The Colour Yellow

Even the earliest cultures recognised, that all life in the end is dependent on the light of the sun. And as I was writing the first version of this article, an interesting thought came to my mind:
Life is consisting of blue water and yellow sunlight. If we mix the colours yellow and blue, the result is green:

The colour of life itself.

Giant rubber duck in Saigon
Giant rubber duck in Saigon

However, for thousands of years, yellow was known as the colour of the gods of the sun.
And the colour of wealth and prosperity as well, for yellow may replace gold in the symbolism of colours. So for example, yellow is the colour of the royal dynasty of Thailand, as well as the emperors of China.

Yellow in Europe

From medieval times until the 20th century, yellow was sometimes connected to a negative context, as a colour of greed, jealousy and envy. In the catholic liturgical colours, there is no yellow present. Perhaps because there is more than enough blood-soaked gold decorating their churches.

In the 3rd Reich, Jews had to wear a yellow badge, sewed on their outer garments in order to mark them as Jews in public. Yellow used to be the colour of discrimination in Europe since medieval times.

In English, you turn “green with envy”, in German you turn yellow (Gelb vor Neid werden).

Yellow in the spectrum

Yellow covers a very small part of the visible spectrum of colours. That´s why yellow with just a little red appears as orange, while just small amounts of blue added, and it turns out as greenish colour.

Thus, designers or artists add small portions of red/blue innately, to let the colour appear warm or cold, despite the colour of light in a room for example.
The range of true yellow, often called neutral yellow, is quite small.


Yellow as signal colour

Right after red, yellow is the most common signal colour. Thinking of yellow traffic lights, yellow danger signs or the yellow signal flags aboard a ship.

The connection between the colour yellow and yelling is no coincidence, because as a signal colour, yellow is yelling. Also the popular press, telling a heap load of crap, is often called yellow press (interesting… let´s cite that phrase from above again: yellow is the colour of the sun).

Van Gogh Mass Production in Dafen
Van Gogh Mass Production in Dafen | photo: (cc-by-sa) Mitch Altman

Overview: Yellow

  • Yellow is the colour of luck, wisdom and glory
  • For the ancient Egyptians, yellow represented female aspects: tender, happy and sensual
  • Again in the ancient Egypt, a yellow wedding dress protected the bride from evil spirits
  • Also in Russia, parts of the Balkan and some oriental countries, yellow is the colour for weddings
  • The colour of yellow ochre is associated with Ing, the Germanic god of the fertile soil
  • Yellow as signal colour means warning, one step below red
  • Yellow is the colour of most ancient sun-gods
  • And of the sun, light and life
  • In heraldry, yellow acts as a substitute for gold
  • Yellow is optimistic and represents prosperity and joy
  • Yellow is a primary colour in the CMYK mode (subtractive colour scheme)
  • There is a connection between yelling and yellow (yellow press)
  • In the Christian and Jewish liturgy, yellow is banned
  • Yellow was used as colour of the outcast, especially in the European medieval times until the 20th century
  • In theatres, yellow curtains bring bad luck
  • In autumn, leaves turn yellow – a sign of maturity
  • Yellow was the colour of the Chinese emperor
  • In China, yellow is associated with Yang as an active, creating principle
  • Yellow (and orange) is the colour of enlightenment in Asia
  • Yellow in the animal kingdom often is a warning that says: I am poisonous, venomous and dangerous
  • The yellow card (soccer) is a warning as well: Stop that or you get banned from the game
  • Yellow is also the colour of greed, jealousy, envy and hassle

Flower Covered Avalokiteshvara Statue
Flower Covered Avalokiteshvara Statue | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox

Often the colour also represents gold, from medieval heraldry to Chinese customary decorations.