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Yellow is the color between green and orange on the spectrum of visible light. It is evoked by light with a predominant wavelength of roughly 570–590 nm. In traditional color theory, used in painting, and in the subtractive color system, used in color printing, yellow is a primary color. In the RGB color model, used to create colors on television and computer screens, yellow is made by combining red and green at equal intensity.
- Ancient history
- Post classical history
- 18th and 19th centuries
- 20th and 21st centuries
- Light optics and colorimetry
- In color printing and on a computer screen
- Complementary colors
- Other plants
- Minerals and chemistry
- Food coloring
- Symbolism and associations
- In China
- Light and reason
- Gold and blond
- Visibility and caution
- Optimism and pleasure
- In other cultures
- Selected national and international flags
- Idioms and expressions
The word yellow comes from the Old English geolu, geolwe (oblique case), meaning "yellow, yellowish", derived from the Proto-Germanic word gelwaz "yellow". It has the same Indo-European base, gʰel-, as the words gold and yell, or "cry out."
According to surveys in Europe, Canada, and the United States, yellow is the color people most often associate with amusement, gentleness, and spontaneity, but also with duplicity, envy, jealousy, avarice, and, in the U.S., with cowardice. In Iran it has connotations of pallor/sickness, but also wisdom and connection. It plays an important role in Asian culture, particularly in China, where it is seen as the color of happiness, glory, wisdom, harmony, and culture.
The word yellow comes from the Old English geolu, geolwe (oblique case), meaning "yellow, yellowish", derived from the Proto-Germanic word gelwaz "yellow". It has the same Indo-European base, gʰel-, as the words gold and yell; gʰel- means both bright and gleaming, and to cry out.
The English term is related to other Germanic words for yellow, namely Scots yella, East Frisian jeel, West Frisian giel, Dutch geel, German gelb, and Swedish and Norwegian gul. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the oldest known use of this word in English is from The Epinal Glossary in 700.
Yellow, in the form of yellow ochre pigment made from clay, was one of the first colors used in prehistoric cave art. The cave of Lascaux has an image of a horse colored with yellow estimated to be 17,300 years old.
In Ancient Egypt, yellow was associated with gold, which was considered to be imperishable, eternal and indestructible. The skin and bones of the gods were believed to be made of gold. The Egyptians used yellow extensively in tomb paintings; they usually used either yellow ochre or the brilliant orpiment, though it was made of arsenic and was highly toxic. A small paintbox with orpiment pigment was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Men were always shown with brown faces, women with yellow ochre or gold faces.
The ancient Romans used yellow in their paintings to represent gold and also in skin tones. It is found frequently in the murals of Pompeii.
During the Post-Classical period, yellow became firmly established as the color of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ, even though the Bible never describes his clothing. From this connection, yellow also took on associations with envy, jealousy and duplicity.
The tradition started in the Renaissance of marking non-Christian outsiders, such as Jews, with the color yellow. In 16th century Spain, those accused of heresy and who refused to renounce their views were compelled to come before the Spanish Inquisition dressed in a yellow cape.
The color yellow has been historically associated with moneylenders and finance. The National Pawnbrokers Association's logo depicts three golden spheres hanging from a bar, referencing the three bags of gold that the patron saint of pawnbroking, St. Nicholas, holds in his hands. Additionally, the symbol of three golden orbs is found in the coat of arms of the House of Medici, a famous fifteenth century Italian dynasty of bankers and lenders.
18th and 19th centuries
The 18th and 19th century saw the discovery and manufacture of synthetic pigments and dyes, which quickly replaced the traditional yellows made from arsenic, cow urine, and other substances.
Circa 1776, Jean-Honoré Fragonard painted A Young Girl Reading. She is dressed in a bright saffron yellow dress. This painting is "considered by many critics to be among Fragonard's most appealing and masterly".
The 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner was one of the first in that century to use yellow to create moods and emotions, the way romantic composers were using music. His painting Rain, Steam, and Speed - the Great Central Railway was dominated by glowing yellow clouds.
Georges Seurat used the new synthetic colors in his experimental paintings composed of tiny points of primary colors, particularly in his famous Sunday Afternoon on the Isle de la Grand jatte (1884–86). He did not know that the new synthetic yellow pigment, zinc yellow or zinc chromate, which he used in the light green lawns, was highly unstable and would quickly turn brown.
