In Search of Blue
Tragedy, elation and madness in the search for the world’s most sought-after pigment, ultramarine blue.
There is a boy who watches the sky. He is nineteen, arrogant, French. He turns to his friend and offers him the earth and its riches. To his other friend, he gives the air. Himself? He takes the heavens. “The blue sky,” he declares, “is my first artwork.”
At nineteen, he won’t turn to painting yet. He will study judo and eastern philosophy. He will wrap himself in mysticism. He will fixate on emptiness and infinity and the purity of space. At twenty-six, he will turn to art for good, starting with paint, the métier of his parents. But he won’t stop at the canvas. He will leap from a building and break his nose to capture the perfect photograph. He will turn a front page into artwork; he will stage paintings as performances. And, eventually, he will discover the colour blue. He will go so far that he will declare that the Earth is blue, and he will renounce all colours but blue, and begin to paint canvases in only one hue, and then he will paint not just the two dimensions of canvas but statues and tabletops and world globes and dinner plates and even the naked flesh of women because Yves Klein, at the headstrong and precipitous age of twenty-nine, is obsessed with blue.
But this is not the story of a compulsive French boy. This is the story of the elusive pigment that drove Yves Klein and others like him to obsession, destroyed fortunes and birthed geniuses. This is the story of the colour that existed before anything, and yet, for most of human history, barely existed at all. This is the story of the colour blue.
If I was to guess your favourite colour, I would guess it to be blue. Statistically speaking, that would be the wisest guess. Scientifically speaking, it might even make sense: some evolutionists have proposed that blue is our collective favourite because early humans attracted to clean waters and clear skies would have fared better than those who went looking for brown waters and stormy skies. But even if blue is your favourite colour, and even if you’ve painted your walls with it or bought bedsheets in it or designed a wardrobe out of it, when was the last time you really looked for the colour blue?
The thing you probably don’t know about blue is that it does not exist in nature the same way as the other colours do. Of course, the sky is mostly blue, and big bodies of water can certainly appear to be blue, but consider this: a leaf is green because of a pigment called chlorophyll. A carrot is orange and a daffodil is yellow because of pigments called carotenoids. But the sky is blue only because it is no colour at all, and the ocean is blue for the same reason. You can’t grind up the sky and turn it to powder; you can’t bottle the ocean and call it blue.
Most of the light that comes from our sun is blue light, but blue pigment — truly insoluble blue substance — is astoundingly rare in the natural world. There is no naturally blue pigment among plants. Blue flowers are the result of modified anthocyanin pigments, which are actually red. Blueberries are coloured by the same pigment, as are eggplants and blue corn and purple carrots. Blue flowers and plants modify the natural structure of anthocyanin by changing their pH or mixing it with other molecules and pigments, creating a blue hue.
Most blue animals achieve their colour through iridescence — the same phenomenon that makes you see different colours in bath bubbles and roadside oil spills and the shiny side of DVDs. So Blue Jay feathers are actually brown; their beaded microscopic structure scatters light so that only blue light is reflected. The bright blue wings of the Blue Morpho butterfly have ridged scales for a similar effect. Even blue eyes are pigment-less. Brown eyes are coloured by melanin, but blue eyes are empty of pigment. The only truly blue pigment known to exist in the animal world exists in a tiny 10-millimetre diagonal strip of colour across the broad black wings of the Obrina Olivewing butterfly.
The incredible rarity of blue pigment meant that the paints the ancients made from plants and animals and minerals produced mostly reds and yellows and pinks. In fact, the classical world believed in four primary colours: yellow, red, white and black. The Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder claimed that Classical Greek painters used only these four colours. It’s probably an exaggeration, but not an entirely unfounded one.
