Illuminations From The Illustrator

The Emotions of Color: Yellow

What color do we see when we look at the third longest wavelength (580 – 550) of the visible light spectrum? Yellow. Yellow is high in value (it’s bright) which is important to keep in mind when using it in illustration.

Yellow wears two faces, like the Roman god Janus. The Egyptians and Mayans worshiped yellow because it is the color of the sun. Yellow is the color of eastern philosophies and is considered by some to be the color of positive social relationships. However, the west uses yellow to symbolize caution, cowardice, prejudice and persecution. Yellow also plays roles in the animal kingdom. Yellow combined with black is a warning. Many of us have had run-ins with yellow jackets, to our cost!

So, considering all this, how does an illustrator make good use of yellow? In art, yellow is stimulating, energetic and optimistic. In The Yellow Boat, by Margaret Hillert, illustrated by Ed Young, Young uses the color against blue, along with complementary purples and greens, to push yellow to center stage. Even the white of the tiny boat’s sail supports rather than upstages the yellow form beneath it.

In The Boy from the Sun, written and illustrated by Duncan Weller, yellow contrasts with the grey, smog-covered urban environment of three sad children. It is the only color that appears on the first five pages of this picture book. As other colors are introduced they are muted against the brilliance of the luminous yellow that commands the reader to ‘follow me, come see what I have to show you.’

Yellow can also be used for its iconic associations. Yellow tells stories all by itself, no words needed: a bus, even if simply drawn and painted yellow, immediately suggests a school bus to most readers; a yellow tape tells us to be cautious or to keep away; yellow painted on a curb tells a story of who is allowed to park in a particular spot and who is not. What other color, painted on a light bulb, tells us bugs will stay away?

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