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.
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
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--John & Ann