Sunday, December 1, 2019

INDIAN YELLOW : The Colour of Pee

Indian Yellow is a transparent and luminescent traditional yellow pigment, with excellent tinting qualities that was used in oil and watercolour painting. Also known as purree, piuri, peori, gogoli, gaugil, moghyr piuri, giallo indiano, snowshoe yellow and many more. It was admired for its purity and goldish like shade.

Photo: Forbes Collection, internet image

It can be argued that Indian yellow may be one of the most mysterious pigments to reach the art world. The origin, ingredients and manufacturing process have been disputed, some argue its origin comes from animal source and others from a plant-based material. 

Indian Yellow may have been extracted from cow's urine and the extracted pigment was then hand shaped into balls about 3 ounces of weight and shipped to Great Britain from Calcutta, India, throughout the 18th -19th centuries. These little parcels where addressed to George Field, an English chemist and Winsor and Newton, traditional paint manufacturer and shop so they could sell them as raw pigment or as paint. 

Photo: Collection from Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

There is only one location known to have produced this vibrant yellow colour, known as Bihar in the northeast region in India. Some people say it was originally produced in Persia and then introduced in India. Widely used in India, during the Mughal Period (15th century) and was applied onto art and textiles, especially for dyeing calicoes (cloths made of cotton), and no mordants were used, so the dye was washed when dirty. There is also evidence Indian Yellow was mixed with saffron.

Photo: Shankara Ragaputra,” Megha Raga, 1610-1620

It was also quite used in Europe before its extinction in 1921. A good example can be seen in Johannes Vermeer ‘A woman weighing gold’ (1662-63).

Photo: Johannes Vermeer 'A woman weighing gold', image internet

The mysterious origin / source: 

It is believed this pigment was made from the urine of Indian cows, which were strictly fed on mango leaves and water.  As a result cows expelled saturated urine of an astonishing hue and strong odour, for sure. The urine was collected in buckets and filtered through a cloth, the resulting sediment was collected and made into balls, which could then be crushed and mixed with a medium. 

This method ended in the early 20th century, probably for ethical reasons.

Whereas, in The Art of Painting in Oil and in Fresco, Indian yellow is described as “a brilliant yellow lake” and that “the colouring matter is extracted from a tree, or a large shrub" called Memecylon tinctorium and that had “a smell like cows’ urine”. The flowers of the “Memecylon tinctorium, were substituted for saffron, potentially as early as the 7th century, and it appears in Chinese documents indicating it as a “cheap colouring-matter that was substituted in trade for the precious saffron”. 

‘the juice of some tree or plant, which after it has been expressed, has been saturated with magnesia and boiled down to its present consistence’. 
- John Stenhouse, ‘Philosophical Magazine” (1844)

The writer Victoria Finlay investigated this claim for her book Color: A Natural History of the Palette. She found little evidence that the paint was made from urine, and concluded that the whole story was likely a myth. 

Different sources and stories: 

1. cows fed with turmeric 
2. gallstones and urine of other animals: camels, elephants and buffaloes 
3. vegetable origin

Photo: Studio Laura Daza, experimentation with Indian yellow