London Fine Art Studios Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, 1770

Sophia Burnell, our summer term de Lazslo scholar gave a wonderfully insightful lecture this term on the history of the colour BLUE.

Hippoptamus. Musee du Louvre. c3800-1700
Hippoptamus. Musee du Louvre. c3800-1700

The colour blue defines the majority of our world – the sky reflects the sea, and therefore informs everything else we see, but it wasn’t widely used in art until the Renaissance. According to psychologists, the popularity of the hue may take root in our evolutionary development. In the hunting-and-gathering days, those drawn to positive things—like, say, clear skies and clean water—were more likely to survive, and, over time, this preference for the colour blue may have become hard-wired. Scientifically speaking however, the sky and the sea aren’t really blue – it is impossible to take the sky or sea and grind it up to make pigments, unlike many earth colours. This is why in any ancient cave paintings or a lot of ancient art there is no blue. Since it is so much more difficult to produce, the history of the colour blue becomes much more interesting.


Nebamun hunting in the marshes, fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun. Late 18th Dynasty c1350BC
Nebamun hunting in the marshes, fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun. Late 18th Dynasty c1350BC


Invented in ancient Egypt around 2000 BC, around the same time as the pyramids were being built. It was made by combining limestone and sand with a copper-containing mineral such as azurite or malachite, this solution was then heated to between 1470 and 1650 degrees Fahrenheit. This produced an opaque blue glass, which could be crushed up and mixed with egg whites, gums or glues to be made into paints or ceramic glazes. This blue remained popular for the majority of the Roman Empire, however the process was difficult and it often created more of a green than a blue, so was forgotten when other methods of producing blue came about.


Lapis Lazuli. Found in the mountains of Northern Afghanistan
Lapis Lazuli. Found in the mountains of Northern Afghanistan


Made from Lapis Lazuli, a stone found in the mountains of northern Afghanistan. The Egyptians had this stone yet didn’t find a way of making it into paint. When it is ground up as it is it turns into a grey powder, so the Egyptians used the stone to make jewelry and headdresses. Lapis Lazuli first appeared as a pigment in the 6th century in Buddhist paintings in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. In the 14th and 15th centuries Italian traders brought Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan to Venice, where it became known as ultramarine, which translates from latin ‘ultramarinus’ to beyond the sea.

6th century Buddhist paintings Bamiyan Afghanistan
6th century Buddhist paintings Bamiyan Afghanistan

– How it’s made:

1. The mineral is first ground in an electric mill.

2. The fine particles are then mixed with alcohol and poured over a magnetised channel to remove magnetic pyrite particles.

3. It is then kneaded with wax and water and pressed through a fine cloth and the less valuable ‘ultramarine ash’ stays in the cloth.

4. The finest particles pass through the cloth and are the highest quality ultramarine pigment.

London fine art studios, lavender hill colours, Ultramarine, the process
Ultramarine, the process

The deep colour was a revelation to painters working in medieval Europe, it was however very expensive and was deemed to be as precious as gold. Ultramarine was reserved for the most important commissions, for example the Virgin Mary’s robes.

In the Scrovegni chapel in padua by Giotto, Lapis Lazuli was used on an enormous scale, which would have cost a fortune. In these frescoes blue becomes an emblem for the divine, with the ceiling depicting heaven. For Giotto, heaven is clearly blue.

Giotto; Srovegni Chapel; the ceiling and altar
Giotto; Srovegni Chapel; the ceiling and altar
Scrovegni Chapel, Padua. Giotto 1302-1305
Scrovegni Chapel, Padua. Giotto 1302-1305

Church’s claim over Ultramarine – the church tried to control the use of blue, they restricted its supply and inflated its price – it became more expensive than gold. In the 1300’s laws were passed to ban citizens from wearing the colour, reserving blue solely for the Virgin Mary.

In Venice, Titian started to liberate the colour blue. In the Pesaro altarpiece in Venice, the Virgin Mary is radically not in the center of the painting, but St Peter is, wearing a rich swathe of ultramarine which takes center stage.

London Fine Art Studios, Titian, Pesaro Madonna, 1519-1526
Titian, Pesaro Madonna, 1519-1526

Titian Bacchus and Ariadne – almost half blue when you look at it diagonally, which must have cost a great fortune.

At this time the colour was strictly controlled by the church – how much you could use and where you could use it. And in this painting Titian goes to town with blue. The purest ultramarine is on the dress of a reveler who couldn’t be further away from the Virgin Mary – She hasn’t even bothered to pull up her dress.

Perhaps it is here that blue is stripped of its religious connotations and social hierarchies.

London Fine Art Studios, Bacchus & Ariadne, Titian 1520-1523
Bacchus & Ariadne, Titian 1520-1523

In the 60s this painting underwent a dramatic restoration, Arthur Lucas and Joyse Plesters remove huge amounts of yellowing varnish, revealing the true vibrant blue that we recognize in the painting today.

Some facts about ultramarine:

It is said that Vermeer’s love for the colour pushed his family into debt

Art historians believe that Michelangelo left his painting ‘The Entombment’ 1500-1 unfinished because he couldn’t afford ultramarine.

