ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Symbiartic

Symbiartic


The art of science and the science of art.
Symbiartic HomeAboutContact

Pinch of Pigment: Ultramarine

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



The Virgin in Prayer, 1640-50, by Sassoferrato. National Gallery, UK.

When I write these Pinch of Pigment posts, alternate, catchier titles come to mind. This one could be called “Why Blue is a Girl’s Colour” or “The Economics of Symbols”.

Ultramarine Blue is one of the most important pigments in Western fine art history. And it is because at one time, it was more expensive per ounce than gold.1

Ultramarine blue owes its name to its passage from Afghanistan to Venice, Italy, and it means “over the sea”. It’s ground from- get this – lapis lazuli gemstones. Chemically speaking, it is a complex polysulfide of sodium alumino silicate, which is somewhat fugitive over time (that means it fades).2 Naturally, it tends to be a bit more of a reddish blue than greenish, and it was not replaced with a cheaper synthetic until 1826. Unlike many fine art paints, the synthetic form is not called “Ultramarine Blue Hue” to denote the imitation colour, but is instead called French Ultramarine.

In Renaissance Europe, creating a new painting often involved an artist, a patron and a church. If the patron was someone from the newly risen middle classes, they would want to show off their new found wealth by commissioning a work for a local church, to get in good standing and in some cases, to be immortalized by appearing as penitents painted as small figures in a corner of the painting. To show that they were pious (and had gobs of cash) they would give the artist funds for materials, including a certain amount of gold and ultramarine.

So. You are a painter in the Renaissance, and you have this really expensive pigment sitting there. The painting is for the church, so more than likely it will either be a birth of Christ scene, or a Christ ascending, being suspended on or descending the Cross scene. You ought to use the expensive paint on the most important figure: Jesus Christ. But in birth and Crucifixion scenes, Christ is typically semi-nude. Not a lot of opportunities for a brilliant blue.

So, the ultramarine blue goes to the next most important figure: the Virgin Mary.

(It does make me wonder, what would art history have looked like if the most expensive pigment were a brilliant red: would we have Virgins in red robes, or would Crucifixion scenes be even more bloody?)

This economic point held true for centuries, and so did the Madonna’s portrayal in blue. Blue was symbolically imbued with the Virgin Mary’s traits: feminine, pure and powerful.

So why isn’t blue a “girl’s colour” any more? Cheaper blues and more experimentation in fine art painting are only a tiny part of the answer: the waning power of the church, and the rise of middle class fashions still held blue for girls, pink and red for boys until the 1940′s. As happens, trends swung another way and there was a reversal through marketing. The Baby Boomer generation were kids growing up with colour televisions and the reversal cemented into place.3

So the dominant trend today is only a recent one. And it could reverse again and bright, strong, ultramarine blues could be associated with feminine identities sooner than we think.

L-R: The Autobot Arcee used to be depicted as pink and fretting over Optimus Prime, now reborn as a lone surviving warrior. Captain Marvel, the fighter pilot/superhero comic book phenomenon that's led to the #CarolCorps used to wear a blue swimsuit and thigh-highs. Spector Lt. Ashley Williams from Mass Effect 3 originally appeared in white and pink in ME1. and now sports the space-army blue.

Popular geek culture in toys, comics, games and movies are hopefully seeing the delicate-and-pink trope being washed away, leaving new associations for the colour blue for the next generation.

References:

  1. The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Language of Italian Art, Richard Stemp, 2006. p4
  2. Ultramarine: A 185-Year Old Secret, Alex Reis, The Chemical Blog, 2013.
  3. When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink? Jean Maglaty, Smithsonian.com, 2011.
  4. Top image The Virgin in Prayer, 1640-50, by Sassoferrato. National Gallery, UK.
  5. Bottom images, L-R: The Autobot Arcee from Transformers Prime © Hasbro; Captain Marvel painted by Dexter Soy © Marvel Comics; Ashley from Mass Effect 3 © Bioware, screen cap by John Tesh.

____________________________

All fine art paints are pigment particles bound in a sticky medium: vegetable oil (oils), gum arabic (watercolour) or acrylic polymer (acrylic).

This is the 4th post in the Pinch of Pigment series.

 

Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at www.glendonmellow.com. Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





Rights & Permissions

Add Comment

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Holiday Sale

Limited Time Only!

Get 50% off Digital Gifts

Hurry sale ends 12/31 >

X

Email this Article

X