Conversation with Eric Johnson on Naples Yellow

Chromatic Conservations is a podcast about colors through interviews with artists. Artists discuss using specific colors in mixtures with other colors, handling properties, drying time, and color theory. In our first podcast, Eric Johnson discusses his use of Naples Yellow.

George O’Hanlon:
For our first podcast of Chromatic Conversations, we interview Eric Johnson. Eric Johnson is a teacher at the Academy of Realist Art in Boston, and he’s been heading their online program. Eric is living in Florida, where he’s creating his masterpieces, and presently he’s working on a very large commission. Let’s welcome Eric.
Eric Johnson:
One of the things I love about Naples yellow is its versatility. It can be used as a base color for skin tones, as it has a similar warmth to the natural tones of the human body. It can also be used to create beautiful landscapes, as it has a softness that can be perfect for depicting natural scenes.
Eric Johnson:
One of my favorite colors on my palette is Naples yellow. It is a fine pigment particle size, has medium tinting strength, surprisingly quick drying, and ranges from a very bright, high chroma yellow to a yellow ochre. When it comes to mixing with red, the Naples yellow has the capacity to make some really interesting oranges. These oranges have the tendency to be a lower chroma than you would typically expect when mixing any red with a cadmium yellow. In this case, I’m using a higher pigment particle-sized Venetian red to do the gradation. I commonly associate Naples yellow with the appearance of effulgence. For example, here I’m mixing the Naples yellow and white together to get a lighter value, higher chroma color that I’ll use for the brassy gold specular highlights on this ginger jar. In this next example, I’m showing how Naples yellow interacts with Prussian blue. The two together make much stronger blue-greens as opposed to more forest greens. This was really appropriate in this alla prima still life, where I was painting malachite pigment. One of my favorite mixtures to make with the Naples yellow is to mix it with any black. This creates a relatively neutral greenish shade that I use for skin tones, specifically darker half-tones, and backgrounds like this painting of my daughter.
Eric Johnson:
But when you add more Naples yellow to it, the mixture has the appearance of being more luminous and bright. Now, because Naples yellow is pretty opaque, this is where transparent pigments like Vicenza Earth, Calcium Carbonate, Glass Powder, Barium Sulfate, or Barite come in handy to add some transparency to the mixture with Naples yellow without adulterating the pigment volume concentration. I use that here to apply several coats of semi-transparent glazes. Just adding Naples yellow to the palette when you’re mixing all of your colors for the day can help make some really natural skin tones that are vibrant.
Eric Johnson:
I use that here to apply several coats of semi-transparent glazes. Just adding Naples yellow to the palette when you’re mixing all of your colors for the day can help make some really natural skin tones that are vibrant.
George O’Hanlon:
Our first question is, what led you to choose Naples yellow as an essential color in your palette?
Eric Johnson:
That’s a great question. The first aspect of that is I like probably many of you watching this right now, have been bitten by the bug of becoming a little bit obsessed about pigments, the history of pigments, and things like that. So I really just fell down a rabbit hole and was introduced to Naples yellow pigment primarily because I was researching what were the oldest pigments that humans used. Specifically, the oldest synthetic pigments became a point of interest. That’s where I found things like Egyptian blue and Naples yellow, and I was very surprised that Naples yellow was used way back from the 14th to the 16th century BCE in ancient Egypt in Mesopotamia. Of course, back then, it was primarily used as an enamel pigment for glazing pottery bricks and things like that. But that was my first introduction to it. Following that, I just left it alone. I was really obsessed with 15th, 16th, and 17th-century painting, studying, reading treatises, and trying to pretty much find all of the pigments and use them when I was doing my master copies as a student. Around that time is when I was primarily using lead tint yellow.
Eric Johnson:
And then, of course, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, there was an 18th-century Roccoco exhibit, and it just blew my socks off. And I could see that stark change from pretty much the discovery of Prussian blue and the reintroduction or first real formal introduction of Naples yellow into the artist’s palette, looking at 18th-century neoclassical painters and looking at Roccoco painters. There was just something so wonderful about those paintings I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and that led me to discover Naples yellow. On top of that, and just also practical painterly reasons, I wanted a yellow that checked a handful of boxes. I wanted a yellow that was fast drying. I wanted a yellow that had pretty good tinting strength, good opacity, or hiding power. I wanted it to be fairly permanent and with a good lightfastness rating. My choice to move over to using Naples yellow was, in a way, trying to get away from cadmium yellow, which was a little slower drying than I typically liked. Cadmium yellow had the opacity that I liked, especially for early layers, because in the earliest layers of my painting, I tried to keep my painting most opaque and save glazing and transparent layers more so for the end.
Eric Johnson:
I came against the crossroads because the lead tint yellow doesn’t create very strong secondary colors. Meanwhile, cadmium yellow creates way too strong secondary colors for any type of portrait or skin tone, which is primarily what I do most in portraits. I found that cadmium yellow just way overdid it for me. But Naples yellow is a middle ground between the type of secondary colors that you can get with lead tint yellow and cadmium yellow. And of course, I was at the time generally a little bit afraid of lead chromate or chrome yellow because, at the time, I didn’t know that there was essentially a coded version that helps increase its cut of permanence and its light fastness. So I’m not as afraid of using chrome yellow nowadays, but at the time when all you read is chrome yellow darkening when time, put that out of the window for me. I love the 18th century, so I really just dove into using the Naples yellow. It’s an addition or a replacement to the other primary yellow on my palette, which was lead-tin yellow.
