top of page

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