An unresolved mystery
For a long time it was thought that Indian yellow was derived from the urine of Indian cows. But the mystery surrounding the origins of this wonderful golden yellow pigment is still unresolved. For years now artists have been making use of synthetic alternatives that are identical in colour to their natural counterpart.
It is not exactly clear when Indian yellow was first introduced into Europe. It is known, however, that between the 15th and 18th century brown, rather pungent balls were imported into Europe from Asia. Once they were broken open they revealed a wonderful warm yellow powder. By grinding and mixing the balls with a binding agent such as egg, oil or gum, the characteristic golden yellow, transparent paint was produced. The origins of the pigment lay somewhere in Persia, China or India. But regarding the exact origins there are many wild stories.
Urine from cows and kidney stones
The most remarkable story is that the pigment was extracted from the urine of Indian cows. In the north-eastern state of Bihar the cows there were supposed to have been fed only with the young leaves of the mango tree. It was this that coloured the urine bright yellow. The urine was collected and then evaporated, after which the remaining pigment was kneaded into balls. As not all the pigment was excreted, the animals developed large kidney stones which made passing urine very painful. This often led to them kicking over the buckets full of expensive urine, so rigorous measures were introduced such as the animals being suspended with leather straps. It was even claimed that the cows only passed urine when massaged in the genital area. Due to the holy status of the cow this production was banned in 1908.
The evidence to support this theory is, however, very thin. The only concrete reference to this comes from a letter to the Society of Arts from 1883, in which Mr Mukharij from Calcutta claimed to have seen the process with his own eyes. The French painter Merimee on the other hand claimed in his book ‘The Art of Painting in Oil and Fresco’ from 1939 that the colour was derived from a bushy tree. And the Scottish chemist John Stenhouse wrote in 1844 that the colour came from plant sap that was precipitated onto magnesium and then boiled down to the consistency of the balls. The British journalist Victoria Finlay, too, cast doubt on the story of the ‘mango cows’. In her book ‘Colour, travels through the paintbox’ she suggested that it was probably made up in order to ‘take the piss’ out of the English rulers.
Whether derived from urine or not, whatever remains of the natural pigment is now a collector’s item. The yellow pigment was replaced long ago by synthetic alternatives with the same warm yellow tint as the original. Rembrandt water colour Indian yellow is made from highly stable pigments, the colour of which is retained for at least 100 years under museum conditions.
Indian yellow is a transparent warm yellow colour. When mixed with blues it gives a rich gradation of greens. When mixed with red a wonderful range of oranges is produced.
Royal Talens has the colour Indian yellow in the following product ranges:
Rembrandt water colours, colour number: 244
Van Gogh oil colours, colour number: 244
Cobra water mixable oil colours, colour number: 244