16 Shades of Yellow: Understanding Pigments

By Nicole Tinkham

16 Shades of Yellow(1)

Cadmium yellow, Hansa yellow, Naples yellow… All yellow, all completely different colors. How can this be? Yellow is yellow, right? In the world of art, describing a color as “yellow” just won’t cut it. There are warm yellows, dull yellows, muted yellows, intense yellows, rich yellows, opaque yellows, and the list goes on. Is your head spinning yet? With so many options, you may be wondering how to determine the best yellow paint for your next project. To do that, you must understand PIGMENTS. Here’s the pigment low down so you know exactly what you need.

Pigment categories

To understand the differences between the various yellows, we’re going to break pigments down into 3 main categories: Earth, Mineral, and Organic.

These pigments have been around for ages, were used for cave paintings and as you’ve probably guessed, found from the earth.

*These tend to be opaque except when modified by modern processes. Also, their intensity goes down when mixing with other colors.

What you need to know: Muted colors, sense of calm


Mineral pigments on the other hand are found from metals, most being created when the Industrial Age began. Cadmium Yellow is a great example of this. The mineral pigment cadmium sulfide was used to create it.

*These also tend to be opaque and low in tinting strength but high in chroma (pure/intense).

What you need to know: Rich colors, creates excitement through contrast


Hansa Yellow would be an example of organic pigments (arylide) which are derived from pigments containing carbon.

*Organic pigments are normally transparent and high in tinting strength and chroma. These will give you the most intense yellows.

What you need to know: Intense color

Cheat sheet

Nickel Titanate Yellow- Mineral
Cadmium Chartreuse- Mineral
Cadmium Lemon- Mineral
Cadmium Yellow Light- Mineral
Cadmium Yellow Medium- Mineral
Cadmium Yellow Deep- Mineral
Radiant Yellow- Mineral
Radiant Lemon- Mineral
Hansa Yellow Light- Organic
Hansa Yellow Medium- Organic
Hansa Yellow Deep- Organic
Indian Yellow- Earth
Naples Yellow Hue- Earth
Yellow Ochre- Earth
Gold Ochre- Earth
Transparent Earth Yellow- Earth

Remember, not all yellows are created equal! Print this blog out and read over the three main pigment types before heading out to the store to pick up supplies. Think about what you want the final piece to look like. Are you going for a more intense or duller look? What other colors are you using?  Also, give yourself time to practice and experiment. Sometimes it’s difficult to picture how a certain color looks until you actually use it in a painting. Be patient and dare to try new things!

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