Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Subject of Art #12: The History of Colors, Chapter 3 - In Search of the Perfect Blue!

Throughout the history of color-making, up until the Industrial Revolution, one of the most difficult colors to produce was blue, which is unfortunate as there are so many wonderful blues to be found in nature! In this chapter of The History of Colors, we'll take a look at the attempts that were made by chemists and artists through the ages to add this elusive color to their palettes.

Ultramarine Natural (Lapis Lazuli)
The standard by which all blues were judged in antiquity was a color known in the West as Ultramarine ("beyond the sea" in Latin, presumably because it came to Europe from Asia). The naturally-occurring form of Ultramarine is created by grinding up a semi-precious gemstone, Lapis Lazuli, which has an intense blue color with violet undertones. Unfortunately, since it is made from a gemstone this pigment is extremely rare and expensive.

The largest deposits were found in Afghanistan, mined and exported — both for use in Ultramarine pigments and jewelry — at great cost, so it was often difficult for the average artist to obtain enough of the color to do anything useful. The height of Ultramarine's popularity was during the 13th through the 15th centuries in Europe, when the color became the de facto standard for the bright blue mantle worn by the Virgin Mary in Christian art. Since most of the religious art of the time was commissioned directly by the Catholic Church, there was plenty of money available to make use of this rare and beautiful color. Subsequently, Ultramarine became a status symbol for Dutch merchants and capitalists who were eager to flaunt their success through the purchase of luxury items.

The client of a Dutch painter might often stipulate that a certain amount of Ultramarine be used in a commissioned painting and then provide the funds for purchasing the raw pigment, and the more of this expensive color used in the painting, the greater the prestige of the owner! Throughout history, and even today, the natural form of Ultramarine remains prohibitively expensive for most art applications and in modern times has been almost completely eclipsed by synthetic imitations.

Egyptian Blue
From the 3rd millennium BC onwards, the Egyptians had invented a blue pigment that can be considered the first synthetic pigment, since it is a material that doesn't occur in nature. A variety of chemical processes were required to convert a combination of copper, quartz sand and calcium carbonate into this color that was used extensively throughout ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Since the basic components were readily available, it was much more affordable than Ultramarine, but it is likely that the process of manufacturing the pigment was a carefully kept secret known only to certain color-makers.

Like a number of other technological break-throughs of the ancient world (such as concrete and brain surgery), the secret to creating Egyptian Blue was lost after the fall of the Roman Empire. Some attempts have been made to reconstruct the method by which the Egyptian chemists created it, but with only limited success. It would be nearly 1400 years later that synthetic colors would appear again and transform the concept of color and art entirely!

Azurite and Smalt
There were two other blue pigments available to artists before the Industrial Revolution, Azurite and Smalt, but both of these were not suitable for use on a wide scale for various reasons and were replaced on the artist's palette as soon as synthetic blues became available.

Azurite is a form of copper that has weathered naturally and shifted it's color to a deep, subtle blue. Azurite is rare, so the average artist could not be certain of obtaining it. Plus though it mixes well with the wax medium used in encaustic painting and the gum arabic medium used in watercolors, it has a tendency to turn greenish and grayish when mixed with egg tempera medium or linseed oil — by far the more popular types of paint in Europe.

Smalt is a naturally occurring form of cobalt glass which can be ground up and mixed into paint. The difficulty in finding and mining this mineral made it hard to find and, in it's paint form, the color is very weak and was therefore an unpopular choice.

Prussian Blue and Other Modern Synthetics
It was not until the year 1706 CE that the first industrially manufactured, synthetic pigment was produced, and it was no accident that it was a blue color! Chemists had been searching for centuries to find a stable, lightfast blue pigment but it was not until the beginnings of modern scientific methods that such a breakthrough became possible.

Prussian Blue was created in Berlin through chemical processing of the crystalline powder Potassium Ferrocyanide. Yes, there is cyanide in it, so never put your Prussian Blue on the stove and boil it because it will produce toxic cyanide gas. However, the paint in the tube is harmless so don't worry! Once the doorway to synthetic pigment creation was re-opened (remember that it was closed since the fall of Rome!), beautiful, durable blue colors became widely available for comparatively low cost.

The synthetic version of Ultramarine, in the course of one year, turned the most expensive color of all time into one of the most easily affordable ones! The explosion of bright colors in the paintings of the Impressionists can be directly linked to the discovery and propagation of synthetic pigments — which will be the subject of our next chapter.

Visit BINDERS website to see the wide array of blue colors that we carry!

No comments:

Post a Comment