Why Can't You Be Blue Over Me?

Where would painting be without the color blue? It is so easy to obtain artist paints of any hue these days that we forget that in the time of both Michelangelo and Titian, a pure, vibrant blue pigment could only be made by laboriously cooking and hand-grinding a stone of lapis lazuli into a fine powder, and then adding oils and binders to make it into a suitable paint.

Chiaroscuro by John Hulsey, oil painting.
Chiaroscuro by John Hulsey, oil painting.

Called "oltramarino," it was made from surpar, the very finest lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. It was the most expensive paint material in the world, and therefore not always readily available. Can you imagine the color wheel without blue? But in those days, that was almost a reality and it was not uncommon that a commissioned painting would have to remain incomplete until the expensive surpar could be furnished by the wealthy patron.

In time another blue was discovered, giving artists more freedom in their color schemes. This new pigment, nearly as valuable to artists as oltramarino, originally came from Persia, now Iran, and in English was called "cobalt," a corruption of the German "kobald," or gremlin. Discovered by silver miners, it was reviled because it attracts deadly arsenic.

It also has a propensity to change colors upon heating, and so was used in invisible inks. In high-temperature uses, however, it is very stable and produces a brilliant deep sky blue color. Art-makers were invigorated by this discovery and thus cobalt became a highly-prized glaze used by the Persians on their tile and the Chinese on their porcelain ware.

Although colbalt had been used in impure forms in pigments since the 1500s, it wasn't made into a pure artist's pigment until the nineteenth century by a scientist named Louis-Jacques Thenard. It was, and still is, an expensive pigment to use. But why? Modern mining operations and efficient industrial processing should have made cobalt relatively inexpensive by now. Part of the answer is that the U.S. has no domestic supply of the metal and imports 20% of the world production of it each year. The main reason, though, is that cobalt is far more in demand for industrial uses than artistic ones.

Cobalt is considered a "strategic metal" by the U.S. government. It is used in solar panels, wind turbines, rare earth magnets, communication satellites, geothermal and hydrogen energy production and storage, cell phones, tablets, laptops, hard disc drives, vitamins, prosthetics, and cancer treatment! Yowza! It is even used on jet turbine blades, which is part of the reason it is so pricey.

Ironically, this demand may eventually drive the price of cobalt to the point where we come full circle back to the days of Michelangelo, where artists will have to either forego the use of cobalt in their paintings, or do as Michelangelo did and ask their affluent patrons to supply it for them!

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–John & Ann


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About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.

3 thoughts on “Why Can't You Be Blue Over Me?

  1. I love the question. I also love those two particular blues and very often like doing monochrome blue paintings.

    But thinking of a palette without blue is fun too. My first thought was the Lascaux palette – white, black, earth reds and yellows. Which is pretty much the Zorn palette too, using a blue-leaning black in your primary triad. Life gets interesting without blue, but you can still get good greens mixing bone or ivory black with yellows and muted violets with red.