Have you ever heard of the yellow known as Gamboge? According to Kassia St. Clair in The Secret Livesof Color (Penguin Books c. 2016), “Gamboge is the solidified sap of Garcinia trees, and comes primarilyfrom Cambodia, or Camboja as it was once known, which is how Gamboge got its name.”
Here in New England, when we think of the tapping the sap of trees, we imagine Maple Syrupproduction, with dripping sap flowing into buckets hanging off trees. Every Maple tree over 12” indiameter can produce 10-20 gallons of sap. Some Maple trees can fill the bucket in as little as half a day.By contrast, Garcinia tree sap takes a year to fill the bucket and harden into the form that getsprocessed for pigment.
Artists in the Far East and India used Gamboge for hundreds of years on scrolls, illustrated oversizedletters at the beginning of paragraphs, paintings and miniatures. When the first pigment reached Europein 1603 on a Dutch India ship, artists were thrilled to get to use a yellow as bright as the sun. Rembrandtused Gamboge to color the haloes on his paintings. Turner and Reynolds also loved it. According to St.Clair, William Hooker, landscape painter and botanist, mixed Gamboge with a little Prussian Blue tomake “Hooker’s Green, the perfect color for painting leaves.”
But watch out, those of you who want the perfect yellow or green. The pigment was also used by 19 thcentury doctors as an excellent purgative. “A small amount produced profuse discharges, while largerdoses could be FATAL” (my CAPS!) St. Clair writes that the workers at Winsor & Newton who crushedthe solidified Garcinia tree sap to make the Gamboge pigment would have to rush to the toilet once anhour while working with it!
A French physicist, Jean Perrin, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1926 after using Gamboge to proveEinstein’s theory of Brownian Motion.
In the early 20 th Century Gamboge was replaced by aureolin, an artificial yellow that was not as brightnor as translucent as Gamboge, but was resistant to fading. Winsor and Newton continued to make andsell the authentic natural Gamboge until 2005, when stopping production must have left artistsdisappointed, but workers relieved.
On this rainy June day, think of the happy yellow of sunshine, Gamboge. (I hope you can avoid the pottyimagery as you think of this particular yellow). Color can change your attitude.
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