Like the color green, the color yellow has a split personality. Yellow, and its cousin gold, can mean wealth, sunlight, cheer and happiness, even life itself. But it is also the color of sweat, feces and urine, cowardice and betrayal, just as green’s sour side is that of poison, jealousy, snot, and pus.
Unlike green, yellow has always an easy pigment to procure. Yellow ochre has been used since prehistoric times for cave painting and, likely, body decor. A certain shade of artist’s paint is still known as Yellow Ochre, even though most yellows have synthetic bases now. The first of these, a bright lemon shade known as Chromium Yellow, was all the rage in the late 1700s. Thomas Jefferson even painted some rooms in Monticello with it. To modern eyes it seems garish; yet in an age of candlelight and lanterns, the bright shade amplified the meager light that was there and made rooms appear larger and brighter when the sun went down.
Indeed, yellow’s propensity for being brighter than white led to its wide use in the construction and manufacturing industry, to denote caution and danger. Taxi cabs, too, are traditionally yellow, to make it easier for passengers to hail them down. Yet, yellow can also be that most neutral of neutral shades in its palest form: cream, which has never gone out of style.
Yellow of all shades was ubiquitous in the Depression era, an attempt at cheer in a very dark decade. In the 1940s it reverted to deep gold and mustard shades, turning back toward pastels in the 1950s as well as a golden ochre tone that came to represent “luxe” style and furnishings. But in the psychedelic sixties, lemon yellow and only lemon yellow reigned supreme — it was the color (and smell) that most symbolized the decade, from The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine movie to Jean Nate lemon-scented cologne.
By the end of the decade, anything with the word yellow in it came to symbolize the counterculture, such as Screamin’ Yellow Zonkers, a candied popcorn snack food that began production in 1968, and Donovan’s hit song “Mellow Yellow” that purportedly referred to getting high off smoking dried banana peels. White daisies with yellow centers became graphic shorthand for the hippie mantra of peace & love and were featured widely in brides’ bouquets to denote purity and a childlike simplicity.
Yellow hung onto popularity in the early 1970s when the yellow Smiley Face graphic became popular and Harvest Gold was a home decor staple. Yellow took on neon and fluorescent shades in the 1980s as well as serving in brighter hues. Since then, it’s maintained its appeal.
If you need a novel way to describe a shade of yellow, or a paint color, here’s a few.
Shades of Yellow
Cream and Apples
Soft n’ Sunny
Touch of Chiffon