The art of being blue

One of my favourite pigments to paint with is lapis lazuli, the quintessential blue known also as ultramarine. The history of this precious blue goes back many millennia (Cleopatra is said to have used it as eyeshadow), and it later acquired the name owing to its having to be transported great distances from “beyond (ultra) the seas (marine)”.

The intensely saturated, deep blue in lapis is derived from the mineral lazurite, a principal component of the rock. The process of extracting the pigment from lapis is difficult and laborious, and quality raw material is scarce.

Nowadays, ultramarine pigment is almost entirely synthetic, but to me does not compare with natural lapis lazuli, which, due to irregularities in particle size and distribution, appears to have more depth and character. When applied in multiple thin layers of glaze, it glows with a certain luminosity and translucency that is almost otherworldly. 

It is no wonder, then, that the blue of lapis is often associated with the Divine, the Heavenly, and the Pure.

For blue is the colour of the heavens above. The sky is literally blue because of the scattering of the higher frequency wavelengths of light (the blue end of the spectrum) in the upper atmosphere. As blue light is scattered, it bounces about until it reaches our eyes, and we see a blue sky. 

Interestingly, the blue of the seas has a different cause. Most other colours of the visible spectrum are absorbed by water, leaving blue to be reflected to us. And although the name ultramarine has nothing to do with the colour of the oceans, the depth and translucency of lapis is reminiscent of blue seas that stretch into the distance.

The colour blue is considered to be a “cool” colour; it recedes from the viewer, is non-confrontational (unlike a warm colour like red), calming (hence its association with serenity), and pacifying (just as the vast blue waters of the Pacific Ocean seem to be from a distance). Because it seems to recede, it appears spacious, deep, and eternal.

But it can also seem detached, distanced, mysterious, unfathomable, and even lifeless. Blue is associated with the lack of air and also the lack of oxygen carrying blood. One turns blue when deprived of air, and bruises are blue-black. In a related vein, being blue is to be melancholic, lacklustre, depressed.

The art of being blue is a rich, multilayered, and complex art. Blue interacts with, complements, and challenges other colours in a painting. It evokes, it moves, it suggests, and ultimately it transcends the flat surface of the canvas with its depth and infinite spaciousness. 

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