Also known as: Piuri / Puree / Euxanthin / Euxanthine / Turner’s Yellow
First used: 15th century (Monghyr, Bengal); 1996 (Winsor & Newton)
Banned (in it’s original mixture): 1883 (India; United Kingdom)
Comparison: Less pure than Cadmium Yellow; more deeply coloured than Gamboge.

Indian Yellow is popular for its vivid and bright colour in sunlight; its transparency made it famous for rich glazes and vibrant washes, making it a popular pigment in the palettes of 18th century dutch artists. The oil colour variant can be found extensively in the works of the Scottish Colourists and J.M.W. Turner.

Indian Yellow owes its translucence and near fluorescence to its especially water-soluble structure. In its original form, Indian Yellow was known as a lake pigment. Colours like ultramarine and vermillion are created by crushing minerals; lake pigments, however, are made from organic materials, such as vegetation or animal extracts. Over the course of history, several manufactures have chosen to drop the ‘lake‘ designation, as these volatile pigments tend to be more unstable when exposed to light. Also known as fugitive pigments, these colours lighten or darken over time in certain environmental conditions (such as heat, light, humidity or pollution).

The Jewish Bride; Rembrandt Harmensz; 1667; Oil on canvas; 1215mm x 1665mm; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Monghyr Mystery: 

The origins of the pigment have been hotly contested. The first (and most popular) history of Indian Yellow comes from Nicholas Eastaugh’s Pigment Compendium, which details an account given by a Mr. T.N. Mujharji of Calcutta. Mujharji claimed to have studied the process of creating Indian Yellow from Bengalese colourmen who worked and lived in Bihar’s second largest city, Monghyr (modern day Munger, India). These men reportedly produced fifteen hundred to one thousand pounds of pigment per year, all of which they procured from their cows.

…and now for the messy part.

Muharji claimed the pigment was created from the urine of cows, which were encouraged to defecate into sand pits, where the dark yellow and brown lumps that remained were collected, cooled and then concentrated in pots over a fire. Once the solution had completely liquified it was then strained through cloth, and the remaining sediment was compressed into balls. The balls were then heated over the fire before being left out to be dried through by the sun. The final round product was called ‘Purree‘ or ‘Piuri‘ [1].

The purree pigment balls that made its way to Europe were subjected to additional processes, including another round of washing and drying before finally being powdered. This final state then saw the purification of the colour, as green and yellow phases were separated.

In the late 1800s people began to investigate how the pigment was being produced. An investigation launched by The Journal of the Society of Arts in London released a report detailing the inhumane treatment of the cattle involved in the production process [2]. In order to increase the saturation of their urine, cattle were being fed an exclusive diet of mango leaves and water (occasionally with a little turmeric thrown in for good measure). As well as leaving the cows extremely malnourished, the cattle were also being negatively impacted by the high levels of the toxin urushoil found in the mango leaves, which also can be located in large quantities in poison ivy. Legal steps were taken to ban the Indian Yellow pigment in 1908 [3], and the efforts of The Journal of the Society of Arts and other activists ensured that the original cattle-produced pigment could not be found commercially after 1921.

And we all lived happily ever after. The end.

Teignmouth; Joseph Mallord William Turner; Exhibited in 1812; Oil Paint on Canvas; 900 x 1205mm; Tate Collection.

Or is it? Enter the non-believers: 

As detailed and persuasive as this creation story may be, critics were raising their hands to question the official narrative as early as 1830. George Field believed it was made of camel urine, not cow excrement. MJFL Mérimée went a step further in his ‘The Art of Painting in Oil and Fresco’, proposing that:

…the coloring matter is extracted from a tree or large shrub, called memecylon tinctorium, the leaves of which are employed by the natives in their yellow dyes. From a smell like cow’s urine, which exhales from this colour, it is probable that this material is employed in extracting the tint of the memecylon.

The Art of Painting in Oil and Fresco, 1839 [4]

In 1844, the chemist John Stenhouse published his accounts of an examination of a purree ball in Philosophical magazine. He noted that his 85g sample, which had been imported from India and China, showed small needle-shaped crystals when viewed under a microscope, and smelled distinctly of castor oil. He concluded that Indian Yellow was not in fact cattle urine. It was instead either the collected gallstones of various animals (including but not limited to camels, elephants and buffalos); or alternatively it was of a vegetable origin, created from:

… the juice of some tree or plant, which, after it has been expressed, has been saturated with magnesia and boiled down to its present consistence.

Master Baby; Sir William Quiller Orchardson; 1886; Oil on canvas; 109 x 168cm; Scottish National Gallery.

In 2004, Victoria Finlay joined the fray and questioned the very origins of the cattle-urine tale [5]. As she points out in Color: A Natural History of the Palette, the main evidence for this (albeit detailed) history is to be found in one single letter written by Mr. T.N. Mukharji, who himself was only an observer, rather than an expert. Aside from this letter, there are no other written sources from the time that refer to the same process of creating Indian Yellow. Moreover, there is no legal record in either the India Library in London or the National Library in Calcutta detailing the ban on this method of pigment production. Finlay also visited Monghyr (now known as Munger) in Bihar and found no evidence that Indian Yellow had ever been made there; even the locals knew nothing of the methods Mr. T.N.Mukharji described as being so widely used there only two centuries before.

Our Modern Colour: 

In any case, the modern pigment we find in our local art shop is a different beast entirely to it’s predecessor. The ban made it impossible to create Indian Yellow by the old methods, and efforts to recreate a pigment with a similar luminescence seemed doomed to fail until Winsor & Newton created an alternative in 1996. Like many other colours that have been ‘optimised’ by today’s industry techniques, Indian Yellow is now a synthetic hue created from a mixture of nickel azo, hansa yellow and quinacridone burnt orange. For this reason Indian Yellow is sometimes marketed under the names ‘azo yellow light’, ‘azo yellow deep’ and ‘nickel azo yellow’. This new pigment is much more stable and can handle light exposure and temperature variations much better than it’s predecessor.

Moreover, it’s definitely cattle-friendly.

Also note, whilst many places claim Vemeer used Indian Yellow, it has been proven he used Lead Tin Yellow instead [6]. As the name implies, the Lead Tin Yellow pigment had problems with toxicity, and Indian Yellow makes a great modern substitute! If you’re struggling to find Indian Yellow, look into Winsor & Newton’s Turner’s Yellow. The colour was named after J M W Turner’s signature colour (which itself was based on Indian Yellow pigments).

The Rich Fool; Rembrandt Harmensz; 1627; Oil on panel; 420 x 320 mm; Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen.

References:

[1] Douma, Michael, curator. Pigments through the Ages. 2008. Institute for Dynamic Educational Development. April 15, 2016. http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments

[2] Winsor & Newton, website. Spotlight on Colour: Indian Yellow. 2013. Winsor & Newton Blog. April 15, 2016. http://www.winsornewton.com/uk/discover/articles-and-inspiration/spotlight-on-colour-indian-yellow

[3] Baer, N. S. et al. ‘Indian Yellow’, in Feller, Robert L (ed.) Artists’ Pigments, Oxford 1986 ISBN 0-89468-086-2

[4] Merimee, M.J.F.L. (8/5/2009). The Art of Painting in Oil and Fresco. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4371-4116-0.

[5] Finlay, Victoria (2003). Color: A Natural History of the Palette. Random House. ISBN 0-8129-7142-6.

[6] Jonathan Jansen, author. Essential Vemeer. April 16, 2016. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/palette/palette_lead-tin_yellow.html#.VxFqlCMrJN0