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The Story of Our Favourite Colour: Yellow

By: Tess Buckley

Yellow can appear warm and bright, yet it can also lead to visual fatigue. The effects of yellow can be highly varied and complex. Not everyone responds to this color in the same way - one may say it's cheerful while others find it aggressive. This piece looks into the history, symbolism and use of yellow.

The History of Yellow

Yellow pigments derived from clay soils rich in ochre were used as early as 45,000 BCE for decorating human bodies and cave walls. The first lexical references to yellow in the west come from the Neolithic period: “yellow as honey”, or “yellow as ripe wheat”. Yellow was also the colour of the sun and gold.

Yellow Ochre Pigment.

The oldest yellow pigment is yellow ochre, which is thought to be the first pigments used by humans. Egyptians and the ancient world made wide use of the mineral orpiment for a more brilliant yellow than yellow ochre. Both the yellow sun and yellow gold shared the qualities of eternal, indestructible and imperishable. Anything portrayed as yellow in Egyptian art generally carried this connotation. The skin and bones of the gods were believed to be made of gold.

Egyptian Gold.

Tomb of Tutankhamun, The Northern Wall Egyptian Painting.

Symbolism of Yellow

The word yellow comes from the old english geolu. Yellow is associated with sunshine, knowledge, and the flourishing of living creatures, but also with autumn and maturity. The yellow sun is one of humanity’s most important symbols and was worshiped as God in many cultures. According to Greek mythology, the sun-god Helios wore a yellow robe and rode in a golden chariot drawn by four fiery horses. The radiant yellow light of the sun personified divine wisdom. In China, yellow is assigned to the active and creative male Yang principle, while ancient Egyptians ascribed yellow to the female principle.

Sun-God Helious.

In Italy, "yellow" ("giallo") refers to crime stories, both fictional and real. This association began around 1930, when the first published series of crime novels had yellow covers. Yellow is also the color of caution. Yellow lights signal drivers to slow down in anticipation of stopping. Construction scenes and other dangerous areas are often enclosed by a bright yellow barricade tape repeating the word "caution."

Yellow Cover Crime Novel.

The Inventions of Yellow Pads

One use of the color yellow can be seen in yellow or legal pads. The legal pad got its start in Holyoke, Massachusetts from a 24 year old Thomas Holley in 1888 who was working at a paper mill. Some believe that writing on a yellow pad is easier to read than writing on a white pad. If the light is too intense, white paper can be glaring, while a yellow one cuts down the glare.

Notepad by Matt Kenyon.

An art project we wanted to highlight that uses legal pads is ‘Notepad’ by Matt Kenyon. In this piece Kenyon took multiple legal pads and microprinted the names of Iranian war victims as the blue lines on the pads.

Then comes us - Yellow Pad Sessions, started in 2019, we work to honour the sunshine, knowledge, and the flourishing of living creatures that the color yellow is associated with, and we use many yellow pads while brainstorming new events, content and features for our community.

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