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Out of the Blue

Baltasar de Echave Ibía, The Immaculate Conception

Recently, I have been working with an artist who is so fascinated by the colour blue, that I became intrigued by this colour too. It turns out that blue is the most loved colour in the world, according to a worldwide survey carried out by YouGov in 2015. And although blue tends to be more popular with men than women, women still tend to pick blue more often than any other colour. So, as these results show, most of us are strongly attracted to blue... but where does it come from? How have artists made use of it over the millennia? Here's a brief (but hopefully enlightening) potted history of the colour blue.

Blue is the colour of the sky and sea, but very few earth minerals, plants or animals are blue. This makes blue a very difficult, and therefore highly prized, pigment to produce. The ancient pre-dynastic Egyptians imported the blue rock 'lapis lazuli' from the land that is now Afghanistan in order to carve jewellery and amulets. But they didn't successfully manage to create a bright or stable blue Hippopotamus ("William") made of faience pigment. To compensate, they created the first synthetic blue pigment, called 'Egyptian blue', ca. 3200 BC. Egyptian blue is a calcium copper silicate and was made out of sand, malachite (or another copper-containing mineral) and chalk fired together at almost 1000℃. The result is a richly saturated, royal turquoise colour that was used to decorate pharaohs' tombs, hippopotamus amulets and scarab-shaped beads. Unsurprisingly, since blue is the colour of the heavens, the Ancient Egyptians associated blue with magic, power and the spiritual realm.

Other pre-modern civilisations created precious blue pigments by combining organic and mineral materials. For example, bright Maya blue is made of indigo dye (from the leaves of indigenous anil indigo plants) combined with a light clay called palygorskite. The colour was so important to the Mayan people that they covered their altars and sacrificial victims in a brilliant blue paint, according to Diego de Landa Calderón, a bishop in colonial Mexico during the 1500s. Between 2000 and 3000 years ago, a blue pigment was developed in China that came to be known as Han blue (although it was created before the Han dynasty came into power) created using malachite,

The David Vases made of porcelain

silica and witherite (copper, silicon and barium compounds, respectively). Both these types of blues were remarkably chemically stable, which means that they didn't fade easily. As a result, we can still admire the striking blue-green hues of Mayan murals and Han vases. Later on, in fourteenth-century China, a deep cobalt blue from Iran was used to create decorative motifs that contrasted beautifully with the bright white porcelain being produced at the time.

If we spin the globe to look at Europe in the late Middle Ages, as the cult of the Virgin Mary grew, so did European artists' love and use of blue, as they used a lapis-lazuli blue to paint Mary's cloak in devotional images. The lapis-lazuli pigment came from mines in northern Afghanistan and arrived in Europe via Venice. This blue was considered so exotic and far-flung that Europeans named it ‘ultramarine’ blue - meaning literally ‘beyond the sea’ in Latin. Ultramarine was so expensive that it cost more than gold leaf, and artists up until the early 17th-century would settle a fee with their patrons to fund a trip to Venice in order to buy and quality-check the specific amount of blue pigment they needed to complete their commission.

Portrait of Robert de France from The Armorial of Auvergne

As the fashion for blue increased in Europe, more kinds of pigments and dyes were introduced. For example, makers of stained-glass in 12th-century France learnt how to create iris-blue windows using cobalt, and French royalty started wearing indigo-dyed clothes with golden brocaded fleur de lys.

A large range of synthetic blue pigments like cobalt, cerulean and Prussian were made into oil paints in the 18th and 19th centuries during the Industrial Revolution. This led to European painters having dirt-cheap blue paints for the first time. It was probably because of this that the penniless Pablo Picasso painted in muted shades of grey, greens and Prussian blue during his Blue Period (1900-1904). During this time he made portraits of exhausted acrobats, despondent drunks and other members of the Parisian bohème. Blue became associated with spiritual and material poverty, melancholy and death. By contrast, the equally hard-up painter Van Gogh, used his own hand-mixed cerulean blue to paint an ecstatic nocturnal landscape in his famous Starry Night. Pablo Picasso, Old Blind Man with Boy

A history of blue would be incomplete without mentioning the French artist Yves Klein, who developed a non-reflective version of ultramarine in collaboration with the Parisian paint supplier Edouard Adam, whose shop still exists in Paris. He later patented the pigment and called it ‘International Klein Blue’ or IKB, using it to cover objects, canvases and even entire galleries in an intense, spiritual monochrome. By combining ultramarine with a matte, synthetic resin binder, Klein and Adam created an extremely deep blue, which when used would not leave any visible brush marks. Between 1947 and 1957, Klein created over 200 monochrome paintings, sculptures, and performances, the most notorious being Anthropométries. This work involved a classical string quartet playing a single note as Klein, dressed in a tuxedo, directed naked female models to roll around in IKB paint and then press themselves against blank canvases. This performance seemed to crystallise the bombastic, egotistical male artist manipulating female models (this time as 'live paint brushes') for his own glory. It's no wonder that since then, some artists have found Anthropométries ripe for satire, and others highly problematic.

Yves Klein, Anthropométrie

More recently in 2009, YInMn (yttrium, indium, manganese) blue was discovered accidentally by Professor Mas Subramanian at Oregon State University. YInMn blue is a non-toxic synthetic chemical compound with a unique crystal structure in which manganese ions are responsible for the pigment's bright blue hue. While researching materials used for manufacturing electronics, Subramanian noticed that one of the samples turned blue when heated. In 2016, YInMn blue was released for commercial use as a durable, safe and vibrant blue that has proven a great alternative to the toxic and carcinogenic paints like cobalt blue.

The fascination of artists for the colour blue shows no signs of abating. In fact, October's Artist of the Month on ArtULTRA, Yoram Chisin, has been developing his own shade of blue over the past couple of years, which he calls 'nuclear blue'. It has become an essential element of his artistic language. Yoram’s source of inspiration was the unearthly blue glow emitted by water exposed to nuclear radiation; a phenomenon discovered by Nobel Prize winner Pavel Alekseyevich Cherenkov. Through his use of blue, Yoram explores the conflicting realities of war and beauty. You can read more about Yoram's work in our Artist of the Month feature.

Yoram Chisin, Nuclear blue

Throughout history it is remarkable how human's use of the colour blue continues to evolve: how new compounds continue to be invented and new associations continue to be forged linked to luxury and poverty, modernism and devotion. For me, the most surprising idea, is how blue has always been, and still is, a powerful tool for artists wishing to express profound emotional and spiritual truths.


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