A Brief History of Blue

With discoveries dating back as early as the Egyptian times, and as recent as the last decade, blue is one sumptuous shade worth knowing a little bit more about.

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What images spring to mind when you think of the colour blue? Perhaps two of Earth’s most significant natural elements, sky and sea. Or the paradigm of denim wear, blue jeans. Surprisingly, the latest discovery of a new shade of blue was just over a decade ago. But if we look to the origins of this auspicious colour, we must head back to around 2,200 B.C. and the Egyptian dynasty.

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The Ancient Egyptians were the first to produce a synthetic, permanent blue pigment by combining silica, lime, copper and alkali. It was thought that these minerals were combined and heated to create the desired pigment, which later became known as Egyptian Blue. In an exciting discovery, modern scientists and chemists have been able to trace the presence of this synthetic pigment by detecting its luminescence properties in a range of historic objects and paintings. 

The colour blue was held in such high regard by the Egyptians, both for its semi-precious properties and its spiritual and metaphysical significance. Eager to expand their range of blue pigment variations the Egyptians discovered a new, natural source called lapis lazuli which held a beautifully deep blue hue that the Egyptians were eager to replicate. This highly-valued, metaphoric rock was mined in Afghanistan and then imported by the Egyptians who relished its polished exterior and used it for a wide-range of items including jewellery, ornaments and even the funeral mask of Tutankhamun. 

Lapis lazuli was rare and incredibly expensive, but wealthy traders were keen to procure its properties and slowly, it was exported to different parts of the world. However, defining this new colour took a long time to evolve. Unconventional descriptions of blue were poignantly expressed in classical literature, in Homer’s Odyssey for instance the sea is described as ‘wine-dark’. 

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By the 14th and 15th centuries, new methods of production were underway. Traders in Europe started importing lapis lazuli for another purpose. Ultramarine, a word adapted from Latin meaning “beyond the sea” was created by grinding lapis lazuli into a rich, blue powder. This extremely costly pigment gained popularity among wealthy artists who felt its rare and deep colour would be fitting to highlight religious figures in their most favourable paintings. Indeed, many pieces of Renaissance art depicting the robes of the Virgin Mary and other religious figures used ultramarine, thus giving the colour a prestigious status.  

Blue was subsequently adopted as a fashionable colour for clothing amongst the nobility. The French monarchy for instance used the colour as the backdrop for their national emblem in the late 12th century. 

Plant-based dyes used for blue clothing were initially expensive to produce and only worn by those who could afford it. Subsequently, a Mediterranean flowering plant called woad was heavily cultivated in Europe and its production helped small towns to prosper and for blue to become well known among the masses. The surge in blue-coloured clothing truly took off with the arrival of a new dye called indigo. So rife was the popularity of this richly coloured and steadfast dye from Asia that some European governments even tried to blockade the importation of indigo in the 16th and 17th centuries, on the grounds that it threatened the economic health of their own textile industries. However, cheap manufacturing processes and the accessibility of indigo dye for all social classes helped to disperse sartorial hierarchy and eventually it overtook woad as the principal dye for fabric. By the late 19th century natural indigo dye was replaced by a synthetic version which catalysed the production of ready to wear denim. This material was cheap to produce and easy to wear and maintain. 

For artists however, finding an alternative to the luxury that was ultramarine to use in their paintings came in the form Prussian Blue. Johann Jacob Diesbach was a Swiss pigment and dye maker and in 1709 he created the first modern, synthetic pigment by combining potassium and iron sulphides to produce a dark blue pigment. Referred to as Prussian, Berlin or Paris Blue, this new pigment was cheap to produce and delivered intense colour – a favourite among prominent artists including van Gogh and Picasso. However, one artist became synonymous with a new version of blue that would come to define his career. Yves Klein, a French artist famous for his monochrome paintings and role in the post Nouveau réalisme movement, said of the colour: “Blue has no dimensions. It is beyond dimensions.” Alongside a paint dealer in Paris, Klein was able to create a new form of ultramarine by descending the pigment in a synthetic resin and mounting it onto canvas to a create deep blue hue and textured surfaced that immediately draws the eye. He called it International Klein Blue and it was later patented in 1957. 

While Klein’s experimentation with colour was intentional, an accidental discovery in the field of science is to thank for the most recent discovery of a new man-made blue pigment. In 2009, a professor at the Oregon State University heated the elements Yttrium, Indium and Manganese, under extremely high temperatures, and as a result, discovered a vibrant pigment, later dubbed YInMn Blue. Applauded for its durable and heat-resisting properties, YInMn Blue is now being sold commercially around the world. 

From its inaugural beginnings as a colour prized for its religious and emotional significance to a mass-produced dye that rocked both economic and cultural landscapes, there are clearly many dimensions to the colour blue than we may have initially thought. Blue has seeped into our idiomatic language, art forms, clothing and how we view the world around us and excitingly, its breadth for discovery and diversity shows no sign of fading. 

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