The original ultramarine blue was made from the semiprecious stone lapis lazuli. Processes for making the pigment in the West date from the 12th century, but it was being made six centuries earlier in Eastern countries. Its name comes from the Italian azzurro oltremarino, which means “blue from beyond the sea.” Much of it originated in the mines of Sar-e-Sang, Afghanistan, very near the place where the Taliban recently blew up those venerable Buddhist statues. Ultramarine blue was manufactured by a complex process that separated the lapis from the gray gangue rock with which it’s associated in nature. Genuine ultramarine was the costliest of pigments, worth more than twice its weight in gold. Mediaeval princes doled it out, and artists carefully washed their brushes to save the last precious bits. Unfinished works such as Michelangelo’s Entombment, and others, were probably brought to a halt because artists couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
These days ultramarine blue is what is known as a “furnace product” — it’s made with a roasting process of an equally magical nature. It’s permanent in all applications except fresco. In many ways it’s one of the most useful of colors — in full strength — or cut with white, yellow ochre or gamboge — it’s a most ethereal tone. When used as a neutralizer with all the warmer tones it makes for sophisticated grays. Many artists find that ultramarine and phthalocyanine are the only blues they need. Pthalo is the modern replacement for the less reliable Prussian blue, and provides a harder, greener tone than ultra.
Ultramarine seems to breathe. It represents the air between the viewer and the viewed. Aerial perspective can’t live without it. It’s the colour straight up on a perfect day. More than any other it holds sky-magic, the zenith, the spiritual, closest thing to heaven, the most profound of the colour mysteries. A tube of blue is at once jewelry and atmosphere. Blue will always be loved. “Just as there are connoisseurs of wine, there are connoisseurs of blue.” (Colette)
PS: “Something old, something new,
Something borrowed, something blue.” (Anon)
“Blue is everlastingly appointed by the Deity to be a source of delight.” (John Ruskin)
Esoterica: There’s everything to be gained by playing with colours — seeing and understanding what they do. For example, ultra blue seems in love with burnt sienna. In watercolor the two work grainy magic. Their mutual neutralization is almost perfect. Ultra also flirts outrageously with Cadmium red and Alizarin crimson. “Colour,” said Johannes Itten, “affords utility to all, but unveils its deeper mysteries only to its devotees.”
by Karen Fitzgerald
Never has a pigment been better named than ultramarine blue. Fashionable, even today, in its nomenclature! It is ultra in every way. Thank you for singing its praise. This is my favorite pigment. Sidled next to a tint of pthalocyanine green, well heaven can’t get any closer or be more real. I once did a very small painting in praise of these two: a l2″ tondo called “the Blue Sky.” It contains mixtures of ultramarine blue in the center, surrounded by mixtures of pthalocyanine green. I thought it was one of those paintings that you do now and then, just for yourself, and put away. But I’ve left it up, high on my wall. I find it a mysterious test of anyone who visits. Those who notice it and dare comment on it tend to have a terrific eye and be genuine, honest people. Those who ignore it, well, need I say more?
by Bob Abrahams
Can you tell us about the different qualities of Ultramarine Blue and French Ultra Marine Blue?
(RG note) They are one and the same thing. Ultra blue is also sold as French blue, Gmelin’s blue, Royal blue and New blue. Different brand-names offer different strengths, degree of grinding, and consequently, differences in tinting power. Armenian blue and lazuline blue are old names for genuine lapis ultramarine.
Names lost their meaning?
by Marilyn Lemon
Discussion of ultramarine sounds so delicious. I recently saw an ad for real lapis lazuli ultramarine, also tempting. I agree that ultramarine is a real necessity in painting but I’m not so sure about phthalo blue. In fact I advise beginners to avoid the phthalos until they get to know the other more basic and traditional colours first. I don’t dismiss them entirely but I tell students to beware. Phthalos are heavy hitters and can take over their palette and their paintings. Phthalo blues and greens in landscape can be particularly annoying.
Now I’ve discovered that those phthalos are more insidious that I had imagined. I came across an “ultramarine green tint” I think it said. Can such a thing exist? On the back of the tube it admitted it was actually a phthalo blue mixture. I believe I’ve also discovered phthalo blue on the back of a tube clearly labeled Cobalt. I have lost faith in the names on the fronts of tubes. Have these words, ultramarine, cobalt blue, cerulean, lost their meaning? Do you have an explanation for this?
(RG note) Phthalo, with its power, permanence, and tinting strength, has become the pigment of choice for making, by admixture, other blues. Many cobalts, for example, no longer come from cobalt.
Genuine lapis lazuli blue
by Katherine Malmsten, Seattle, WA, USA
How serendipitous. I just got my Daniel Smith catalog yesterday, with their new featured color — genuine lapis lazuli blue, available as watercolor or oil. The idea of it is appealing. I wonder how different the color really is?
(RG note) I’ve ordered some too. Perhaps it may be good for the economy of Afghanistan.
