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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Aurora Yellow - These are not the charged particles you were looking for...

Aurora Yellow:

In artist forums I occasionally notice that a small group of art materials enthusiasts are drawn to seek out old art materials and attempt to understand their history. They seem to pine over the loss of any paints or related media in the art materials world. One of the colors that sparked a bit of intrigue was call Aurora Yellow. It sounds like a very exotic color or a character from the Disney film Frozen.

However, let’s cut to the chase. While it appears to be rather mysterious, Aurora Yellow is one of many cadmium-based colors and is catalogued as PY 37, a composition of cadmium sulfide with less than 15% barium sulfide. The discovery of cadmium metal originates in 1817 through the work of the German chemist Friedrich Stromeyer.

Stromeyer studied under Fredrich Gmelin who competed for the prize sponsored by the French government that offered to anyone who could fabricate synthetic ultramarine blue (see “Go Big Blue! – May 11, 2021 Essay) along with Louis Nicolas Vauquelin, who discovered the elements beryllium and chromium. Given Stromeyer’s mentors, it would have been a safe bet to assume that he would discover something significant during his lifetime.

While the discovery of cadmium came about in 1817 it was not until the mid-1840s that it was converted into a pigment. In its elemental form, cadmium is a silver-grey shinny metal gives no hint that it could be transformed into a range of yellows, oranges and reds in combination with acids, heat and sodium sulfide. Variations in hue are created by introducing selenium and zinc. Barium is used to reduce the strength of the pigment. It is possible through manipulating the chemical ratios and heat to produce a huge number of cool yellows to deep red cool hues. Interestingly, beyond this warm range of hues, I have a tube of Grumbacher Cadmium Black acrylic paint. Why they made this color is another mystery.

The Winsor and Newton 1848 comprehensive catalog of their art materials lists Cadmium Yellow in both moist and solid watercolor half and whole pan colors. Interestingly, Cadmium Yellow did not replace the 3 hues of Chrome Yellow that appear in the list of colors. I have always considered Chrome Yellows to be the precursors to Cadmium pigments in hue range, performance and opacity. Chrome pigments do not fully disappear until late in the 20th century.

A 1924 catalog by Winsor and Newton lists Aurora Yellow in both watercolors and oil paints. The lament over Aurora Yellow’s “disappearance” has been voiced within the last decade in several online discussion websites. What is this mystery color? What pigment does it contain? A curious public wants answers!

In most cases, either an artist knowledgeable about paints or an inquiry to Winsor and Newton directly provided the answer. Aurora Yellow is listed as a yellow hue of cadmium sulfide. So, despite all the energy expended in tracking down this color’s history, we find that it is merely the name of the pigment that evokes intrigue since we had and still have a wide variety of cadmium yellow paints for artists to use. Kudos to the Winsor and Newton marketing staff. Nobody has documented that they assume the persona of Sherlock Holmes when they discover an old tube of Cadmium Yellow in a Portabello Road antique shop or an online vendor selling old paints. That color name is far from being unusual.

So, a mysterious name appears have an influence on the desirability of a color. Ubiquitous pigments with a long and interesting history like Indian Yellow or Carmine do not get much of a second glance, despite having far more intriguing back-stories than Cadmium Yellow ever did. But, attach the name “Aurora” to Cadmium Yellow and the public becomes intrigued. Color names and marketing are an interesting side of the art materials world that I find so amazing to explore. (I have a collection of hundreds of digital images of art materials advertisements spanning 2 centuries.)


What old color names spark an interest in understanding the pigment’s origin? Post a comment to share with me and other visitors. I have a long list of them that have stories to tell for future Syntax essays.

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