Yellow is the color between green and orange on the spectrum of light. It is evoked by light with a dominant wavelength of roughly 575–585 nm. It is a primary color in subtractive color systems, used in painting or color printing. In the RGB color model, used to create colors on television and computer screens, yellow is a secondary color made by combining red and green at equal intensity. Carotenoids give the characteristic yellow color to autumn leaves, corn, canaries, daffodils, and lemons, as well as egg yolks, buttercups, and bananas. They absorb light energy and protect plants from photo damage in some cases. Sunlight has a slight yellowish hue when the Sun is near the horizon, due to atmospheric scattering of shorter wavelengths (green, blue, and violet).
Because it was widely available, yellow ochre pigment was one of the first colors used in art; the Lascaux cave in France has a painting of a yellow horse 17,000 years old. Ochre and orpiment pigments were used to represent gold and skin color in Egyptian tombs, then in the murals in Roman villas. In the early Christian church, yellow was the color associated with the Pope and the golden keys of the Kingdom, but it was also associated with Judas Iscariot and used to mark heretics. In the 20th century, Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe were forced to wear a yellow star. In China, bright yellow was the color of the Middle Kingdom, and could be worn only by the emperor and his household; special guests were welcomed on a yellow carpet.
According to surveys in Europe, Canada, the United States and elsewhere, yellow is the color people most often associate with amusement, gentleness, humor, happiness, and spontaneity; however it can also be associated with duplicity, envy, jealousy, greed, and, in the U.S., cowardice. In Iran it has connotations of pallor/sickness, but also wisdom and connection. In China and many Asian countries, it is seen as the color of happiness, glory, harmony and wisdom.
During the Post-Classical period, yellow became firmly established as the color of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ, even though the Bible never describes his clothing. From this connection, yellow also took on associations with envy, jealousy and duplicity.
The tradition started in the Renaissance of marking non-Christian outsiders, such as Jews, with the color yellow. In 16th-century Spain, those accused of heresy and who refused to renounce their views were compelled to come before the Spanish Inquisition dressed in a yellow cape.
The color yellow has been historically associated with moneylenders and finance. The National Pawnbrokers Association’s logo depicts three golden spheres hanging from a bar, referencing the three bags of gold that the patron saint of pawnbroking, St. Nicholas, holds in his hands. Additionally, the symbol of three golden orbs is found in the coat of arms of the House of Medici, a famous fifteenth-century Italian dynasty of bankers and lenders.
The 18th and 19th century saw the discovery and manufacture of synthetic pigments and dyes, which quickly replaced the traditional yellows made from arsenic, cow urine, and other substances.
Circa 1776, Jean-Honoré Fragonard painted A Young Girl Reading. She is dressed in a bright saffron yellow dress. This painting is “considered by many critics to be among Fragonard’s most appealing and masterly”.
The 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner was one of the first in that century to use yellow to create moods and emotions, the way romantic composers were using music. His painting Rain, Steam, and Speed – the Great Central Railway was dominated by glowing yellow clouds.
Georges Seurat used the new synthetic colors in his experimental paintings composed of tiny points of primary colors, particularly in his famous Sunday Afternoon on the Isle de la Grand jatte (1884–86). He did not know that the new synthetic yellow pigment, zinc yellow or zinc chromate, which he used in the light green lawns, was highly unstable and would quickly turn brown.
The painter Vincent van Gogh was a particular admirer of the color yellow, the color of sunshine. Writing to his sister from the south of France in 1888, he wrote, “Now we are having beautiful warm, windless weather that is very beneficial to me. The sun, a light that for lack of a better word I can only call yellow, bright sulfur yellow, pale lemon gold. How beautiful yellow is!” In Arles, Van Gogh painted sunflowers inside a small house he rented at 2 Place Lamartine, a house painted with a color that Van Gogh described as “buttery yellow”. Van Gogh was one of the first artists to use commercially manufactured paints, rather than paints he made himself. He used the traditional yellow ochre, but also chrome yellow, first made in 1809; and cadmium yellow, first made in 1820.
At the end of the 19th century, in 1895, a new popular art form began to appear in New York newspapers; the color comic strip. It took advantage of a new color printing process, which used color separation and three different colors of ink; magenta, cyan, and yellow, plus black, to create all the colors on the page. One of the first characters in the new comic strips was a humorous boy of the New York streets named Mickey Dugen, more commonly known as the Yellow Kid, from the yellow nightshirt he wore. He gave his name (and color) to the whole genre of popular, sensational journalism, which became known as “yellow journalism”.
In the 20th century, yellow was revived as a symbol of exclusion, as it had been in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Jews in Nazi Germany and German-occupied countries were required to sew yellow triangles with the star of David onto their clothing.
In the 20th century, modernist painters reduced painting to its simplest colors and geometric shapes. The Dutch modernist painter Piet Mondrian made a series of paintings which consisted of a pure white canvas with a grid of vertical and horizontal black lines and rectangles of yellow, red, and blue.
