Got The Blues

Hello. Here’s my fourth podcast. It’s about the colour blue and again is mostly based on the book Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay It’s under 10 minutes long – just about bearable 😀

Hiya. Rosie Scribblah here with another of my podcasts. I keep meaning to do them more often but I’m so slack! It’s about 10 minutes long so you don’t have to listen to me blabbing on and on and this one is about the colour Blue, which I read about in Victoria Finlay’s book “Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox” easily one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Now the thing is, before the Victorians sort of invented chemistry in the 19th century, all pigments and dyes were made from nature and there are some amazing stories about how colours were made. So here are some of the stories about Blue.


One of the most expensive paints of all time is ultramarine blue. Ultramarine means “from beyond the seas” so it wasn’t something that you could find knocking around in Europe and it cost so much that in the Renaissance it was kept for paintings of the most important figures, like the Virgin Mary. It’s a brilliant, rich blue which doesn’t fade – there are paintings half a millennium old which are just as bright as when the paint was new.

If you go to the national gallery in London there is an unfinished Michelangelo painting. The bit that he didn’t finish is the Virgin Mary’s clothes, because the rich bloke who commissioned it ran out of money and it was unthinkable that she would have to wear clothes painted with a cheaper colour. So Michaelangelo never finished it.

Ultramarine pigment is made from a blue gemstone called lapis lazuli, which is also popular for jewellery and back in Michaelangelo’s day, about 500 years ago, it came from just one area of mines in Afghanistan, which was a heck of a long and difficult journey along the silk route. The place is called Sar-e-sang which means the place of the stone and goes back about 7,000 years. These stone mines sent lapis lazuli to the ancient Egyptians for jewellery, and paint for the Buddhas of Bamiyan 15 hundred years ago. They’ve provided Ultramarine for medieval European illuminated manuscripts and for paintings into modern times.

But it wasn’t just expensive to get supplies of it to Europe. Getting the colour out of the stone is very difficult because it’s got a lot of other minerals in it, which makes it very pretty and sparkly for jewellery, but these are no good in paint.  

Companies that make artist’s paints have to smash the stones up into a powder and then mix it with resins and gums and oils to make a dough which is smushed around for days before it’s dumped into water and smushed some more, for hours and hours, until the vivid blue leaches out into the water. This blue liquid is left to evaporate and then we get pure powdered lapis lazuli which is then converted into very expensive paint. 

The paint makers repeat the process with the same ball of dough to get more blue out of it, but this is lower quality. Bit like olive oil.

Some companies still make ultramarine this way and you’re talking about thousands of pounds for a kilo.

But eventually science caught up with colours and in 1828 a synthetic version of ultramarine was discovered in France and it’s been called French ultramarine ever since.

I was lucky enough to do an artist residency in Pakistan a few years ago, fabulous place by the way, and I bought some pieces of lapis lazuli, some in it’s natural rocky state and a few polished pieces. It would have cost hundreds of pounds here but I got change out of twenty quid.


There’s another mineral that was used to make blue in the past and that’s cobalt, which is named after the German word Kobald, and that’s an evil goblin that lives in the earth and hates intruders. It’s found in silver mines but European miners threw it away because it’s poisonous, it’s got arsenic in it.

There’s also cobalt in Iran and the Persians, instead of chucking it away, were the first to use it for colour, glazing exquisite blue pottery tiles in mosques. It was exported as Mohamedan blue.

In Europe, from the 1500s, cobalt was an ingredient of a paint called Smalt, which was ground-up blue glass but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that science was advanced enough to make it into a pure pigment.

Here’s an interesting bit of history that shows how vastly different life was before the Industrial Revolution.

Cobalt was used to make medieval stained glass like the incredibly beautiful and intense blue glass in Chartres cathedral in France. The way that glass was made back then was almost like alchemy. It wasn’t imported from far away, it was made on site by experienced Journeymen, artisans who travelled across Europe from job to job. Cathedral sites were chosen in or very close to thick forests because glass making took up huge amounts of wood.

The Journeymen camped on the edge of the forest, which was a strange and symbolic place; the border between civilisation and nature. It was widely believed that forests were dark places full of dangerous spirits where ordinary people shouldn’t go. This border between two worlds was where the Journeyman glass makers did their transformational magic, using fire to turn wood ash, sand and minerals into beautiful jewel-like coloured glass.

But huge amounts of trees were used up and forests around cathedral sites were flattened to make the glass. The wood was needed for the intense heat in the furnaces that melted all the ingredients together which included wood ash. These were different times and there’s no way we could allow so much environmental destruction now.  Plus there are better ways of making stained glass industrially.


The third blue I want to talk about is Prussian blue. It was discovered by accident in Germany at the beginning of the 18th century by a paint-maker called Diesbach. He was making red like he always did but ran out of one of his usual ingredients and used a substitute, thinking it wouldn’t matter. Instead of the lush carmine red he was expecting, he ended up with a vivid brilliant blue, iron ferrocyanide which is a bit of a mouthful to say so it was renamed as Prussian Blue.

It was a popular pigment and dye for almost a century and a half but in 1842, the British astronomer Sir John Herschel used it to invent the very earliest form of photography, cyanotype which is also called blueprints. Better photographic methods came along and replaced the blueprints but Prussian Blue is still a very popular colour for painters and cyanotype photography is making a bit of a comeback at the moment.

I love the way that science and art are so linked together. The technology of art is fascinating.

International Klein Blue

Let’s fast forward to the 20th century, the 1950s when the French artist Yves Klein worked with a professional paintmaker Eduard Adam to invent International Klein Blue, or IKB. It’s one of the most intense blue paints ever, it’s juicy with blueness, and it’s made from mixing ultramarine – from lapis lazuli – with a very modern artificial resin.  

You can buy a kit to make your own IKB and there’s a YouTube video showing you how.

Okay, that’s enough about the colour blue. If you like what you’ve heard and want to read a bit more, I really recommend Victoria Finlay’s book, the details are on the podcast page.

Next time, I think I’ll do something about Green, probably my favourite colour.

‘Til then, Hwyl Fawr, bye…

A Chance To Own One Of My Artworks

I have some small screenprints for sale, inspired by my drawings of the taxidermy collection at Swansea Museum. I have given these antique artifacts a modern twist by combining them with images of rubbish – old fruit nets, bubble wrap and plastic – highlighting the problem of human pollution and how it affects wildlife.

To buy my work on the Swansea Print Workshop site please click the image to the left and to see the complete image.

20 percent of the cost of each screenprint sold goes to support Swansea Print Workshop, which receives no public funding.

Published by Rosie Scribblah

I'm an artist / printmaker / scribbler. I love drawing and all the geeky stuff associated with printmaking, working in a figurative style. I live in Wales with husband and demented cats. And my real name is Rose Davies :D

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