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The Long and Fantastic Story of Blue Art Pigments

December 6, 2016
Alias of Ksenija Pantelić

Appreciating the mystic and explorative qualities of color, blue art pigments are considered to represent the most popular and the most mysterious choice. The history of blue art images and its symbolic quality dip into the most philosophical and spiritual ideas shared throughout the world. All around us, blue forever seems to be out of reach. None of us can grab and pinch the hue of the sky or the sea, and for these reasons the blue art pigments offer a provocative prospect of an entirely new world beyond our own. At a stage in history, the blue art pigment was considered the most expensive and unique, and due to its richness and connection to the divine, blue was even banned from daily fashion. Such hue was kept for the painting of the figure of Virgin Mary and early on we have numerous examples of the blue art pigments used for her divine robe.

Out of all pigments, the blue art ones carry a deeper understanding of social history, its scientific innovations, global trade and artistic endeavors. Unlike certain reds, browns and yellows, this pigment was not easy to make and was not so available on the European continent. Its story not only tells the story of the world, but it hides one of the basic human desires – the desire to find the answer to the burning question: What does the veil of blue hide?

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Left: The Master of Flémalle – The Nativity / Right: Rogier van der Weyden – Visitation. Images via db-artmag.com

The Famous Blue Art Pigments – The Map of the World

From the moment it came as a mysterious cargo, artists used the unique and expensive blue art pigments to transport us into the worlds beyond our own. Before the Venetian merchants received the semi precious gemstone lapis lazuli, the first synthetically produced blue pigment takes us back to the time the pyramids in Egypt were built. As the first ever unnaturally produced color, Egyptian blue was invented in Ancient Egypt, around 2,200 B.C.[1]. The complex process of combining the limestone and sand with copper-containing minerals, such as azurite or malachite, was easy to get wrong and any mistake would result in an unpleasant green mess. Yet, if the combination of the elements was successful and heated at the right degree, the end result would be an opaque blue glass. This would later be crushed up, combined with egg whites, glues, or gums, and made into a long-lasting paint or ceramic glaze. Through the decoration of the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs, or the coloring of some small artifact, the history of this ancient culture was brought closer to us thanks to this pigment and the ancient encaustic technique.

Sometimes called ‘true blue’, ultramarine was created from the expensive gemstone lapis lazuli. At a stage in history, the price of this material exceeded the price of gold and for many artists, this hue was the making and the breaking of their lives and career. Legend has it that Michelangelo left his painting The Entombment unfinished as he could not find the funds to buy ultramarine, while the famous Baroque master Johannes Vermeer, on the other hand, frequently bought the pigment, leading his family in debt.

This famous shade of blue first appeared in the 6th-century and it was used to paint Buddhist frescoes in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Around 700 years later, the pigment was the mysterious cargo which came to Venice and from there it spread through Europe. Due to its price and a very complex method of production, which could take up to two weeks, the hue of the ultramarine was used to paint the most important figures of the traditional religious works. In 1824, France’s Societe d’Encouragement offered an award to anyone who could invent a synthetic version of this pigment. Simultaneously, a German professor and a French chemist both found the formula. As the award went to the French author, the new pigment was named French ultramarine.

Next to the Egyptian blue and the ultramarine, both indigo and a shade of Prussian blue are considered as unique and precious colors which also act as marks of important times in human history. Indigo was a desired import throughout the 17th and 18th-century, inspiring the trade wars between European nations and the Americans, and even partially funding the American Revolution. Unlike the lapis lazuli and its high price, the indigo crop could be grown in excess. As a natural dye rather than a pigment, it was used to paint clothing, yarns and tapestries. As a result of a chance mixing of potassium and iron sulpfides in 1709, Johann Jacob Diesbach created a potent blue. In German it was known as Berliner Blau or in England as Prussian blue. The importance and success of the Prussian blue goes beyond the world of art. The discovery by Sir John Herschel that the hue holds a unique sensitivity to light and could be put to use as a medium for producing copies, proved invaluable to architects who could create multiple versions of their maps, plans, and drawings of buildings for the first time[2].

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Katsushika Hokusai – The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Image via wikimedia.org

What Does the Blue Art Veil Hide?

In both art and design, color can be used to evoke a certain mood, create a message or a response from a viewer. As the hue of the sky, throughout art history blue was closely linked to the spiritual world. Strangely enough, blue hardly existed at an early stage of the Western art history. It is nowhere to be found among the earthly tones, such as red, yellow, and browns found on the prehistoric cave paintings. The early Greek artists didn’t have a word for blue, and it was not used for the painting of the Roman Pompeii frescos. Dark blue was widely used for the decoration of the churches in the Byzantine Time and in the Islamic world, blue was of secondary importance to green, believed to be the favorite color of Prophet Mohammed[3].