Yellow was particularly valued in the 20th century because of its high visibility. Because of its ability to be seen well from greater distances and at high speeds, yellow makes for the ideal color to be viewed from moving automobiles. It often replaced red as the color of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles, and was popular in neon signs, especially in Las Vegas and in China, where yellow was the most esteemed color.
In the 1960s, Pickett Brand developed the “Eye Saver Yellow” slide rule, which was produced with a specific yellow color (Angstrom 5600) that reflects long-wavelength rays and promotes optimum eye-ease to help prevent eyestrain and improve visual accuracy.
The 21st century saw the use of unusual materials and technologies to create new ways of experiencing the color yellow. One example was The weather project, by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, which was installed in the open space of the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern in 2003.
Eliasson used humidifiers to create a fine mist in the air via a mixture of sugar and water, as well as a semi-circular disc made up of hundreds of monochromatic lamps which radiated yellow light. The ceiling of the hall was covered with a huge mirror, in which visitors could see themselves as tiny black shadows against a mass of light
One of the most uplifting colors, decorating with yellow is sure to lift your spirits and it is perhaps not surprising that this joyful option is experiencing a renaissance in interiors.
From pretty primrose, soft buttermilk and golden yoke, to zesty lemons and sunflower or mustard hues, yellow brings warmth and sunshine to every surface it touches. Along with its mood-enhancing qualities, yellow is a highly versatile color that can be paired with many other shades.
Hugely diverse decorating with yellow can be used to create spaces that are stimulating and energizing, fun or formal, to cozy and welcoming.
With an array of shades to choose from and many beautiful yellow room ideas, there is no end to the potential that yellow can offer in decorating.
‘Sunny yellow brings in a touch of warmth and optimism to a room, perfect for bringing a sense of positivity into the home,’ says Justyna Korczynska, senior designer at Crown(opens in new tab). ‘The color creates a sense of calm with a feeling of restfulness and well-being.’
Find expert advice on some of the best ways to use yellow around the home.
When it comes to decorating with yellow there are so many ideas for using this mood-enriching shade – named one of the best colors to make a room feel happy by paint experts.
‘Yellow is a shade that provides positivity to a space. It is a color that makes us feel uplifted, happy, energized and invited. The perfect shade for a hallway or a front door, yellow provides a warm invitation to any home,’ says Ruth Mottershead, creative director of Little Greene(opens in new tab).
Bold, saturated shades used in yellow kitchen ideas can be great for stimulating activity, while more rich earthy tones can be perfect for bringing an enveloping and comforting feel to yellow living rooms.
Used on all four walls, yellow can make a lasting impression, alternatively, ‘used as a feature zone or on a piece of re-loved furniture, yellow has the power to really add a pop of happiness into a space without needing to saturate every wall in it,’ says Anna Hill, brand director at paint and color experts Fenwick & Tilbrook(opens in new tab).
As well as considering the style of the room you wish to decorate, consider how you use a room and the energy you wish to evoke. Paler, gentler shades of yellow will create a sense of calm, while stronger sunnier hues offer more high-octane energy. Tweak that energy further by opting for finishes in subtle chalk or glossy lacquer.
When it comes to deciding where and how much of color to use if you are decorating with yellow, consider the light in the space.
‘As with any pigment, natural light will affect how your color choice looks in a room so I’d always recommend painting a sample onto the different walls in a room so you can see how it will look in different lights throughout the day,’ says Dominic Myland, owner of Myland Paints(opens in new tab).
‘If yellow walls might be too much for you, introduce it into smaller areas such as kitchen cabinetry, window, and door woodwork, the inside of a wardrobe, or by painting a favorite piece of furniture. For a north-facing room, yellows and yellow-based off-whites will imbue the room with warmth and counterbalance a cool grey light.’
Here, color blocking the inset to a window with yellow as a paint trick creates a dynamic effect that not only brings warmth but offers an eye-catching focus to a room. This warm paint hue from Crown was developed with the Mid-Century trend in mind and is made from a deep greyed yellow that has got the depth of an old gold, too. Cream White and Mustard Jar Breatheasy Coloured Emulsion, from £18 for 2.5ltrs, Crown.
‘Yellow is a color that people are often scared to use, but it’s a fantastic color to really lift a space and create interest and features. It reflects all lights well, and makes a room feel very warm and inviting. It’s known to induce creativity and playfulness, so it’s fantastic for craft room ideas, kitchens and children’s rooms,’ says Interior designer Francesca Rowan-Plowden(opens in new tab).
What better place to use it in its brightest, zingiest form than a flower room, craft room, or pantry idea? Interior design team Salvesen Graham(opens in new tab) designed a joyous space for their client with open scalloped shelves to soften the utilitarian nature of the room. The finishing touch is pretty, skirted storage fashioned from a repurposed bed hanging sewn with white linen tea towels.
Tones of yellow vary hugely from buttercup yellows to zingy citrus shades, and which you choose can have a real impact on the look and feel of the space so it’s important to choose wisely. When decorating with yellow, ‘the secret to success is in the tone tint or shade as primary yellow is just too insistent to use in large amounts,’ explains Simon Temperell, interior design manager at Neptune(opens in new tab).
