Updated: Jun 30
As weird it may sound to us in the 21st century, for much of human history, blue has been an elusive shade. Not for the lack of abundance in nature, not at all, but because it had been incredibly difficult to produce the colour artificially. As children we are introduced to blue as a primary colour, however it took us nearly 6000 years to make blue commonplace! The earliest instance could be of prehistoric cave paintings from various sites around the world which are noticeably devoid of blue. Art simply couldn’t be imagined without the blue family of colours: Think Kandinsky’s Blue Rider, Picasso’s Old Guitarist, van Gogh’s breathtaking skies and romping rivers, and Monet’s sublime lily pads, and even those are just from the last 200 odd years.
Even today, from the blue domes in the Santorini Islands to the blue hyperlinks in web pages to Sonic the Hedgehog, the importance of the colour couldn’t be overstated. Simultaneously standing for calmness and depression, aristocracy and the working class, the holy and the sacrificial, armies and the mufti, blue occupies an unconventional position in cultural contexts. It dominates marketing, fashion, designing, textiles, and other cultural and creative industries.
Blue is again making a buzz around the world with Pantone, the influential colour matching juggernaut, declaring Classic Blue to be its Colour of the Year for 2020. Pantone analyses colour trends worldwide in recent times and often has the final word on the predicted turns the designing industry would take up. As The Atlantic calls it, Pantone's carefully curated colour chips are an "international shorthand" for colour perception, and its importance in marketing and consumer reception is vital for standardized and consistent recipes for colours. Its declaration in December sets the internet off in a flurry, with media houses writing up on ways to inculcate the Colour of the Year in production, designing chains, graphics, and even the culinary industry picks it on! The fashion industry also takes notes to follow up in clothes, accessories, makeup, and interiors.
Especially in 2020, with Pantone's selection of Classic Blue as its Colour of the Year, we couldn’t be more excited to share the history of this beautiful, melancholic, polarizing, and mesmerizing hue with you!
Cleopatra’s eye shadow: Egyptian Blue
Terms for colours usually get currency after they have been made into dyes and pigments and their use is commercialized, and tracing back the etymologies for present day shades of blue would lead us back to the ancient Egyptian civilization as the first manufacturers of blue as an artificial pigment in 2200 BCE. Put into context, this was also the time when the Great Pyramids were under construction! Aiming to recreate the striking shade of the extremely rare and expensive lapis lazuli mined in Afghanistan which had been difficult to import to Egypt, they achieved the opaque blue glass by grinding up and heating copper, silica, lime-rich sand, and an alkali. Combined with glue, gum, or egg whites, it was used as paints or a ceramic glaze. The recipe for the pigment remained remarkably consistent over a few millennia, and the Romans called it cerulean (literally “sky blue”) after the Roman invasion of Egypt in 30 BCE.
The Egyptians used it in decorative motifs in pottery, statues, tomb murals, and mummy coffins. Most famously, it was used as inlays in King Tut’s eyebrows on the golden face mask. Apparently Cleopatra also used a derivative of the pigment for her eyeshadow!
Bleeding blue: Mayan Blue
Fast forward to 300 CE when the Mayans developed a unique pigment made up with dyes from local indigo plants called añil and a special clay called palygorskite, combined by heating them together. This pigment had been exceedingly important to Mayan religious rituals since it had been used to paint human sacrifices, pottery, and stone altars a rich blue in order to appease Chaak, the Mayan god of rain, who, it was believed, would then bless them with heavy showers. This pigment is impervious to rain, acids, alkalis, and most modern solvents, and that is the reason it still persists in Mesoamerican paintings, codices, illustrations, sculptures, and textiles.
The Spanish colonization of the Mayans in the 16th century led to the unapologetic plundering of their resources which included the distinct pigment being used to paint frescos of Spanish churches. This paint was also used by Baroque painters, and this a good example of the insidious nature of colonization being responsible for cultural grafting.
Bling Bling Ultramarine
Infusing powdered lapis lazuli with melted wax, oils, resin, and lye gave the “true blue” quality to ultramarine. It had been mainly mined in a thin mountain strip in Afghanistan 6th century CE onwards. Roughly 1kg of the mineral would yield 30gs of the pigment. Even the name of the pigment was exotic, literally meaning “beyond the sea”, as coined by Italians who would import it from Asia.
Over the next few centuries, the cost of lapis lazuli paralleled, and more often than not exceeded, the price of gold. Given its cost, it had been sparingly used by painters, only reserved for the holiest of the holy, and who could be holier than the Virgin Mary and baby Christ during the Renaissance? As a result we notice the trend of the Virgin Mary’s robes to be a deep blue, a symbol of purity and humility, while simultaneously highlighting the status of the wealthy patrons sponsoring painters. The patrons would even be billed separately for the ultramarine pigment used by the artists, so that they could decide in advance how much of the pigment they wanted to be used and to pay for! Artists would go broke using this pigment: Rafael could only afford it for top coatings, Vermeer put his family in debt because of his extensive use of this blue, and Michelangelo apparently had to abandon his painting, The Entombment, because he couldn’t afford to buy the pigment anymore to finish it!