Tangible blues were so absent from ancient daily life that most surviving texts from ancient cultures — ancient Greek poetry, old Chinese stories, the Icelandic sagas, the Koran and the ancient Hebrew bible — didn’t even have a word for them. In The Iliad, Homer mentions not the blue sea but the “wine-drunk sea.” The only allusion we have to the colour blue is in the word melas, which is more accurately translated as dark. It appears that blue, to the Greeks, was just a shadow; a function of darkness.
The first evidence of blue in use as a dye is a collection of seeds called woad seeds and blue-dyed tree fibre excavated from a Neolithic cave in France dated to sometime between 5000 and 10,000 BC.
Woad is an unusual substance. It is a green-leafed plant that flowers yellow, and if you dry the leaves, grind them up and let them ferment, they make blue. The Ancient Egyptians used woad to dye their clothes and other fabrics, alongside other blueish dies, like indigo (from the pink-flowering plant Indigofera tinctoria). Other parts of the world were also using the deep purple-blue indigo dye; evidence of indigo-dyed fabric dates all the way back to 4000 BC. But fast-forward to someplace like 2500 BC and the Egyptians had developed a taste for a blue they couldn’t have — or rather, could only have at a serious cost. The colour runs through the semi-precious gemstone lapis lazuli. Today, you know it as ultramarine.
There are only five places in the world where digging will lead to lapis lazuli: Chile, Siberia, Myanmar, the United States, and a giant valley called Sar-e-Sang in the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan.
The Egyptians were bewitched by lapis lazuli. They painted it on faces and carved it up into beads; they draped it over kings and queens, swallowed it to heal themselves, chipped away statues from it and ground it up into powder to paint with it. But getting this rare blue stone into Egypt from Afghanistan was difficult, and expensive, and very slow. So the Egyptians, obsessed as they were with the perfect blue, created the world’s first synthetic pigment, Egyptian blue.
This is no insignificant moment in human history: it is the beginning of the kind of pigment production that is now worth $30 billion globally.
Making Egyptian blue was complicated. The Egyptians would heat a precise mix of limestone, sand, copper and sodium and leave it heating for up to four days. The blue that emerged from the heat was a blue so bright and beguiling that it was painted in tombs and on statues and over the coffins of mummies. The Egyptians had their blue. It was called ḫsbḏ-ỉrjt: artificial lapis lazuli.
Egyptian blue crossed centuries and cultures, making its way to Ancient Greece and Rome, into Parthenon statues and Pompeii wall paintings. But when Rome fell, the recipe for Egyptian blue was lost for four and a half thousand years, until a a chemist named Sir Humphrey David discovered a pot of the pigment during the excavation of Pompeii in 1814.
For centuries, blue stayed in the sky and on the seas and flew briefly on the wings of butterflies, occasionally fermented into dyes or powdered into pigments but never quite turning out the way the sky does on a spring morning, never quite mirroring the middle of the ocean. Blue was always there, and always out of reach.
Sometime in the 13th or 14th century, lapis lazuli arrived in Europe. The stone probably made its way to the continent through Venice, the major trading port between Europe and the other side of the world. The ultramarine pigment from lapis lazuli was a breakthrough for Renaissance artists and their patrons. The name ultramarine meant beyond the sea, indicating not the rock’s colour but its origin. Finally, European painters had the perfect blue. There was just one problem: it was so expensive that the cost of the little blue stone just about crippled the painters who sought it. Pound for pound, it was more expensive than gold. The process of extracting pigment from the rock itself involved some fifty steps, and it yielded less than ten per cent of its total weight in pigment. Even in an era of artistic resurgence, buying ultramarine was no small purchase.
Some blues feel cool, some feel smooth. Some hint at purple, others verge on green. But ultramarine is like nothing else. No colour will compare; no blue will compete. The 15th century Italian painter Cennino Cennini believed ultramarine was “a colour more noble, more beautiful, and perfect than any other colour.” He was not alone.