‘Yellow with a green undertone is best kept to bright, south-facing rooms as it will turn slightly bilious in a shadowy corner and because of that it is important to recognise how it registers at all times of the day before you commit. Softer, buttery yellows are more calming and easier on the eye.’
It’s important to note that the more red you add to yellow the warmer and more adaptable it becomes, he adds. ‘Mustard, ochre and sienna carry more importance and can be paired beautifully with blues, greens or even pink, if it is sufficiently subdued. And if you want to create drama with yellow, try pairing it with black, navy or emerald.’
‘Yellow is a color that evokes happiness and provides a sense of positivity. It is perfect for areas of the home where there is much activity and socialising, such as the kitchen and dining room, where it adds energy and vitality,’ says Andy Greenall, head of design, Paint & Paper Library(opens in new tab).
Yellow dining room ideas with golden shades used over all four walls are guaranteed to create wow-factor and spark joy at gatherings and family meal times, alternatively, bring a zesty pop to a kitchen by limiting the shade to the cabinets which can easily be repainted if tastes change.
Design studio Frank & Faber ensured that the upstairs landing at the boutique hotel Number One Bruton in Somerset was joyful by using a rich yellow, an ideal to greet guests in the mornings.
An earthy tobacco shade, the Trumpington color by Edward Bulmer Natural Paint (opens in new tab)brings a fun color pop to the historic space while also bringing warmth.
‘Sometimes you need a deeper golden colour with more clout as some yellows can be too grey, too flat or just too primary. Earthy tobacco shades will work in any room you want to feel warm and intriguing; it is a serious colour, elegant and sophisticated, which creates a fabulous backdrop to artwork and antiques and works in a variety of spaces,’ says Edward Bulmer.
Opting for a bath in yellow is a great way to create a fun focal point in rooms that can easily lack personality like bathrooms, but if you’re thinking of yellow bathroom ideas be sure to chose the right shade says Barrie Cutchie, design director at BC Designs(opens in new tab).
‘The secret to making the color yellow work in your bathroom is to use the right shade of yellow that resonates with you, and while using it in the right proportions. Being surrounded by too much yellow, the wrong yellow for you or the wrong tone in relation to the other tones within the colour scheme can easily create disharmony.’
Here the choice of pale yellow pairs beautifully with white and grey tiles to keep the space feeling relaxing. ‘Having white intermixed shows off both the yellow and grey without competing with either,’ he adds.
‘Subtle and quiet, the palest hues of the yellow palette are perfect for adding a touch of color and warmth while enhancing the feeling of space. Above, a buttermilk hue is painted all over on walls and ceilings to make a vaulted room feel lifted to the skies. Deeper and richer shades of yellow are added to the mix to add warmth,’ says Sara Bird.
You can create a feature out of otherwise standard shelving by painting both the shelves and walls the same color of yellow or alternatively brighten up neutral shelves with a bright shade of this cheerful color.
For seamless wall-to-wall sunshine, take the same color around the rest of the room or choose a contrasting color such as black, white, or blue to create a spotlight effect on your shelves.
This idea for decorating shelves can help draw attention to your carefully curated displays.
‘Yellow is the perfect partner for all kinds of colors, from its color wheel neighbors of greens and orange to its opposing shades of pinks and plums,’ says Sara Bird. ‘A pretty combination can be seen if matched with white, and it even works well with bold blacks for a dynamic and striking statement.’
‘I would pair this with the creamier off-whites, beiges and warm greys for a softer palette or with a sludgy green or deep blue for instant drama,’ adds Edward Bulmer, interior designer and founder of Edward Bulmer Natural Paints.
‘If you’re unsure where to begin with decorating with yellow then we’d always recommend starting small. It might be a mustard velvet throw, a citrus-hued candle or an ochre rug for a splash of color underfoot,’ advises Lou Graham, Co-owner of Graham & Green(opens in new tab).
‘Decorating with yellow in a kitchen is a brave choice but I always say that if you love a color, you should embrace it,’ says Lucy Searle. ‘If you are remodeling your kitchen to sell your house, I would advise against yellow kitchen ideas, other than in accessories, since this bold shade clearly won’t be to everyone’s taste. However, if this is your forever home and you love yellow, why not? You can always opt for yellow dining room ideas instead.’
‘Painted kitchens in yellow will offer you flexibility so that if you change your mind or your circumstances change and you have to move house unexpectedly, you can always repaint in a safer shade.’
Yellow bathroom ideas can be ideal for making a cold, north-facing room feel instantly warmer, and can be mitigated by cooler accent tones, as in the room above. For a fun, family bathroom, you can pick zingier shades of yellow, but in more grown-up spaces, we’d advise sticking to the more muted shades, or simply accessorizing with yellow towels.
Grey and yellow go very well together, whether that is a dark grey with intense ochre, or a pale grey with a sherbet yellow.
‘Yellow is a soothing colour, particularly when mixed with cool, calming tones such as greys and pale, muted blues,’ says Justyna Korczynska, senior designer at Crown.
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