, which included the ‘Sunflowers’, which he bought for the sum of £110 (2,200 marks).

Cadmium yellow is a prominent colour in another iconic painting - Gustav Klimt's famous painting, "The Kiss." The pigment is used to create the warm and vibrant gold tones that permeate the painting, giving it a sense of opulence and luxury.

'The Kiss' Gustv Klimt

In "The Kiss," Klimt employs a technique known as gold leafing, in which thin sheets of gold are applied to the painting's surface. This technique was a hallmark of the Art Nouveau movement, of which Klimt was a prominent figure, and it added a layer of shimmer and sheen to the already-rich colours of the painting.

Cadmium yellow is also used in the painting to create highlights and accents, particularly in the intricate patterns that adorn the figures' clothing. The use of this bright and intense pigment adds a sense of depth and texture to the painting, and it contributes to the overall sense of luxury and sensuality that Klimt sought to convey. The painting's subject matter, a couple locked in a passionate embrace, also contributes to the significance of the colour yellow. In many cultures, yellow is associated with the sun, warmth, and happiness, and it is often used to symbolize love and friendship. The use of cadmium yellow in "The Kiss" underscores these associations, creating a sense of joy and passion that radiates from the painting.