Why We’re Blue

We’re getting bluer. Or at least our art is.

A recent article in the Daily Mail noted a study wherein artwork from the past 2 centuries was composited into a graph. At around 1920, there appears a definite uptick in the use of blue.

So what happened?

There’s speculation that are color preferences have changed, that subject matter has changed (which it certainly has). But I believe that it’s all due to the development of synthetic blue pigment in the 1700’s onward that was the real reason to our world becoming more blue.


Lapis lazuli was the ancient source for ultramarine blue pigment

First, a brief overview of how paint is made. Essentially, it is a colorant contained in a medium. This colorant is usually ground up something: earth, glass, minerals and such. Sometimes it’s an organic material that’s been dried and ground up. A great illustration of pigments throughout the centuries (and some of their side effects)is available here. The medium either dries (water-based) or hardens (oil-based) and the colorant left in place.

Natural ultramarine pigment

Natural ultramarine pigment

Now, let’s look back even further…back to ancient Egypt. Prior to this, blue pigment had to be made from ground up azurite or lapis lazuli. The Egyptians made the first synthetic blue pigment from a copper compound, calcium carbonate, silica, and alkali ash. This mixture was carefully fired and often, ground and fired again. It’s thought that the calcium wasn’t deliberately added, but was actually an impurity in the sand. Egyptian blue was a prized pigment and used to decorate tombs, molded into faiance beads and small artworks. But with the collapse of the Roman Empire and the

synthetic ultramarine pigment

synthetic ultramarine pigment

darkness of the Middle Ages, the technique to creating Egyptian blue was lost. The attempts to recreate it were missing that one important element – the calcium impurities in the Egyptian sand.

Artists were limited then to grinding up azurite, lapis lazuli for some very costly pigment, or use the less expensive (and less intense) smalt (cobalt glass) and indigo. Lapis lazuli was the basis for the revered blue known as ultramarine. It was so expensive that it was reserved for only the most precious works. The Virgin Mary gained her blue robes about this time as a testament to just how precious this color was.

Time and science marched on. In the early-1700’s Prussian blue (a deep blue pigment) became the first synthetic blue pigment. But it wasn’t ultramarine.

In 1814, Tassaert observed the spontaneous formation of a blue compound, very similar to ultramarine, if not identical with it, in a lime kiln at St. Gobain, which caused the Societé pour l’Encouragement d’Industrieto offer, in 1824, a prize for the artificial production of the precious color. Two men created it independently of each other in 1826 and 1828, and the world finally had an affordable ultramarine blue.

Henri Matisse – “The Dance”

Which brings us up to date with our graph. And then, a second bluing agent comes on the stage the Art Nouveau and Impressionist movements. A turning away from traditional landscape, portraiture, and holy subjects (the big three of traditional art), these new artists chose new subject matter and new styles – and made a lot of use of blue! Think Van Gogh’s “Starry Night, “ the myriad of Monet’s landscapes and water lilies, and Matisse’s use of large areas of shape and color. Even Picasso had his “blue period.” These imaginative canvases not only broke subject matter barriers, they used color in an entirely different way! And this non-traditional usage continues to this day!

Reading through the information about creating pigment the traditional way, and the paint’s interaction with light vs. synthetic pigment made me begin to think about the effects of the material itself on the piece of art. But that’s another topic



Posted in History