In the life and art of the Middle Age Europe, blue held a minor role. The nobility wore red or purple, and blue was not even used for decorating or painting the churches. This all changed in 1130s and 1140s, when Abbe Suger rebuilt Saint Denis Basilica. Suger placed stained glass windows, which were colored with cobalt, which produced a lavish bluish violet light inside the church once the Sun hit them. Yet, the major shift causing the dominance and value of this color occurred in 1300, just a few decades after the lapis lazuli hit the European soil. It was the famous Italian artist Giotto and his paintings inside the Arena Chapel which completely changed the relevance and the use of ultramarine. Inside the chapel, the ceiling is painted completely blue and many art historians argue that this ceiling is a representation of heaven. From this moment on, blue was connected to the divine. The church even controlled the amount of the pigment available, raising the prices and banning it from the daily fashion. The blue was priceless and its dominance in the religious paintings of the Renaissance period continued as well. As the Italian painters began to paint life as it was, incorporating rules, such as the golden ratio, or the linear perspective to create the three dimensionality of the world, ultramarine held on its symbolic role of the divine quality. The famous painter Titian is celebrated for his extravagant use of the expensive ultramarine pigment. Many of his paintings, such as his Bacchus and Ariadne, have large areas of the canvas painted by this famous pigment from the East.

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Left: Johannes Vermeer – The Girl with a Pearl Earring / Right: Thomas Gainsborough – The Blue Boy. Images via wikimedia.org

The Famous Blue Art Images

No other color is considered to hold such deep feelings then blue. Understood to have both positive and negative qualities, this shade is connected to the ideas of spirituality, faith, the divine, as much as it can transcend the ideas of loneliness and sadness. It is no surprise then that major artists in history, investigating life frequently used this hue.

Taking lead from the past, Wassily Kandinsky in his book On the Spiritual in Art, analyzed every color[4] . For him, blue was the deepest and most philosophical color of all. Linking the shade to Virgin Mary’s robe, blue was the symbol of faith and spirituality. His writings help us to better understand his abstract works, which relied not only on the symbolic quality of colors but on the rhythm similar to the rhythm in music. After his friend died, Pablo Picasso entered his blue phase. These somber images, painted in the monochromatic shades of the blue and blue-green only, depict not only the loss of his friend, but the harshness of poverty life he experienced in Paris. At this time, Picasso was open to influences which surrounded him, such as the exhibition of the Fauve works, in particularly those of Henri Matisse[5] . Known as the father of the Fauvist movement, Henri Matisse was considered as one of the most influential artists of the 20th-century. His Blue Nude, created at a later phase of the artist’s life, is a perfect example of what he called ‘cutting directly into color’. The entire composition hangs on the use of a single color, and the cuts of the paper for many resemble the workings of the sculptor creating in bronze.

These avant-garde artists pushed for the new in art and are responsible for the major developments which occurred in abstract art of the 20th-century. Understanding that colors are more than mere decorations but vehicles which transcend us, Yves Klein is responsible for the creation of his own blue. From the beginning of his career, Klein pursued the sky’s expressiveness. This marked his production and in 1957 he began to work exclusively with the blue. He began by spray painting canvases, found objects, and casts of ancient sculptures entirely in the ultramarine shade. In the 1960’s working with a paint dealer in Paris, Klein created a matte version of ultramarine and called it International Klein Blue, or IKB.

As seen, the overall history of the blue art pigments is not just a story of minerals, crystals, alchemic and scientific methods. It is a story of certain beliefs, of hopes that the world we share is not the only world which exists. From the early Medieval religious paintings and manuscripts to the lavish Renaissance and Baroque images, to the experimentation of the Fauvist artists and the analyzing of the symbolic quality of various shades in non-representational artworks, blue for many stood as the color of the world.

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With an exceptional design and over hundred color plates, the book tells the history of blue. Any history of color is, above all, a social history. Pastoureau investigates how the ever-changing role of blue in society has been reflected in manuscripts, stained glass, heraldry, clothing, paintings, and popular culture. Beginning with the almost total absence of blue from ancient Western art and language, the story moves to medieval Europe. As people began to associate blue with the Virgin Mary, the color entered the Church despite the efforts of chromophobic prelates. Blue was reborn as a royal hue in the twelfth century and functioned as a formidable political and military force through the French Revolution. As blue triumphed in the modern era, new shades were created, and blue became the hue of romance. Finally, Pastoureau follows blue into contemporary times, when military clothing gave way to the everyday uniform of blue jeans, and blue became the universal and unifying shade of the Earth as seen from space.

References:

  1. West Fitzhugh, E., Artists’ Pigments: A Handbook of Their History and Characteristics, National Gallery of Art, 1997
  2. Eastaugh, N., Walsh,V., Chaplin,T., Siddall, R., Pigment Compendium: A Dictionary of Historical Pigments, Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann Publications, 2004
  3. Gage, J., Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism, University of California Press, 2000
  4. Kandinsky, W., Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Library of Alexandria, 1997
  5. Recio, B., Kouts, C., The essence of blue, Gibbs Smith, 1996

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Blue color pigment. Image via wallpaper.com; Giotto – Arena Ceiling, detail. Image via wallpaper.com; Pablo Picasso – La-soupe. Image via wikimedia.org; Miro – Artwork. Image via widewalls.ch; Yves Klein – Portrait of the Artist. Hand painted with International Blue. Image via pinterest.com