London Fine Art Studios Michelangelo, Entombment 1501
Michelangelo, Entombment 1501



London Fine Art Studios Timeline of Blue; Lapis Lazuli, Prussian, Cerulean, Cobalt, Ultramarine, Phthalo
Timeline of Blue; Lapis Lazuli, Prussian, Cerulean, Cobalt, Ultramarine, Phthalo


Lapis Lazuli/Ultramarine- I have already spoken about.

Prussian blue – was one of the first modern synthetic and inorganic pigments. Created by the paint maker Diesbach in Berlin in 1704. It is a dark blue pigment produced by oxidation of ferrous ferrocyanide salt. Produced accidentally when Diesbach used potash tainted with blood to create some red dye. Made a blue rather than a red.

Prussian blue is why blueprints are blue. The colour would react with light and create a copy of the technical drawing.

Cerulean – a very expensive pigment. It was discovered in 1789, by a swiss chemist Albrecht Hopfner. Cobalt stannate is the chemical makeup of the pigment and it was introduced in the UK 1870 under the name “Cerulean”, i.e. sky-blue, in imitation of a Roman pigment of that name.

Cobalt blue – used in Chinese porcelain in impure forms for a long time, but it was discovered as a pure pigment by Louis Jacques Thénard in 1802.[2] Commercial production began in France in 1807.

Ultramarine – Due to the high demand in 1824 France’s Socité d’Encouragement offered a reward of 6000 francs for the production of a synthetic ultramarine blue. A French chemist and a German professor found the solution within weeks of eachother, however the French committee gave the award to the Frenchman naming the pigment ‘French Ultramarine’

Phthalo (phthalocyanine) blue – 1927. A more modern pigment, a cheap cerulean blue hue is often phthalo blue with zinc white mixed in.


London Fine Art Studios Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, 1770
Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, 1770

Painting in the late 18th century Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough had a life long feud. Reynolds, the president of the Royal Academy wanted to create timeless works in keeping with the traditions of the old masters. Whereas Gainsborough, one of the founding members of the Royal academy, wanted to make paintings with free, painterly marks and wasn’t as interested in traditional conventions.

An example of one of their clashes is over the colour blue.


‘It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed that the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm mellow colour, yellow, red, or a yellowish-white; and that the blue, the grey, or the green colours be kept almost entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support and set off these warm colours; and for this purpose a small portion of cold colours will be sufficient’

It is clear what Gainsborough thought of that… In this painting Gainsborough uses lapis lazuli, deeper indigo and a paler cobalt, with blue making up the large majority of the canvas.


There is a move from blue representing religious purity, to blue representing deep emotions and sadness.

There are many explanations for why this might have happened. Perhaps one is the same reason that the musical genre ‘the blues’ is called ‘the blues’. The term might have come from the phrase ‘the blue devils’ which was used in the 1600s to describe ‘intense visual hallucinations that can accompany severe alcohol withdrawals’ or just to describe sadness and melancholy.

London Fine Art Studios Lecture Emotional Power of Blue
Emotional Power of Blue

In Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ and Edvard Munch’s ‘The Kiss by the Window’ the melancholic use of blue is clear in these deeply emotional paintings.


Moved to paris in October 1900 aged 19, with his friend Casegemas, where they were aspiring artists. In 1901 Casegemas committed suicide in a bar after attempting to shoot his girlfriend. This event was arguably the catalyst for Picasso’s blue period.

London Fine Art Studios Picasso's Blue Period
Picasso’s Blue Period

He made studies of Casegemas in his coffin, painted in a ghostly blue.

Other works by Picasso in his blue period ‘The Old Guitarist’ and ‘La Celestine’ outcasts became his main subject matter – the homeless, prostitutes and alcoholics, the blue palette communicating the sense of everyday hardship.

Picasso's Blue period Portraits
Picasso’s Blue period Portraits

Perhaps this blue period was a way for Picasso to process his grief (he had also lost his sister when she was 7 and his friend, also a painter, Hortensi Guell) for, after this period came a move to a palette of pinks “Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions,” Picasso.

YVES KLEIN, Born in Nice 1928

London Fine Art Studios
Yves Klein

As a teenager whilst sitting on the beach with two friends, Claude Pascal (who later became a poet) and Armand Fernandez (who later became and artist) decided to divide up the world between them. Pascal chose language, Fernandez chose the earth and Klein claimed the Sky. The pursuit of the sky’s expansiveness came to define his artistic career.

‘The blue sky is my first artwork’ Klein

By 1957 he was working solely in blue. Spray-painting canvases in a flat blue, as well as everyday objects and casts.

“Blue has no dimensions. It is beyond dimensions,”

He even came to produce his own blue, with L’Edoard Adam in Paris. Klein wanted a pure blue to replicate the sea and the sky, and Adam created a specific medium that was colorless and kept the blue as pure as possible.

London Fine Art Studios
Yves Klein, IKB 191, 1962

It was called International Klein Blue “IKB’


Turned his south London flat into a blue cave, by flooding it with 95,000 of liquid copper sulphate boiled at 100 degrees. He wanted the work to be determined by the properties of the materials rather than his own choices, so left it alone for 3 weeks, and came back to find the entire flat covered in crystals. The work was nominated for the 2009 Turner prize.

London Fine Art Studios
Roger Hirons “Seizure” 2008


Throughout history blue has been used to represent religious purity, heaven, or depression and despair. It is certainly an emotionally charged colour that will continue to be used by artists in a multiplicity of different ways for generations to come.