1826 saw the invention of a synthetic version of ultramarine by a French chemist who achieved it through a complex combination of sodium, aluminum, silicon, oxygen and sulfur bound by various chemical processes. French Ultramarine, as it came to be known, was significantly cheaper than lapis lazuli, and was remarkable since its invention was a commissioned demand by painters and not an accident.
Blues that could kill: Cobalt blue
Used in impure forms in Chinese porcelain production since ancient times, cobalt blue is a lighter shade compared to Prussian blue or ultramarine, and it was only in 1802 that a French chemist would discover a pure alumina based composition of cobalt blue pigment for commercial production.
Unfortunately, it is toxic when inhaled or ingested accidentally, and continual exposure to cobalt may lead to cobalt poisoning.
The White Man’s burden: Woad vs. Indigo
Indigo plants had been processed for blue dyes since ancient times, at least as early as 4000 BCE, mostly for dyeing fabrics. Thanks to a lot of linguistic gargling over the millennia spanning many countries and languages, indigo got its name from India, the principal producer and exporter of the dye with trade routes opening up all around the world. Europeans had traditionally depended on woad, a much paler dye prone to fading very easily, and indigo gave woad a run for its money because of its vibrant and superior shade. The 17th and 18th centuries saw indigo becoming a coveted trade product and it was partially responsible for trade wars in Europe and the Americas, along with The American Revolutionary War and slave trade from Africa. Indigo played a significant role in the Indian independence movement and still features as an important component of Indian artisanal production in handlooms and handicrafts.
A synthetic dye developed in 1880 almost replaced the natural legume/pea based agricultural production of indigo. This synthetic dye is majorly responsible for the dyeing of contemporary fabrics like denim, and this is the story of how your favorite pair of Levi’s got their colour!
Blue always: Prussian Blue
Synthesized in 1706 in Berlin, Prussian blue gained a clamoring popularity among artists all over the world. The dark and vibrant shade had been accidentally discovered when in a chemist’s lab, potash interacted with animal blood and the two red components surprisingly produced blue in the reaction. Its fans ranged from Picasso who exclusively used the pigment during his Blue Period to Japanese painters and woodblock artists (Guess what Hokusai used in his masterpiece, The Great Wave off Kanagawa?).
The Prussian army had famously adopted this shade for their uniforms. This shade is also pretty versatile and has been in use for architectural drawings by architects and engineers, hence the term “blueprints”!
Monsieur Klein et bleu: A love story
The enigma of the French artist Yves Klein endures much. For much of his early career he had been enamored with blue, and didn’t even know it until he was standing in his paint supplier’s office in Paris looking for the perfect shade for his next trick. The proprietor, Edouard Adam, asked him to choose between two mounds of powdery pigment: Ultramarine and Prussian blue. Klein picked Ultramarine and perfected it over a decade leading the world to what he claimed to have “invented”: International Klein Blue- a rich, pulsating shade known to be one of the brightest in the world. Ultramarine blue powdered pigment was suspended in a synthetic resin binder which helped it retain its incandescence, even after applying to a surface. In 1957, mounting canvases with thick layers of this paint, Klein achieved an unparalleled luminosity. In order to enchant his audience more, he would have the paintings suspended 20 cm away from the walls to create enticing spatial ambiguities. All 11 of these paintings were sold for millions.
For Klein, blue was dimensionless, absolute, it was the invisible becoming visible. No wonder he also deemed paint brushes to be “too psychological” and picked rollers instead to paint his monochromatic blue artworks. These would be replaced with naked models as “human brushes” later in a series he titled Anthropometries, when he would cover the women in his signature blue paint and they would imprint gigantic canvases. Of course the art world was invited, and was offered cocktails made of Cointreau, gin, and an edible blue dye which would make his guests piss blue for weeks.
Not-so-Fun fact: Derek Jarman used a photo of Klein’s monochromatic painting as the sole backdrop of his 1999 film, Blue, as a symbol of a medical condition due to contracting AIDS which made him see the world as if through a blue filter.
YInMn blue, the newest kid on the block, was accidentally discovered in 2009 by Indian origin professor Mas Subramanian and his student Andrew Smith at Oregon State University while they had been researching manganese oxides. This synthetic compound gets its name from its chemical composition of yttrium, indium, and manganese, and is scientifically proven to be brighter and safer than other pigments of blue.
If you can’t cough up the big bucks to buy the pigment from Derivan’s Matisse acrylics line, you could always depend on Crayola who have released a new crayon colour “inspired” by YInMn (not containing YInMn though, sadly) named “Bluetiful”. Who said art is inaccessible?
If we have successfully piqued your interest in blue, you could read up more from the many artists, philosophers, and writers who have turned to study blue, sometimes at the height of their careers and sometimes towards their death. If Newton, Wittgenstein, and Goethe don’t cut it for you, checkout Maggie Nelson’s love letter to the colour in her Bluets or William Gass’s meditation on the same in his On Being Blue. And if you liked these, be sure to check out our other recommendations of art books here!