Bludgeons and Dragons (Part 4): The Mistrusted Colours

Today’s post is part four of the Bludgeons and Dragons series about pigments, by Chiara from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. Chiara has already explored some of the colourful and powerful stories around red, black, white and blue. Now the focus turns to green and yellow …

Green and Yellow: The Mistrusted Colours

In the past, green had the distinction of being a chemically unstable colour. It is not difficult to extract; many plant products – leaves, roots, flowers, bark – can serve as a green dye. However, what makes it stable is a an altogether different kettle of fish!

These organic dyes adhere poorly to fibres – fabrics immediately take on a washed-out appearance. It’s the same in painting: the vegetable materials (whether alder, birch, pear or even spinach) will quickly fade to a very pale shadow of the original. Artificial materials (for example green copper, which is obtained by oxidising copper with vinegar, urine or tartar), while giving intense and bright tones, are corrosive; the green obtained in this way is poisonous!

green-yellow-2Porthtowan, Cornwall, Jon Nicholson

Until relatively recent times, even colour photographs were affected by the volatile character of the colour green. Just take a look at the snapshots of the sixties – as the colours fade, the first to disappear is always green.

So, whatever the technique, green is an unstable colour and sometimes toxic and for this reason it became the colour of chance; the game, fate or luck.


Wherever you place your money or cards, it is always on something green. Even today the tables of board directors – where the fate of enterprises is decided – are green like that of the sports field and the gaming table. It is also the colour of money like the Dollar (Greenback) or the old One Pound note.

green-yellow-3One Pound Note, Money gallery, Manchester Museum

The colour of decline

Yellow is the colour that, in order of preference, is the most often quoted as people’s least favourite!

Yellow is often compared, unfavourably of course, with gold. Gold has traditionally been a colour of wealth and positivity; a colour which became a symbol that evoked the sun – light and heat and by extension, life, energy, joy and power. Gold is therefore seen as the shining colour of light and warmth.

Yellow, so often has been deprived of its positive attributes, has become a dull, sad colour and evokes autumn, decline, illness or madness, betrayal, cowardice and deceit.

YellowHistoric pigments at the Straus Center (photograph by Peter Vanderwarker)

In Medieval iconography, despised characters like Judas are often depicted with yellow garments. It is possible that the bad reputation of sulphur influenced the association of yellow with evil because it was sometimes diagnosed that it caused mental disorders


Left – The Pact of Judas, Giotto, 1303-05, Scrovegni chapel in Padua. Right – Sulphur from Sicily,  Living Worlds, Manchester Museum

But it’s not all doom and gloom for yellow…

In Asia and South America, yellow has always been considered a positive colour. In China, it was the colour reserved for the Emperor and it still occupies an important place in Asian life being associated with power, wealth and wisdom.

Chiara Ludolini

Le petit livre des couleurs, Michel Pastoreau, Édition du Panama, 2005
Green – The History of a color. Michel Pastoureau, 2014



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