Why Can't You Be Blue Over Me?

19 Mar 2012

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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Lucia Botha wrote
on 21 Mar 2012 12:02 AM

Exactly, where would it be, I can't imagine a palet without blue it just does something

KatPaints wrote
on 22 Mar 2012 6:25 AM

Thank you, I enjoy your posts.

robertsloan2 wrote
on 24 Mar 2012 5:00 PM

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.