The painter Vincent van Gogh was a particular admirer of the color yellow, the color of sunshine. Writing to his sister from the south of France in 1888, he wrote, "Now we are having beautiful warm, windless weather that is very beneficial to me. The sun, a light that for lack of a better word I can only call yellow, bright sulfur yellow, pale lemon gold. How beautiful yellow is!" In Arles, Van Gogh painted sunflowers inside a small house he rented at 2 Place Lamartine, a house painted what Van Gogh called "buttery yellow." Van Gogh was one of the first artists to use commercially manufactured paints, rather than paints he made himself. He used the traditional yellow ochre, but also chrome yellow, first made in 1809, and cadmium yellow, first made in 1820.
At the end of the 19th century, in 1895, a new popular art form began to appear in New York newspapers; the color comic strip. It took advantage of a new color printing process, which used color separation and three different colors of ink; magenta, cyan, and yellow, plus black, to create all the colors on the page. One of the first characters in the new comic strips was a humorous boy of the New York streets named Mickey Dugen, more commonly known as the Yellow Kid, from the yellow nightshirt he wore. He gave his name (and color) to the whole genre of popular, sensational journalism, which became known as "yellow journalism".
20th and 21st centuries
In the 20th century, yellow was revived as a symbol of exclusion, as it had been in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Jews in Nazi Germany and German-occupied countries were required to sew yellow triangles with the star of David onto their clothing.
In the 20th century, modernist painters reduced painting to its simplest colors and geometric shapes. The Dutch modernist painter Piet Mondrian made a series of paintings which consisted of a pure white canvas with grid of vertical and horizontal black lines and rectangles of yellow, red, and blue.
Yellow was particularly valued in the 20th century because of its high visibility. Because of its ability to be seen well from greater distances and at high speeds, yellow makes for the ideal color to be viewed from moving automobiles. It often replaced red as the color of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles, and was popular in neon signs, especially in Las Vegas and in China, where yellow was the most esteemed color.
In the 1960s, Pickett Brand developed the "Eye Saver Yellow" slide rule, which was produced with a specific yellow color (Angstrom 5600) that reflects long-wavelength rays and promotes optimum eye-ease to help prevent eyestrain and improve visual accuracy.
The 21st century saw the use of unusual materials and technologies to create new ways of experiencing the color yellow. One example was The weather project, by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, which was installed in the open space of the Turbine Hall of London's Tate Modern in 2003.
Eliasson used humidifiers to create a fine mist in the air via a mixture of sugar and water, as well as a semi-circular disc made up of hundreds of monochromatic lamps which radiated yellow light. The ceiling of the hall was covered with a huge mirror, in which visitors could see themselves as tiny black shadows against a mass of light.
Light, optics and colorimetry
The color perceived depends on how much each type of cone is stimulated. Yellow is perceived when the yellow-green receptor is stimulated slightly more than the blue-green receptor. Yellow is the color the human eye sees when it looks at light within the wavelengths of 570 and 590 nanometers, the wavelength of light between green and orange.
In the language of optics, yellow is the evoked by light that stimulates both the L and M (long and medium wavelength) cone cells of the retina about equally, with no significant stimulation of the S (short-wavelength) cone cells. Light with a wavelength of 570–590 nm is yellow, as is light with a suitable mixture of red and green. Yellow's traditional RYB complementary color is purple, violet, or indigo, while its colorimetrically defined complementary color in both RGB and CMYK color spaces is blue.
In color printing and on a computer screen
In color printing, yellow is one of the three colors of ink, along with magenta and cyan, which can be overlaid in the right combination, along with black, to print any full color image. (See the CMYK color model).
The yellow on a color television or computer screen is created in a completely different way; by combining green and red light at the right level of intensity. (See RGB color model).
The most intense yellow in the eight-bit RGB color model is RGB yellow or X11 yellow ; yellow is a "secondary" color in an additive RGB space.
The measured light spectrum from yellow pixels on a typical computer display is complex, and very unlike the reflectance spectrum of a yellow object such as a banana.
Process yellow (also known as "pigment yellow", "printer's yellow", and "canary yellow") is one of the three colors typically used as subtractive primary colors, along with magenta and cyan. The CMYK system for color printing is based on using four inks, one of which is a yellow color. This is in itself a standard color, and a fairly narrow range of yellow inks or pigments are used. Process yellow is based on a colorant that reflects the preponderance of red and green light, and absorbs most blue light, as in the reflectance spectra shown in the figure on the lower right.
Because of the characteristics of paint pigments and use of different color wheels, painters traditionally regard the complement of yellow as the color indigo or blue-violet.