You can see Renaissance attitudes towards blue pigments on canvases all over the world. There is a painting that hangs in the National Gallery in London today. It is a dark, dramatic snapshot of Jesus being carried to his tomb. It dates to 1501, but for a long time art historians did not know who had painted it, or why some parts (including a blank bottom corner) had been left unfinished. How frustrating, they must have thought. A glorious painting and a blank right corner. Who was to go there? Why was it abandoned like that?
The answer came in 1864, though it was rejected and contested for years. The artist was no small-time painter — the artist was Michelangelo. And the blank corner? Most likely designated for the robes of the Virgin Mary. Art historians believe the painting was left unfinished because the ultramarine pigment designated for Mary’s robes had not arrived from the patron, and at the age of twenty-five, Michelangelo could not have paid for the pigment himself. Legend has it that while waiting for his ultramarine in Rome, Michelangelo left to find the human-sized block of marble that would ultimately become the white stone flesh of his David. He returned the money paid to him by the church and left Rome with the painting unfinished. Better, perhaps, an unfinished masterpiece than an unworthy blue.
Even da Vinci’s The Last Supper reveals what he thought of the different blues: Jesus is cloaked in ultramarine, but Judas is painted in azurite. Azurite was cheaper, duller, far less pure. A false blue for a false disciple.
In the 17th century, a Dutch painter by the name of Johannes Vermeer was painting to modest acclaim. After his death, he would know worldwide fame, but through his short, turbulent life, he saw little. In his studio, he was slow and methodical. With his pigments, he was uncontrollable. And Johannes Vermeer had fallen into the death trap for Renaissance painters: he had fallen in love with ultramarine.
Maybe Vermeer saw blue everywhere, or maybe he just painted that way. Ultramarine runs through almost all of his thirty-four confirmed paintings, showing up not just in blue objects but in dark shadows and in white walls, in human flesh, in fabric of all hues, in green leaves, in black tiles, in the purple of lights and tablecloths and the murky brown of wooden beams. Perhaps the most famous example of Vermeer’s use of ultramarine is the deep blue headscarf draped over the Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Vermeer was so taken by ultramarine that he wouldn’t settle for lesser blue pigments. Refusing to paint without it, he drove his family’s fortune into the ground. At forty-three, Vermeer died broke and unfulfilled and — for the most part — an unrecognised genius, leaving his wife and eleven children deep in debt.
But Vermeer’s obsession with ultramarine might have paid off in the end. In the early twentieth century a frustrated Dutch painter slighted by critics turned his vengeful hand to forgery. His name was Han van Meegeren, and he painted a number of fake Vermeer paintings that were drip-fed out into the art market. One of them sold to Nazi military leader Hermann Göring (who swapped it for 137 of his existing paintings) and became one of Göring’s prized possessions. When the Allies discovered the painting in a salt mine (alongside the rest of Göring’s looted art collection) at the end of the war, the possibility of a new Vermeer discovery thrilled them. But the painting was traced back to van Meegeren, who confessed to the forgery. Could they believe him? There was one way to find out.
The blue pigment on the canvas was tested to see if it matched the chemical structure of Vermeer’s revered lapis lazuli. And it should have — van Meegeren knew his Vermeers. But, alas: the pigment was part ultramarine, part cobalt. And cobalt pigment wasn’t discovered until 1802 — more than a century after Vermeer’s death. Fully aware of Vermeer’s obsession, van Meegeren had specifically purchased ultramarine, but the seller had secretly diluted it with cobalt to cut costs. The trickster was brought down by a trickster: Van Meegeren was sent to prison, but he died before he made it there.
For Renaissance painters, ultramarine was not just another pigment: it was the pigment. Some say thieves would scrape it right off a canvas; others claim that people who owned ultramarine paintings brandished them as proudly as they did their precious gemstones. It wasn’t the only blue pigment available in Renaissance Europe. There was azurite, distilled from the blue stone of the same name, but it was weak and impure and lacked the raw power of lapis lazuli. There was smalt, but it lacked depth, and indigo, but it was too much like purple. These other pigments were fine, if you didn’t mind your blues a little murky, a little impure. Great, if you weren’t relentlessly obsessed with cutting out the sky and pasting it on canvas. And many painters weren’t. But some only saw one blue.
