The Colour Blue

By Emma Le Cornu

The colour blue has always evoked powerful feelings across a whole range of emotions, from elation, to rest, to grief. This has been recorded in the writings of many artists. Blue has enticed and captivated artists throughout the history of painting and has been revered as a mystical, a melancholic and a majestic colour. This is the blue that we use to represent the colour we see in nature. Blue in art and blue in nature are very different things; that is the colour we perceive around us and the colour we use to reproduce what we see. But blue may not have been used in art just to reproduce what we experience in nature. The material of blue itself has many qualities that transcend it beyond just pure representation. Blue has been found in art since antiquity starting with the Ancient Egyptians and the Ancient Greeks, but in these ancient times it was not commonly used or written about. The Greeks did not have a name for the colour blue, instead they thought of it as another kind of darkness, a shade of grey between black and white. But they did paint with it and even made subtle shades oblue through mixing charcoal and white. They just did not pay much attention to it.

In these early times blue pigments were not easy to get hold of. This may be why the Greeks did not use it so much. There were only two true blues to choose from. These blues were amongst the earliest natural colours. They were a mineral and a stone and were mined from the earth.The most precious and expensive of all was Lapis lazuli, also named Ultramarine by Europeans meaning ‘from beyond the seas’, as it was shipped to Europe from the east through Venice. Lapis lazuli is a semi precious stone, containing many minerals and metals, which was and still is mined mainly in Afghanistan where apparently the best quality is to be found. The pigment from this stone has to be painstakingly prepared, through a process involving grinding, mixing with wax followed by repeated kneading and diluting. This made it extremely expensive and so it was only used very sparingly. Ultramarine can be found in illuminated manuscripts and in paintings of religious scenes in the 14th and 15th centuries, and due to the cost it was usually saved for colouring the most sacred subjects, usually the Christ’s and the virgin’s robes. It was also used as a display of wealth and social status for some rich patrons of artists, at one time being more valuable than gold.The other early blue was called Azurite. This is a natural copper mineral which produced a deep clear blue also mined from the earth, mainly in France. The pigment was prepared simply by grinding, washing and sieving. Being less expensive than Ultramarine, Azurite became the most important and most used blue in European painting during the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

Religious Painting by Italian artist Duccio ‘The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea’ (1315) with natural ultramarine used for painting the virgin’s robe.

Another blue used for painting was called Smalt. It is a pale and beautiful blue made from very finely ground glass coloured blue by the metal Cobalt. This was a cheaper blue, in use later, and was very popular with Dutch and Flemish painters of the 17th century.

Most of the blues arise from metals obtained from the earth. The exception to this is Indigo. This is a blue that is best known as a dye for colouring your jeans. It is extracted from the leaves of the Indigo plant. The production of indigo in the 19th century was a controversial business with the use of slaves in India to carry out the unpleasant process of obtaining the colour from the plant, involving fermentation, to meet the demand for this incredibly popular blue. Its main use was for dying cloth including military uniforms in Europe, and was commonly used as a pigment. Now made synthetically, since the late 19th century, Indigo is still used as a dye for clothing, but remains popular as a colour in painting in both Eastern and Western art. Isaac Newton discovered the spectrum of colours that are visible to us and named two of these seven colours as blue and indigo. Blue was also promoted to a primary colour, a colour that can be used to make a range of other colours, by various scientists from the 1700s. This was long after red and yellow.

Watercolour on paper, signed with 'B' monogram, dated 'June 27 1826'. Bond was a Kew Gardener, during 1826-1835 he drew about 1,700 plants at Kew for Director, William Aiton.

The development of colours can be influenced by aesthetic and artistic considerations, as well as by social change and scientific advancements.  The demand for more readily available blues prompted a search for artificial pigments. This may be why blues are the earliest of the pigments to be produced synthetically. Artificial blues came to be from the 18th century, mostly discovered accidently by chemists trying to make something else, a happy accident as many scientific discoveries are.

Prussian blue was the first of the modern, manufactured pigments, again, accidently discovered by a colourmaker in the 1700s, who was trying to make a red. It is a deep, dark blue containing Iron, which was much cheaper and used by many artists in painting, as well as in house paints and is the colourant used in the printing of cyanotypes and blueprints. Another blue, Cobalt blue was discovered in 1807 and was seen as a ‘modern, improved blue’. A very stable colour it was popularly adopted by artists for use in watercolour and oil paint, and apparently recommended for reproducing the colour of the sky.

Vincent van Gogh was a fan: ‘Cobalt [blue] is a divine colour and there is nothing so beautiful for putting atmosphere around things…" Cerulean blue also contains the metal Cobalt, discovered in the early 1800s, it is a permanent and opaque blue used in oil paintings. It was also seen as a perfect pigment for recreating the blue of the sky, perhaps a common requirement for the rising population of landscape painters at this time. By the 19th Century an artificial Ultramarine was needed as a more affordable version of this vibrant, deep blue in place of the unattainable and expensive, natural lapis lazuli. Chemists, in the early 1800s, were asked to invent an artificial version of this colour for a generous reward. There was a race and some foul play, but several successful versions were developed and serve us still today with an affordable, versatile and beautiful blue.Ultramarine is now very commonly used by most painters in oils, watercolours, gouache, acrylic, and commercially in house paint, a very successful and versatile blue. When you combine this luscious dry pigment with oil or glue you ultimately change the colour of the pure pigment, but you can’t paint with a pigment without adding something to it to make it stick.

Yves Klein was an artist who had a special relationship with blue and wanted to use it to represent a quality which was close to ‘pure space’. He believed that; ‘Blue is the invisible becoming visible....Blue has no dimensions. It is beyond the dimensions of which other colours partake.’He was not satisfied with the blue pigments available and longed to find a way to keep the intensity of the pure colour. In 1947 he developed his own colour; International Klein Blue (IKB), using the old favourite but now artificially made Ultramarine combined with a different kind of binder, which he specifically developed with a chemist. With this new binder, and the way in which it was applied, the quality of the dry pigment was retained and created an effect that Klein described  as ‘a Blue in itself, disengaged from all functional justification'. This blue gave Klein the means to express his ideas of immaterial values beyond vision or touch. He made over 200 seemingly identical monochrome paintings with IKB, each said to present a completely different essence and atmosphere, and so each one was priced differently.  Klein felt that the value should reflect the intensity that had gone into the creation of the work. Klein continued to use his IKB throughout his career in various forms, including body imprints and kinetic sculptures, to express and stay true to his blue ideal.

IKB 79 1959

Nowadays there are a multitude of blues available to artists in any hue you may desire. All are made synthetically, through the wonders of chemistry, unless you make the effort to seek out the naturally occurring colour in a well equipped art shop, venturing out into the mine yourself or growing your own. Each of these blue pigments can be, and has been, written about in great length and detail. There is a vast amount of intriguing social, scientific and artistic history attached to every one.Blue’s meaning and value has changed over the centuries and has varied greatly between cultures, ancient and modern.  Many of the blue pigments have been produced as a result of these changing attitudes and even to answer an increasing demand, as more was needed to satisfy our desires for this wonderful colour.

© 2010 Emma Le Cornu