Process yellow is not an RGB color, and there is no fixed conversion from CMYK primaries to RGB. Different formulations are used for printer's ink, so there can be variations in the printed color that is pure yellow ink.
The first recorded use of canary yellow as a color name in English was in 1789.
Traditionally, the complementary color of yellow is violet; the two colors are opposite each other on the color wheel long used by painters. Vincent Van Gogh, an avid student of color theory, used combinations of yellow and violet in several of his paintings for the maximum contrast and harmony.
Hunt defines that "two colors are complementary when it is possible to reproduce the tristimulus values of a specified achromatic stimulus by an additive mixture of these two stimuli." That is, when two colored lights can be mixed to match a specified white (achromatic, non-colored) light, the colors of those two lights are complementary. This definition, however, does not constrain what version of white will be specified. In the nineteenth century, the scientists Grassmann and Helmholtz did experiments in which they concluded that finding a good complement for spectral yellow was difficult, but that the result was indigo, that is, a wavelength that today's color scientists would call violet. Helmholtz says "Yellow and indigo blue" are complements. Grassmann reconstructs Newton's category boundaries in terms of wavelengths and says "This indigo therefore falls within the limits of color between which, according to Helmholtz, the complementary colors of yellow lie."
Newton's own color circle has yellow directly opposite the boundary between indigo and violet. These results, that the complement of yellow is a wavelength shorter than 450 nm, are derivable from the modern CIE 1931 system of colorimetry if it is assumed that the yellow is about 580 nm or shorter wavelength, and the specified white is the color of a blackbody radiator of temperature 2800 K or lower (that is, the white of an ordinary incandescent light bulb). More typically, with a daylight-colored or around 5000 to 6000 K white, the complement of yellow will be in the blue wavelength range, which is the standard modern answer for the complement of yellow.
Lasers emitting in the yellow part of the spectrum are less common and more expensive than most other colors. In commercial products diode pumped solid state (DPSS) technology is employed to create the yellow light. An infrared laser diode at 808 nm is used to pump a crystal of neodymium-doped yttrium vanadium oxide (Nd:YVO4) or neodymium-doped yttrium aluminium garnet (Nd:YAG) and induces it to emit at two frequencies (281.76 THz and 223.39 THz: 1064 nm and 1342 nm wavelengths) simultaneously. This deeper infrared light is then passed through another crystal containing potassium, titanium and phosphorus (KTP), whose non-linear properties generate light at a frequency that is the sum of the two incident beams (505.15 THz); in this case corresponding to the wavelength of 593.5 nm ("yellow"). This wavelength is also available, though even more rarely, from a helium–neon laser. However, this not a true yellow, as it exceeds 590 nm. A variant of this same DPSS technology using slightly different starting frequencies was made available in 2010, producing a wavelength of 589 nm, which is considered a true yellow color. The use of yellow lasers at 589 nm and 594 nm have recently become more widespread thanks to the field of optogenetics.
Stars of spectral classes F and G, such as our Sun, have color temperatures that make them look "yellowish". The first astronomer to classify stars according to their color was F. G. W. Struve in 1827. One of his classifications was flavae, or yellow, and this roughly corresponded to stars in the modern spectral range F5 to K0. The Strömgren photometric system for stellar classification includes a 'y' or yellow filter that is centered at a wavelength of 550 nm and has a bandwidth of 20–30 nm.
Autumn leaves, yellow flowers, bananas, oranges and other yellow fruit all contain carotenoids, yellow and red organic pigments that are found in the chloroplasts and chromoplasts of plants and some other photosynthetic organisms like algae, some bacteria and some fungi. They serve two key roles in plants and algae: they absorb light energy for use in photosynthesis, and they protect the green chlorophyll from photodamage.
In late summer, as daylight hours shorten and temperatures cool, the veins that carry fluids into and out of the leaf are gradually closed off. The water and mineral intake into the leaf is reduced, slowly at first, and then more rapidly. It is during this time that the chlorophyll begins to decrease. As the chlorophyll diminishes, the yellow and red carotenoids become more and more visible, creating the classic autumn leaf color.
Carotenoids are common in many living things; they give the characteristic color to carrots, corn, daffodils, rutabagas, buttercups and bananas. They are responsible for the red of cooked lobsters, the pink of flamingoes and salmon and the yellow of canaries and egg yolks.
