Whilst visiting the South of France in 1888, the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh wrote to his sister: "now we are having beautiful warm, windless weather. The sun is a light that for lack of a better word I can only call yellow, bright sulphur yellow, pale lemon gold. How beautiful yellow is!"
‘Lemon gold’ is a wonderful description of the colour ‘yellow’, whose official name derives from the Old English terms for both ‘gold’ and ‘yellowish’. Like ‘lemon-gold’ and ‘gold-yellowish’, there’s a sense that this colour is understood by compounding disparate ideas which, not themselves ‘yellow’, become something closer to yellow when placed together.
Perhaps part of the reason for this is that many of our best-loved yellow objects are not (strictly speaking) yellow. Van Gogh’s ‘sulphur yellow’ sun only appears so because of the incredibly high surface temperature of the sun. Casting the net wider in the natural world, things like lemons, bananas, egg yolks, daffodils and buttercups sometimes appear yellow because of a plant pigment called carotenoid.
Carotenoids absorb light energy for photosynthesis and protect the green chlorophyll from photo-damage. These yellow pigments are often present in growing things, but their colour only becomes visible after photosynthesis has stopped and the amount of green chlorophyll has depleted. When a banana is picked, it will ripen and turn yellow. When the hours of daylight shorten in autumn, leaves lose their greenness and turn yellow. This transformation isn’t the addition of yellow, but the subtraction of another element which had been competing with it.
Recent surveys carried out in Europe, Canada, and the United States found that the colour yellow is most often associated with amusement, gentleness, humour and spontaneity. In many Asian countries, it symbolises happiness, harmony and wisdom; bright yellow was once the colour of the Middle Kingdom in China, worn only by the Emperor and his household. The ancient Egyptians reserved yellow ochre for tomb paintings of the gods, who they believed possessed skin and bones of yellow gold.
In a change of tack, Post-Classical Europe linked the colour yellow with Judas Iscariot, using it to mark and oppress non-Christians, such as ‘heretics’ during the Spanish Inquisition and Jews during Nazi Germany. With such a complex history, and a somewhat confusing presence in the natural world, it’s unsurprising that our sense of the colour yellow is often associative.
The idea of yellow is strongly linked to other ideas, such as the sand on a beach; the vibrancy of a fisherman’s raincoat; the colour of corn growing in a field, or the yellow stone used to build Bethlehem.