Color History: A New Blue Color is Born

The discovery of a metal gifted the art world with a new set of blue colors. Georg Brandt, a Swedish chemist and mineralogist, isolated a new metal: cobalt. This discovery contributed to a chain of events that changed the art world forever and gave us the vast blue color palette that artists know and love today.

The First Synthetic Blue Color

A new blue color was discovered, by accident! In the early 1700s, two German scientists—Johann Conrad Dippel, an alchemist, and Johan Jacob Diesbach, a pigment and dye maker—were working on creating a red pigment. Because of a contaminated potash, the experiment resulted in a surprising blue instead of red.

The world welcomed the birth of Prussian Blue.

Prussian Blue powder

How to synthesize the ancient Egyptian blue was lost at the time. Many painters had to make due with pigments such as indigo dye. Those pigments, unfortunately, had a tendency to fade. At the time though, it was use that or pay a fortune for lapis lazuli. The new Prussian Blue pigment that Dippel and Diesbach discovered replaced the expensive lapis lazuli color.

Prussian Blue was the first stable and relatively lightfast pigment. Japanese painters didn’t have access to a long-lasting blue pigment and began to import the Prussian Blue from Europe.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai, a famous artwork which makes extensive use of Prussian blue

Expanding the Blue Color Palette

Prussian Blue was a revolutionary blue color for artists. It helped to kick off the exploration of new color development. Brandt’s discovery of Cobalt was an important part of that exploration.

When Brandt discovered Cobalt and claimed it as an element, he had been trying to demonstrate that the blue color of glass was from a new element and not from bismuth, as many believed at the time. That element was Cobalt.

In 1802, L.J. Thénard used Brandt’s work and expanded it further, creating a cobalt blue pigment for painting. Inspired by the cobalt oxide glazes on glass, he discovered how to use the cobalt element, aluminum oxide and phosphoric acid to produce the pigment. The French government played an active role in this development, encouraging and desperately seeking new products to help their economy after the Revolution left it in tatters.

Blue color | blue pigment | cobalt blue
Cobalt blue powder

The same quest continued when the French government announced a competition in 1824. Chemists were challenged to develop a synthetic ultramarine. Natural ultramarine was created with the expensive Lapis Lazuli gemstone. The natural pigment was more expensive than gold during the Renaissance!

Chemist Jean-Baptiste Guimet won the prize in 1828. Called French ultramarine, the synthetic color he created used several less expensive minerals but still produced the vibrant hue like the ground lapis.

Vibrant Blue Paintings

Painters finally had an affordable full color palette of both cool and warm colors. Many painters jumped into creating pieces with these new blue colors. This larger range of blue led to the creation of many iconic masterpieces, including multiple works from Van Gogh.

In Starry Night Over the Rhône, Van Gogh used all three of the new colors—Prussian blue, cobalt and ultramarine—to capture the nighttime hues of the Rhône river, according to the Musée d’Orsay.

“Starry Night Over the Rhône” by Van Gogh (1888). Painted a year before he painted the more famous “Starry Night.” This work took advantage of all three new blue colors. (Wikimedia Commons)

A year later Van Gogh painted The Starry Night, again using the many new shades of blue to create a vibrant and moving work.

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