George O’Hanlon:
Eric, are there any specific challenges or benefits that you encountered when using Naples yellow as compared to any other yellow pigments?
Eric Johnson:
It’s funny. The challenges are identical to the benefits many times as well. And I think one of the biggest challenges I have with Naples yellow is actually its drying time. I look at many painters that are running to use dryers and siccatives. They’re crazy because, if anything, I’m hoping and trying to actually slow the drying time of my palette down. Of course, I’m using lead white number one. I’m using raw or burnt umber. I’m all very reactive pigments, which in other words, is going to lead to faster-drying oil paint. So Naples yellow, which is essentially made of lead and antimony oxides. It’s just terribly fast drying. I mean, it’s a benefit in the early layers, but at the same time, when you’re painting for 12 hours a day, once you get closer to that 6 or 7-hour mark, you can find that mixtures start to dry on your palette. I found that that is bad when I’m trying to have a long painting day but good when I’m doing underlayers, early layers of my painting work that I want to dry really quickly. So the way that I’ve resolved that is I have the actual benefit of having some tubes that actually have some pigment and oil separation, which I know from years of making paint and tubing my own paint that when you leave out the stabilizers like aluminum stearate, magnesium stearate, or things like hydrogenated castor oil as a stabilizer, you can experience some pigment and oil separation, especially if you’re leaving a tube undisturbed, like flat for an extended period of time.
Eric Johnson:
What I do is I typically like to massage my tubes and do a little maracas and shake them periodically when I don’t have anything important to do to keep all of the pigmented oil agitated in there to reduce some of that pigment oil separation. But sometimes, it happens, and I know that. I actually look at that as a benefit because if that happens, that obviously is going to change the pigment volume concentration because, of course, when it’s made, it’s made at the critical pigment volume concentration. But if I go to squeeze out some paint and it spits out some oil, my first reaction is, oh man, that sucks. But at the same time, I actually like when that happens. Because if my paint is now just a little bit lean or the pigment volume concentration is favoring pigment as opposed to oil, that gives me an opening or a window to replace oil with the oils that I choose. That, for me, is a huge benefit because when it comes to things like Naples yellow or very reactive pigments that are very fast drying, I’d like to find a way to possibly slow down that drying time by using an oil with a low iodine value like a vacuum body, lint seed oil, possibly walled out oil.
Eric Johnson:
But I generally like to use polymerized or copolymerized oils in small quantities throughout my painting. And if my paint is a little bit lean, it gives me an opportunity to use a vacuum body lint seed oil into that paint to slow down the drying time a little bit and promote better film formation and reduce sinking in, which isn’t really a problem for very bright mixtures with Naples yellow but can be obviously more problematic for darker mixtures.
George O’Hanlon:
What advice would you give to artists who are interested in using Naples yellow or perhaps have just a little experience with it?
Eric Johnson:
I would say have realistic expectations of Naples yellow. I know that sometimes we can all get very excited, especially about a new color. We know a lot of history of it, and we sometimes feel like it’s going to do everything. And there are many, many things that Naples yellow is good for and many things that Naples yellow is not good for. My advice would be to have realistic expectations and do mixing tests against common opaque yellows that you’re familiar with. It is, I think, in the high chroma range; comparing it to cadmium yellow is a very good test to do because you’ll notice you won’t be able to get the same type of forests, high chroma greens, and you won’t be able to get the same high chroma oranges out of Naples yellow. Naples yellow has a slightly larger, maybe more than slightly, but larger pigment particle size than cadmium. To me, Naples yellow almost seems like little yellow jewels. I love the opacity of it and the size of the pigment particle. Really makes mixtures seem very, I don’t know, polygraphic 3D or very luminous. But with that comes a certain sense of yellow chalkiness because of its opacity or hiding power.
Eric Johnson:
So that would be one of my biggest recommendations is to have realistic expectations over the type of secondary colors that you can make with it because, of course, it by itself is going to be very high chroma. The secondary mixes that it makes are not going to be quite as high chroma as you would expect from a cadmium yellow. When you put the high chroma Naples yellow compared to the high chroma cadmium yellow, they look very similar until you start mixing them. So that’s one thing that I think you should definitely consider. The other is to be wary of the drying time. Do studies and tests play with it first? If you’re not used to using very reactive, fast-drying paint, that can be jarring. If you’re so used to Cadmium, which is essentially going to be dry like five days from now when Naples yellow may be dry to the touch by tomorrow or even tonight if you were painting during the morning time. The last is to make sure that you maintain a good pigment volume concentration if your tube loses any oil. Cadmium and lead-tin yellows, even when they’re, I think, a little deprived of oil, can still flow and move easily.
Eric Johnson:
Meanwhile, the Naples yellow seems more resistant. It gets very chalky, dry, or pasty feeling if you don’t have just the right amount of oil. It being lead based, it absorbs a very small amount of oil just in general. So you have to be careful to not add too much oil at the same time, but I’d watch out for the pigment volume concentration if you lose some oil in your tube, being slightly off because the color needs to be just right for it to flow beautifully and wonderfully.

