…and it was all Yellow

MDJackson_Yellow Header

I have a complicated relationship with the color yellow.

Now, yellow is an important color. It’s one of the primary colors. The primary colors, for those who are wondering, are the basic pigments from which we derive all the other colors. Here they are here:


And there’s yellow, sitting securely in between blue and red. Which is your favorite of these colors? Is it yellow? Then you might as well stop reading because you won’t understand my antipathy towards it.

dd-yellowSure, yellow is the color of the sun, of daffodils, of bumblebees, and all sorts of wonderful, nature-ey things. It’s the color of Dick Tracey’s famous raincoat and Captain Kirk’s command tunic. The band Codlplay had a hit song a couple of years back all about that color. In the comic books, before he adopted his all red costume, Marvel’s Daredevil sported a yellow and black outfit. It only lasted a handful of issues, but obviously the Man Without Fear was not afraid of the color. (Mind you, Matt Murdoch, Daredevil’s secret identity, was blind. Just sayin’.)

But yellow is also the color of bile. If someone is a coward, then the perjorative hurled their way is yellow. “You’re a yellow-bellied low life!” Yellow is the color of fear. How often have you heard the phrase “Stinking, yellow fear?”

Sin_City-That_Yellow_Bastard_6_c01t’s the color of urine and other bodily substances generally associated with sickness and disease. If you see someone whose skin color is a yellowish tinge, you know there is something dreadfully wrong. Like That Yellow Bastard, one of the characters from Frank Miller’s Sin City comic book series. One look at that guy and you just know he’s all wrong.

I’ve had to try to come to terms with yellow in my own work. I love working with blues and purples. I love a splash of red. But yellow just leaves me cold. If I am painting a blond-haired subject I tend to try to avoid the outright yellow as much as possible, choosing instead to paint lighter, cream colored strokes over a brown base to give the impression of yellow hair.

A recent commission, however, forced me to tackle the color head-on.

I recently worked on a cover for an anthology featuring a character from the pages of an old pulp magazine, Ten Detective Aces. This character was never depicted on any of the covers and I was tasked with coming up with a cover that introduced the character and his world to the reader at the same time invoking his definite pulp origins.

Now, if you look at old pulp magazine artwork you notice something. The pulps weren’t exactly subtle literature. The art, therefore, didn’t mess about with pastels and light washes. Most cover art for old pulp magazines contained heavy amounts of bold, primary colors. Naturally, that included large blocks of yellow.

Take a look at some old pulp cover art and you can see the yellow jumping off the page. Take a look at any artwork by an artist named Allen Anderson and you will see a lot of yellow. Anderson did a lot of Western Pulps but he also did covers for Planet Stories and Startling Stories magazines.



War Maid of Mars (1953) original painting by Allen Anderson

Later, after the pulp era, paperbacks were the venue for a lot of that style of art and yellow is in no short supply. Science fiction cover artist Paul Lehr was known to embrace the color.



Jeff Jones did not fear the yellow.


Nor, it seems, does John Harris:



In classical art, yellow abounds.


One need look no further than Gustav Klimt to see the artist embrace the pigment. Although Klimt often worked with gold leaf which gave his paintings a rich and brightly shining quality and, necessarily, a yellow glow.

So I tried to embrace the yellow

MM_yellow 1MM_yellow 2You see, my wife pointed out to me how much I tend to avoid the color in my work. She pointed out the many pulp covers that employed the color. “Use more yellow” she said.

So I tried with the recent commission, the cover art for the old pulp hero. I can’t show you the whole thing just yet, but I can show you the yellow bits:

Now I think that yellow is a color I need to explore more in my work. So let’s do it. Let’s make a pact. Let’s put on some Coldplay and let’s put aside the fear. Let’s dissociate the color from with the emotion of cowardice. Let’s all bravely embrace the yellow.

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  1. Once on the newsstand some art director saw a lot of purple covers. He told Kelly Freas he wanted his next cover painting background in purple. So Kelly painted it purple and turned it in. Then the same art director saw a lot of yellow backgrounds on mags on the newsstand. He told Kelly he wanted the background changed from purple to yellow. Kelly said he’d have to charge him for board time. Art Director agreed to pay the extra fee to change it. Yellow is nearly transparent so it required many, many, many layers to change the background to yellow, all VERY time consuming. When the AD saw the bill, Kelly said you could have heard him scream from New York to Albuquerque. But he paid it.

    1. One of the (many) reasons that Gernsback stuck with Paul was, I am sure, his great use of single, brilliant colors as background. Look at the first cover for Amazing – a brilliant yellow background surmounted by a brilliant red, yellow and orange Saturn.

      If you look an pictures of old-time newsstands, you’ll see why (and why Amazing was printed over–sized compared to most other pulps of the day) – that color stuck up above the ranks of other magazines and stuck out because of its brilliance.

      Today, I think a lot of people use neon green on purple backgrounds of websites for the same reason….

      1. Regarding use of color in websites, it is wonderful how today one can use so many colors, including the neon ones, which, back in the old days, did not reproduce in printing. Example: gold came out white. Silver came out white, etc.

  2. My challenge as an artist is that so many yellow paints are translucent. There’s always the pain of having to work around that when I really want an opaque color.

  3. That coat looks a little too ochre for pulp; try shifting back a bit towards the primary. Be bold, Mike! Also, you forgot Kelly Freas–he has a number of bold yellow covers!

    1. Baby steps, Steve. Baby steps. And I did forget about Freas! How could I forget Freas? I even highlighted one of his worst covers in a previous post, the cover art for Michael Coney’s The Jaws That Bite… That one was dreadfully yellow!

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