Xanthophylls are the most common yellow pigments that form one of two major divisions of the carotenoid group. The name is from Greek xanthos (ξανθος, "yellow") + phyllon (φύλλον, "leaf"). Xanthophylls are most commonly found in the leaves of green plants, but they also find their way into animals through the food they eat. For example, the yellow color of chicken egg yolks, fat, and skin comes from the feed the chickens consume. Chicken farmers understand this, and often add xanthophylls, usually lutein, to make the egg yolks more yellow.
Bananas are green when they are picked because of the chlorophyll their skin contains. Once picked, they begin to ripen; hormones in the bananas convert amino acids into ethylene gas, which stimulates the production of several enzymes. These enzymes start to change the color, texture and flavor of the banana. The green chlorophyll supply is stopped and the yellow color of the carotenoids replaces it; eventually, as the enzymes continue their work, the cell walls break down and the bananas turn brown.
Yellow is the most visible color, and is particularly attractive to birds and insects. It is believed that the vision of birds is particularly sensitive to certain colors, such as yellow. Yellow pan traps are used to capture insects, many of which are attracted to shades of yellow.
Yellow is the most common color of flowers; the color makes it the most visible to the insects who are needed to bring pollen to the flowers.
Minerals and chemistry
4 has been used to determine magnesium in serum and urine, but the method is prone to interference, making the ammonium phosphate method superior when analysing blood cells, food or fecal material.
2O), is a naturally occurring pigment found in clays in many parts of the world. It is non-toxic and has been used in painting since prehistoric times.
4), derived from the mineral crocoite, was used by artists in the earlier part of the 19th century, but has been largely replaced by other yellow pigments because of the toxicity of lead.
2) is created by adding small amounts of the oxides of nickel and antimony to titanium dioxide and heating. It is used to produce yellow paints with good white coverage and has the LBNL paint code "Y10".
3) and was used as a paint pigment until the 19th century when, because of its high toxicity and reaction with lead-based pigments, it was generally replaced by Cadmium Yellow.
The color of saffron comes from crocin, a red variety of carotenoid natural pigment. The color of the dyed fabric varies from deep red to orange to yellow, depending upon the type of saffron and the process. Most saffron today comes from Iran, but it is also grown commercially in Spain, Italy and Kashmir in India, and as a boutique crop in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland and other countries. In the United States, it has been cultivated by the Pennsylvania Dutch community since the early 18th century. Because of the high price of saffron, other similar dyes and spices are often sold under the name saffron; for instance, what is called Indian saffron is often really turmeric.
The most common yellow food coloring in use today is called Tartrazine. It is a synthetic lemon yellow azo dye. It is also known as E number E102, C.I. 19140, FD&C yellow 5, acid yellow 23, food yellow 4, and trisodium 1-(4-sulfonatophenyl)-4-(4-sulfonatophenylazo)-5-pyrazolone-3-carboxylate. It is the yellow most frequently used such processed food products as corn and potato chips, breakfast cereals such as corn flakes, candies, popcorn, mustard, jams and jellies, gelatin, soft drinks (notably Mountain Dew), energy and sports drinks, and pastries. It is also widely used in liquid and bar soap, shampoo, cosmetics and medicines. Sometimes it is mixed with blue dyes to color processed products green.
It is typically labelled on food packages as "color", "tartrazine", or "E102". In the United States, because of concerns about possible health problems related to intolerance to tartrazine, its presence must be declared on food and drug product labels.
Another popular synthetic yellow coloring is Sunset Yellow FCF (also known as 'orange yellow S, FD&C yellow 6 and C.I. 15985) It is manufactured from aromatic hydrocarbons from petroleum. When added to foods sold in Europe, it is denoted by E number E110.
Symbolism and associations
In the west, yellow is not a well-loved color; in a 2000 survey, only six percent of respondents in Europe and America named it as their favorite color. compared with 45 percent for blue, 15 percent for green, 12 percent for red, and 10 percent for black. For seven percent of respondents, it was their least favorite color. Yellow is the color of ambivalence and contradiction; the color associated with optimism and amusement; but also with betrayal, duplicity, and jealousy. But in China and other parts of Asia, yellow is a color of virtue and nobility.
Yellow has strong historical and cultural associations in China, where it is the color of happiness, glory, and wisdom. In China, there are five directions of the compass; north, south, east, west, and the middle, each with a symbolic color. Yellow signifies the middle. China is called the Middle Kingdom; the palace of the Emperor was considered to be in the exact center of the world.
