The Real Turner’s Yellow

This actually has nothing to do with J. M. W. Turner, although I did get excited when I saw “Turner’s Yellow” in the art supply store.

The modern Liquitex acrylic version is pretty useful stuff for glazing: a translucent golden yellow that appears quite warm in masstone but reveals a slight green bias in a thinner layer.  It’s not as bright as azo or arylide yellow, but it’s brighter than an iron oxide.  It’s actually a mix of PY3, Hansa Yellow 10G (which goes by a couple of dozen names, some of which include “azo” or “arylide”) and PY42, Yellow Iron Oxide, whose multiplicity of names, according to the Color of Art Pigment Database, includes “Bohemian Ochre Dark.”  I might have to keep an eye out for that one.  It’s a purer yellow than the modern Naples yellow (chromium titanate and titanium dioxide, in Winsor & Newton) and it therefore behaves a bit more predictably when mixed with other paints, especially blues and greens.

You might have guessed that this is a modern attempt to recreate a historical color, but there’s one pretty important difference between the modern hue and the original.  The original Turner’s Yellow was PY30, lead oxychloride.  Interestingly, according to the same site, it was opaque…so it might have looked more like Naples yellow after all.

Lead oxychloride was discovered around 1770 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish “apothecarist” who also discovered green copper arsenide, a chemically related forerunner of emerald green.  It was called “Turner’s yellow” after James Turner, who patented it in 1781, although others nonetheless manufactured it using different processes.(1)  It fell out of use sometime in the early twentieth century.(2)


1.  Philip Ball, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 154.

2.  Nicholas Eastaugh, Valentine Walsh, Tracey Chaplin and Ruth Siddall, The Pigment Compendium: A Dictionary of Historical Pigments (Oxford: Elsevier Butterworth-Heineman, 2004), 224.


One thought on “The Real Turner’s Yellow

  1. I stand corrected. The pigment wasn’t named for J. M. W. Turner, but it doesn’t have *nothing* to do with him. It’s mentioned here as being a pigment he used:

    Wanting to dig a bit deeper, I found an in-depth analysis here:

    According to the Color of Art database, lead oxychloride is also known as Patent Yellow, which is the name the journal article uses (as did Turner himself, apparently.)

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