About Naples Yellow

Naples Yellow (lead antimonate yellow) is an opaque, fine-grained, bright yellow with medium tinting strength. This is genuine lead antimonate yellow made according to historical recipes. This is the historical pigment (not a mixture of pigments to make Naples yellow hue) ground in linseed oil without any additives (e.g., stearates, waxes, etc.) or fillers typical of modern colors. It is ground on stone mills repeatedly to a smooth paste. Hold the paint tube in your hands, and you will feel the difference from convenience hue paints made by other manufacturers—the genuine color is so much heavier. Load your brush with it and see the difference. Lead antimonate yellow was made at Thebes from the sixteenth to fourteenth century B.C.E. It reached its highest popularity in European art between 1750 and 1850. It was gradually replaced by chrome yellow (lead chromate) and, later, cadmium yellow (cadmium sulfide). Lead antimonate yellow has not been rated for lightfastness by ASTM International, but independent studies have shown that it is permanent in most vehicles and, according to Doerner, can be used with all other pigments without alteration.

If you are an artist or just starting to explore the world of painting, you may have come across the color Naples Yellow. This classic oil color has been used by artists for centuries and is still popular today. In this article, we will explore the history, composition, properties, uses, and tips for using Naples Yellow.

History of Naples Yellow

Naples Yellow is a lead antimoniate pigment that has been used since ancient times. Its name comes from the city of Naples, Italy, where it was first produced in the 17th century. The pigment was made by heating lead, antimony, and a yellowish substance called litharge. The resulting pigment was then ground into a fine powder and mixed with oil to make paint.

Composition and Properties of Naples Yellow


Naples Yellow has a warm, yellow hue and is composed of lead, antimony, and oxygen. It is an opaque pigment with good covering power and dries slowly, making it ideal for blending and layering. However, Naples Yellow is toxic and can be harmful if ingested or inhaled, so proper safety precautions should be taken when handling it.

Uses of Naples Yellow

Naples Yellow is a versatile color that can be used in a variety of ways. It is often used to create flesh tones, as well as to warm up other colors. It is also a popular choice for landscape and still-life paintings, where it can be used to create the effect of sunlight or warm highlights.

Tips for Using Naples Yellow

If you are using Naples Yellow, there are a few tips that can help you achieve the best results:

Mix Naples Yellow with other colors to create a range of warm hues.
Use Naples Yellow sparingly, as it can overpower other colors if used in excess.
Be aware of the toxicity of Naples Yellow and take appropriate safety precautions when handling it.

Naples Yellow vs. Other Yellow Pigments

While Naples Yellow is a popular choice for artists, there are other yellow pigments available that may be more suitable for certain applications. For example, Cadmium Yellow is a brighter, more intense yellow that dries faster than Naples Yellow. Lemon Yellow is a cooler, more transparent yellow that is often used for highlights and glazes.


Naples Yellow is a classic artist oil color that has been used for centuries. It has a warm, yellow hue and is composed of lead, antimony, and oxygen. While it is a versatile color that can be used in a variety of ways, it is also toxic and requires proper safety precautions when handling. By following the tips outlined in this article, you can achieve the best results when using Naples Yellow in your paintings.

Is Naples Yellow still commonly used by artists today?
Yes, Naples Yellow is still a popular color among artists today.
Can Naples Yellow be used in watercolor or acrylic paint?
Naples Yellow is primarily used in oil paint, but it can also be used in watercolor and acrylic paint.
Is Naples Yellow safe to use?
Naples Yellow is toxic and can be harmful if ingested or inhaled. Proper safety precautions should be taken when handling it.
Can Naples Yellow be mixed with other colors?
Yes, Naples Yellow can be mixed with other colors to create a range of warm hues.
Are there any alternatives to Naples Yellow?
Yes, other yellow pigments such as Cadmium Yellow and Lemon Yellow can be used as alternatives to Naples Yellow.

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