The legendary first emperor of China was called the Yellow Emperor. The last emperor of China, Puyi (1906–67), described in his memoirs how every object which surrounded him as a child was yellow. "It made me understand from my most tender age that I was of a unique essence, and it instilled in me the consciousness of my "celestial nature" which made me different from every other human."
The Chinese Emperor was literally considered the child of heaven, with both a political and religious role, both symbolized by yellow. Only members of the Imperial household were permitted to wear yellow. Distinguished visitors were honored with a yellow, not a red, carpet.
In Chinese symbolism, yellow, red and green are masculine colors, while black and white are considered feminine. In the traditional symbolism of the two opposites which complement each other, the yin and yang, the masculine yang is traditionally represented by yellow. Just as there are five elements, five directions and five colors in the Chinese world-view, there are also five seasons; summer, winter, fall, spring, and the end of summer, symbolized by yellow leaves.
Light and reason
Yellow, as the color of sunlight, is commonly associated with warmth. Yellow combined with red symbolized heat and energy. A room painted yellow feels warmer than a room painted white, and a lamp with yellow light seems more natural than a lamp with white light.
As the color of light, yellow is also associated with knowledge and wisdom. In English and many other languages, "brilliant" and "bright" mean intelligent. In Islam, the yellow color of gold symbolizes wisdom. In medieval European symbolism, red symbolized passion, blue symbolized the spiritual, and yellow symbolized reason. In many European universities, yellow gowns and caps are worn by members of the faculty of physical and natural sciences, as yellow is the color of reason and research.
Gold and blond
In ancient Greece and Rome, the gods were often depicted with yellow, or blonde hair; which was described in literature as 'golden'. The color yellow was associated with the sun gods Helios and Apollo. It was fashionable in ancient Greece for men and women to dye their hair yellow, or to spend time in the sun to bleach it. In ancient Rome, prostitutes were required to bleach their hair, to be easily identified, but it also became a fashionable hair color for aristocratic women, influenced by the exotic blonde hair of many of the the newly-conquered slaves from Gaul, Britain, and Germany. However, in medieval Europe and later, the word yellow often had negative connotations; associated with betrayal, so yellow hair was more poetically called 'blond,' 'light', 'fair,' or most often "golden".
Visibility and caution
Yellow is the most visible color from a distance, so it is often used for objects that need to be seen, such as fire engines, road maintenance equipment, school buses and taxicabs. It is also often used for warning signs, since yellow traditionally signals caution, rather than danger. Safety yellow is often used for safety and accident prevention information. A yellow light on a traffic signal means slow down, but not stop. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) uses Pantone 116 (a yellow hue) as their standard color implying "general warning," while the Federal Highway Administration similarly uses yellow to communicate warning or caution on highway signage. A yellow penalty card in a soccer match means warning, but not expulsion.
Optimism and pleasure
Yellow is the color most associated with optimism and pleasure; it is a color designed to attract attention, and is used for amusement. Yellow dresses in fashion are rare, but always associated with gaiety and celebration.
In other cultures
Selected national and international flags
Three of the five most populous countries in the world (China, India, and Brazil) have yellow or gold in their flag, representing about half of the world's population. While many flags use yellow, their symbolism varies widely, from civic virtue to golden treasure, golden fields, the desert, royalty, the keys to Heaven and the leadership of the Communist Party. In classic European heraldry, yellow, along with white, is one of the two metals (called gold and silver) and therefore flags following heraldic design rules must use either yellow or white to separate any of their other colors (see rule of tincture).
According to Buddhist scriptures and commentaries, the robe dye is allowed to be obtained from six kinds of substances: roots and tubers, plants, bark, leaves, flowers and fruits. The robes should also be boiled in water a long time to get the correctly sober color. Saffron and ochre, usually made with dye from the curcuma longa plant or the heartwood of the jackfruit tree, are the most common colors. The so-called forest monks usually wear ochre robes and city monks saffron, though this is not an official rule.
The color of robes also varies somewhat among the different "vehicles", or schools of Buddhism, and by country, depending on their doctrines and the dyes available. The monks of the strict Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism, practiced in Tibet, wear the most colorful robes of saffron and red. The monks of Mahayana Buddhism, practiced mainly in Japan, China and Korea, wear lighter yellow or saffron, often with white or black. Monks of Hinayana Buddhism, practiced in Southeast Asia, usually wear ochre or saffron color. Monks of the forest tradition in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia wear robes of a brownish ochre, dyed from the wood of the jackfruit tree.