Susan here, wishing you a great 2020! Recently Pantone announced their 2020 color of the year – “Classic Blue,” they call it, citing its peaceful, dependable, calming qualities, a color that the Pantone folks say has both a tranquil modernity and an enduring sense of heritage perfect for entering a new decade. Heritage for sure – seeing their color pick, I was immediately reminded of all the beautiful blues that have been regarded over the ages as very special, reserved for royalty, treated as priceless and sacred. And reminded, too, of one of my own personal favorite colors: I am very partial to this sort of blue.
This saturated hue, and those similiar to it, touch the spectrum somewhere between ultramarine, cobalt, and peacock. It has a natural, familiar feel, like a twilight blue sky, a deep lake in sunshine, a perfect sapphire, a chunk of lapis lazuli—or the beautiful blues in the classic and varied blue-and-white dishes found in Blue Willow china, Spode ware, Wedgwood, Asian porcelain, and more. Over the years I’ve been collecting blue-and-white patterned dishes from antiques to Asian to contemporary–here are just a few of them–and so, while I don’t usually pay much attention to trendy colors, a resurgence of this rich and truly classic blue appeals to me.
Let's look at some of the great blue hues in history . . .
Neolithic pottery used blue color taken from plants, and sometimes formed beads and small figurines of lapis lazuli, a silicate mineral valued for its intense blue color, mined thousands of years ago.
Lapis was prized in Egypt through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and straight into today. Lapis is also said to have supportive energies for writers, and just in case, I keep a hefty chunk of raw lapis, brought from far away by a friend, on my desk (photo).
The Egyptians used lapis lazuli in figurines, jewelry and inlays, and decorative arts, and ground it into a pigment powder for paints. It is inlaid in King Tut's spectacular gold and blue coffin covering, and carved in this exquisite cat sculpture.
They also prized another source of rich blue often called Egyptian blue, which they prepared from oxidized copper, a cyan blue that the Romans later called cerulean. In Egypt and other ancient civilizations, it appeared in painted surfaces, pottery colors, and dyes. The oxidized copper blue, transformed to pigment, appears in Nefertiti's headdress, and is used as a glaze on the quartz-based ceramic of this little hippo figurine.
The Celts — and some Neolithic groups before them — were fond of another source of blue, woad, drawn from a plant of the Brassica family, whose yellow flowers produce a strong and beautiful blue that does not always require a mordant to set, and so was used often for not only fabric dyes and paint, but tattoos as well.
The Picts, so-called by the Romans (they called themselves the Cruithin) for their tendency to paint or tattoo themselves in particular blue designs, used woad, and sometimes copper oxide, to work designs into their skin.
Lapis lazuli remained the pre-eminent blue in the Middle Ages. Expensive and rare, mined in the East and brought along trade routes to European countries, it was valued more highly than gold. The blues produced by ground lapis powder mixed with egg white, and later in oil, were so costly to make that they were used sparingly and reserved for the most important illuminations and panel paintings, and later in frescoes and paintings by Renaissance masters.
During the Baroque era, Jan Vermeer so loved lapis blue that he used it often in the nuanced blues in many paintings. It is believed that his passion for the very expensive pigment plunged him and his family into enormous debt. The painter, a popular but not prolific artist who died fairly young, was unable to recover financially from the beautiful luxury of his blues.
Lapis remained a favorite through the centuries but also remained very expensive, and later artists still found it hard to afford (it is said that Michelangelo abandoned one of his frescoes because he could not buy more ultramarine, or lapis, blue).
In later eras, artists such as Van Gogh and Renoir turned to other sources of blue, such as cobalt, produced from oxidized aluminum, which was cheaper and more readily available and provided rich blue hues.
Prussian blue, a variation of an oxidized aluminum color, was produced when the oxidized product was mixed with animal blood, creating not red, as would be expected, but a rich greenish blue. Hokusai used the color in his famous woodcut print of an enormous wave.
So – a quick breezy trip through some beautiful blues. There is so much more to say, such as the production of blue and white china and porcelain, or the use of blues in dyes (such as the gorgeous blue silk so delicately and precisely painted here by Ingres). And so many other colors to explore!
What is your favorite color? While I love rich blues, I'm also very fond of dark greens (and my go-to is always black).
Is there another color we could explore here through history? I'm up for it if you have suggestions!