A few votes for the other blues
by Cristina Acosta, Bend, Oregon, USA
Another Ultramarine Blue fan!! I also love the color. It’s much easier to handle than Pthalo blue, though the two colors mix well to create a “cobalt” type color. Just to be fair, I do want to put a few votes in for the other blues: Cobalt — a perfect medium blue (but rather expensive) Cerulean blue — a yellowish blue (perfect for a soft morning landscape) and Manganese blue — an odd pthalo type of blue that seems to glow a hot turquoise color (I really can’t find much to do with the color, yet it’s intriguing) and the new kid on the block — Interference blue (sold by Daniel Smith, Inc.) — a remarkable oddity with lots of interesting possibilities.
(RG note) Cristina is the author of the recent North Light book, Paint Happy.
Morality is ultramarine
by Dion Archibald, NSW, Australia
An Australian, Brett Whitely, loved the colour ultramarine blue. This interesting text was from an interview in a magazine from 1975-76. “In the catalogue of your last exhibition at the Bonython Gallery you said, ‘Morality is Ultramarine.’ Could you Elaborate on that?”
“Winsor and Newton Deep Ultramarine oil colour has an obsessive ecstasy-like effect upon my nervous system quite unlike any other colour. Now, what I said in the catalogue was that ‘one might just as well say that morality is ultramarine’, in the sense that if morality is a problem in painting, and it is, then the actual chromosonian effect ultramarine has as a colour might just as well be felt as principle or summary of the force of good and evil as any iconography might promote. In the same way, envy does seem to be green. What’s interesting is the first split second when the gestalt or the atmosphere of the colour (soul?) first hits the nervous system. Everything after that is analytic wear-down and is intuitively subordinate to the feeling or judgement first made. So, in this way, Bob’s walk is chocolate, and Chrissie’s way of driving a car has mustard yellow to it, that you can really see.” (Brett Whiteley 1939-1992)
(RG note) See letter and informative responses here: Synesthesia.
Blue a shade of black?
by Warren Criswell, AK, USA
Why is it called “French” ultramarine? Because of the expense of lapis lazuli and the difficulty of extracting the blue lazurite from it, there had been a need for a synthetic substitute since the Middle Ages. Cennino Cennini describes the elaborate process in Il Libro dell’ Arte. It involves grinding the lapis, mixing it into a paste of beeswax, oils and resins, wrapping it in cloth and then kneading it in a solution of lye. Then you had to squeeze the blue-dyed lye out of the bag with sticks, separate the lye from the lazurite — and then start all over again. It could take several months of work to produce a few ounces of dry blue powder. I like to make my own paint from dry pigments, refine raw linseed oil, and other unnecessary labors in imitation of the Old Masters, but I’m not that crazy.
So there was a great demand for cheap ultramarine. Early in the 19th century prussian blue and cobalt blue were discovered as byproducts of industrial processes, but the queen of blues, ultramarine, remained allusive, even though its chemical components were then known. In 1824 the Societe d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale offered a prize of 6,000 francs to anyone who could come up with a synthetic ultramarine pigment which could be sold at less than 300 francs per kilogram, about a tenth the cost of the natural pigment. Within four years two guys — Jean-Baptist Guimet from Toulous and Christian Gmelin from Germany — came up with the product, and both claimed the prize. Both used pretty much the same process: they made a mixture of china clay, soda, charcoal, sand and sulfur and heated it in a furnace. Then the greenish glassy material that results was washed and reheated, which changes its color to blue, then washed again and ground to produce the pigment. Voila! After a long dispute, Guimet was awarded the prize — and that’s why it was called French ultramarine instead of German ultramarine. Even though the new color was identical to the original, many artists in England, including Turner, refused to use French (that is, “fake”) ultramarine and continued to make their own from lapis lazuli. (I learned most of this from Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color by Phillip Ball. Good book.)
But before this, when ultramarine was expensive and other blues impermanent, there were ways to get around it. Rembrandt, especially in his later paintings, rarely used blue at all, though you wouldn’t suspect this by looking at the pictures. Set against warm colors, ivory black mixed with white makes a beautiful shadowy blue. This works — I do it all the time. After all, the Greeks — whose primaries were black, white, red and yellow — thought that blue was a shade of black.
Workhorses of the palette
by Sandy Sandy
Ultramarine Blue is by far the most exploited color on my palette with burnt sienna running a close second. Since I use these colors on about a four to one ratio to the others, (mainly yellow ochre, gamboge, alizarin crimson and pthalo) I am glad that today they are two of the lesser expensive pigments! I have recently painted and sold several pieces using only these two preference hues. One I am showing now that’s predominantly Ultra, always seems to grab lots of attention. Also, I don’t use a manufactured black, preferring the warm to cool grainy dark combinations only my favorite workhorses can provide.
Tapping into creativity
by Mary Jean Mailloux
My sister and I are interested in chakras. Lapis lazulis is the crystal colour and stone one should wear for tapping into one’s creativity. I was recently introduced to Antwerp Blue (in watercolour). Winsor Newton makes it. Mixed with oxide red or burnt sienna it makes wonderful shadows and backgrounds. I’m just learning to use it. When I was in wallcovering design, we were not allowed to use ultramarine blue for designing and colouring because the factory could not reproduce this wonderful deep colour, so we were limited to cobalt. I sneaked it in from time to time anyway.
