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The many sides of yellow

What comes to mind when you think of yellow. The sun? Spongebob? Lemons?

The colour yellow is all around us, in our food, our clothes, our waste. As most kids can tell you, it is a secondary colour, created by mixing red and green.

It is considered a cheerful colour – conjuring up images of sunflowers, buttercups and sunny days. However it is also closely associated sickliness and cowardice. In China, it is associated with pornography, while in Russia it has associations with mental illness.

We look into the multi-faceted nature of yellow.

So what makes things yellow?

There are a few origins.

Carotenoids are pigments that create bright colours like yellow (as well as orange and red) in foods. You find them in organic material like plants, bacteria and algae, and they play a really important role in absorbing light for photosynthesis, and protecting chlorophyll in a plant. Carotenoids are behind the yellow of lemons, autumn leaves, egg yolks, daffodils and much more.

  • Yellow blog, A daffodil which contains carotenoid
    A daffodil which contains carotenoid

There are quite a few different minerals behind yellow pigments in paint, but one of the oldest found used in art is yellow ochre.

In fact, yellow was one of the first colours ever used in art, as ochre (a mix of ferric oxide, clay and sand) was very accessible and could be found in many places all over the world.

Engraved ochre was found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa that dates from around 75,000 years ago. A bit closer to home, ochre has been found in paintings of animals in French caves  from 25,000 years ago, and in Spain, from around 15-16,000 BC.

  • Yellow blog, An Ancient Egyptian coffin cover painted with yellow ochre
    An Ancient Egyptian coffin cover painted with yellow ochre

But ochre is not confined to history. If you are wondering if yellow ochre is used in any of your paints, have a look for PY-43 on the label.

Yellow dyes were about as widely available as ochre, and the colour can be taken from saffron, safflower, gorse bushes, as well as the bark of the Eastern black oak and Dyer’s mulberry. Find out more about yellow dyes in our Dye Garden.

  • Yellow blog, A Gorse bush in our Dye Garden
    A Gorse bush in our Dye Garden

What do we think of the colour?

It is a vibrant colour that is used to create an emotional or energetic response.

Yellow is thought to increase cheerfulness and optimism when used in marketing, but can apparently make babies cry.

That emotional energy makes it an ideal colour to draw in shoppers and prompt impulse activity. There is a reason why it is the colour of choice for fast food outlets like Burger King and McDonalds, stores like Ikea and toy companies like Play-doh and Nerf.

However, when it comes to picking our favourite, the colour yellow falls very low for both men and women gaining only 1% and 3% of responses respectively.

Sickness or royalty?

This lack of love for yellow may have something to do its association with illness and disease. Yellow is the colour of jaundice, pus and bile, and it has associations with cholera, which shares etymological routes (Khloros). Bruises turn yellow and no one wants to get Yellow Fever.

Yellow had negative associations in the Middle Ages, when repentant cathars were forced to wear yellow crosses on their clothes. Hundreds of years later, Jewish people persecuted by the Nazis had to wear a yellow star on clothes or display the sign on their houses. Heretics were forced to wear yellow during the Spanish Inquisition.

  • Yellow blog, Yellow badge made mandatory by the Nazis in France, kitkatcrazy thanks to Wikimedia Creative Commons
    Yellow badge made mandatory by the Nazis in France, kitkatcrazy thanks to Wikimedia Creative Commons

In the late 18th century the phrase yellow-belly was first identified as a derogatory term, as set out in Grose’s A provincial glossary (1787):

Yellow bellies. This is an appellation given to persons born in the Fens, who, it is jocularly said, have yellow bellies, like their eels.

But despite all this, we prize gold which is of a yellowish hue.

Yellow was associated with gold in Ancient Egypt. The bones of gods were believed to be made of gold, enforcing the belief that it was eternal and indestructible.

It was also associated with the Pope in the early days of the Christian church and royal yellow is the colour of the robes of the Emperors of China, because of its links to the sun. Jing Han writes,

Just as there cannot be two suns in the sky, there cannot be two emperors in a nation. Thus from then on, yellow was regarded as the costume colour used exclusively by emperors.

Ribbons, roses, a submarine and a big yellow taxi

Lots of other musicians have featured yellow in their songs.

Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree sung by Dawn featuring Tony Orlando is about signalling that a prisoner of war is still welcome by his sweetheart when he arrives back home. Songs or poems with similar themes crop up from early in the 1900s, but the first copyrighted version was in 1917 by George A. Norton, which he titled Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon (For Her Lover Who Is Far, Far Away).

The yellow ribbon gained popularity in the US during the Gulf War as a way of supporting troops, and are still displayed in some towns and cities on this basis today. Yellow ribbons are still identified with POWs in Italy and Kuwait. 

  • Yellow blog, A yellow ribbon
    A yellow ribbon

Two famously yellow songs, Mellow Yellow and Yellow Submarine are linked, as Paul McCartney is one of the people heard in the background of the Donovan track, and Donovan helped McCartney with the lyrics for Yellow Submarine.

Listen to these and some other famous tracks associated with the colour yellow.

Both China and Vietnam had music genres called yellow music, both with separate origins.

In China, yellow music or songs described early popular music between the 1920s to 1940s, as a reference to pronography, and this term was used up until the Cultural Revolution.

It also referred to music created in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, as opposed to red music from the North. The content of the songs were considered “decadent” and were banned in 1975.

Liked reading about yellow? Find out about the colour blue in our earlier post and stayed tuned for more colours throughout the year.