Blue associated with thyroid
by Sherri Kellerman
I think sometimes we take for granted the role of colour in our lives. I have recently finished painting a room and it is the boldest I have ever been with colour. It is 4 colours strong and it works just phenomenally. In regards to the colour blue, it is the colour associated with the thyroid and is representative of trust. This seems to fall in line with your knowledge. People who have throat problems are lower in trust than they might be and lapis lazuli is a rock useful to those who will not speak up for themselves and need to be able to express vocally.
Perfect mate for burnt sienna
by Suzy Olsen
Yes! Ultramarine blue is the perfect mate for burnt sienna. I teach my watercolor class by introducing the main “dancing partners of color”– ultra-blue with burnt sienna, Prussian blue with raw sienna, gamboge with Prussian blue, and many others. To teach the student the marvels of all the unbelievable jewels that are possible, and of course invite a third color, the triad which is always a more interesting dance for color pairs. Then I ask the student to make a serious notebook of all possible color combos of these pairs and triads… making hundreds of color combos for the amazed student who will start to see colors all around, not noticed before. It’s a great way to learn to paint watercolor! Study and copy the great master watercolorists, they used only a few colors! John Singer Sargent, Homer, Turner, and many more can show the miracle of the blue and sienna dance.
by Moncy Barbour, VA, USA
To me there is no other color as strong as marine or cobalt blue lest it be pure red. Blue is my favorite hue. I have art on line with Peter Max whom I consider to be a pop artist. He also loves Matisse as so do I. Wild beast shall inherit my spirit for a time and blue at it purest will stand still the beast of pure red in my work, ironic is it not?
Blue is used in the work of Oskar Kokoschka, The Bride Of The Wind or the work of Jean-Auguste-Domnique Ingres, Princess de Broglie (1853) and also in the almost monochromatic color scheme pastel painting self-portrait Quentin De La Tour (1751). And I cannot leave out the challenged painting Blue Boy. Let the blue sky meet the blue sea and all is blue for a time. Are we not fortunate that blue once so rich is bought now so cheap, but do not tell the paintings that.
Book on colours
by Loraine Wellman
I am working on creating booklets of colour mixing. One is going to be all tints, one on colours with opposites. Maddening to force the discipline to mix neatly into little squares –but I’ve thoroughly explored colours that way and made recorded discoveries that I might not have otherwise. You mentioned the book about colours. One book I’ve enjoyed lately is James Elkin’s What painting is. He compares painting to alchemy with artists working magic in their studios.
“Painters love paint itself: so much that they spend years trying to get paint to behave the way they want it to, rather than abandoning it and taking up pencil drawing, or charcoal, or watercolor, or photography. It is the paint that is so absorbing, so deeply attractive, that a life spent in the studio can be a bearable life” (p.192)
“…painting is a fine art: not merely because it gives us trees and faces and lovely things to see, but because paint is a finely tuned antenna, reacting to very unnoticed movement of the painter’s hand, fixing the faintest shadow of a thought in color and texture.”
Miracle of manufacture
by Anne Copeland, CA, USA
I’ve always been interested in the manufacture of colors. In the fiberarts world, two dyes, Turkey Red and Indigo fascinate me as both were extremely complex and labor-intensive processes. But these two colors were (and still are) most desirable by everyone who could afford them. Although synthetic indigo has been fairly successful in capturing a sense of the original indigo, nothing has ever come close to matching the original Turkey Red. There were synthetic turkey red dyes, but they could not touch the original. The original Turkey Red was also referred to as oil-boiled red, for apparently at some point, the fabric was literally boiled in oil — likely olive oil. But it has no oily feeling at all. Turkey red starts with the madder plant, which normally produces a reddish brown. At some point, sheep dung was added, and wood ash probably. No one really knows the true recipe for the dye, though some people have probably come pretty close to creating it.
I was thinking of an analogy to the turkey red and to honey. Neither has ever been successfully synthesized. An original work of art, though it may be copied thousands of times as some have been, can never truly be reproduced. No matter how technically correct the piece may be, the emotion, the moment, will never be there. There is that secret ingredient — that seminal thought of the original creator — that cannot be captured by another.
I guess the ultramarine was like this. It is true that there is synthetic ultramarine, but it will never be like the original. What amazes me more than anything is how someone came to figure out in the first place that this process would yield a beautiful color.
by Theresa Bayer, TX, USA
Soft enough to lie on.
Ultramarine with breath of violet,
Bright pthalo brother to indigo,
Cerulean the iris gateway to the soul,
Prussian the high thunderheads of sullen skies,
Cobalt the deep, cold firewalker.
In the Divine Trinity of primary colors
Blue is the Holy Spirit.
Moses [awaiting the 11th command]
digital art by Apostolos, Athens, Greece
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