Even the accidental discovery of a clear, bright pigment called Prussian blue a century or so later wouldn’t stop painters yearning for the world’s finest blue pigment.
Picture this: it was 1703, or 1706, or just sometime in the early 1700s depending on who you read, and a Swiss colour-maker was sitting down to work in the airy Berlin laboratory he shared with a mad German scientist. From here the story goes one of three ways: either the colour-maker was skimping on materials and bought a cheaper form of potash (a mixture of alkaline potassium salts) as an experiment, or he grabbed the wrong bottle by accident, or he ran out of his usual and borrowed a handful of salts from the mad scientist down the hall.
Our colour-maker was Johann Jacob Diesbach, and he was making a red pigment called Florentine lake. But tipping in the cheap or borrowed or mistaken alkali ruined the recipe. The pigment wasn’t red at all — it was blue.
Turns out there was a simple explanation for Diesbach’s accidental hue: the substitute salts had been distilled from animal oil, which still carried a tiny trace of blood. The iron in the blood blended with the rest of the mixture and made blue instead of red.
It was a happy accident for Diesbach. The pigment was cheap and durable and easy to mix, and it made its way onto palettes and canvases and gallery walls around the world, including Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa and van Gogh’s The Starry Night. It got its name when it dyed the cloth of the Prussian army’s uniform. It became a staple in photography, inks and clothing, and century and a half later, it became the basis for blueprint technology.
But some hungry painters yearned for a blue as pure and unadulterated as ultramarine as a cloudless sky. No synthetic pigment could yet compete with the breath-taking brilliance of lapis lazuli.
By now it was 1814, and a young apprentice painter with a passion for colour had noticed bright masses of blue growing in soda kilns at the glass factory in Saint Gobain, France, and sent them to a chemist for analysis. His hunch was right: the masses were practically identical in chemical composition to lapis-lazuli-made ultramarine.
He sent his findings to France’s Society for the Encouragement of National Industry, suggesting that a synthesised ultramarine pigment might not be such a pipe dream after all. In 1824, the society put out a call. A prize of 6,000 francs (50,000 USD today) would go to the first person to develop a synthetic pigment the colour of ground-up lapis lazuli. The catch: it couldn’t cost more than 300 francs a kilogram to make.
Rewind now two decades, because this story begins with a ten-year-old boy — another French boy. His mother had died, his father was a busy and well-renowned engineer, and his doting aunts had sent him to boarding school with perfectly coiffed hair and a bright blue coat. At school, his beautiful hair was shaved and his blue coat stuck out in the line. The children laughed at him and called him the blue bird. His name was Jean-Baptiste Guimet.
The blue bird grew up, studied science at the École Polytechnique, risked his life defending Paris against the Allies and married a painter. He was kind and studious and everybody liked him. In adulthood, he had a new nickname — he was the happy chemist. He was working his way up the ranks in a French gunpowder organisation when his wife suggested he enter the running to make the first artificial ultramarine pigment.
You should do it, she is said to have urged him — maybe at breakfast, over bread and cheese and the fervour of fresh coffee. Maybe at dinner, over soup and bread and the courage of evening wine. You could, she might have said. You could win this, you know.
By February of 1828, Guimet had created an artificial blue like nobody had ever seen. He submitted his pigment to the society for analysis. A month later, the society met for a general meeting and the contest had a winner: Jean-Baptiste Guimet had created the first artificial ultramarine pigment.
Guimet opened an ultramarine workshop in Paris and sold his new pigment for 400 francs a pound — a dramatic drop from the 4,000 people were paying for ultramarine. But the story doesn’t end there. A month after Guimet’s win, a second and equally brilliant ultramarine pigment was submitted to the society by a German chemist named Christian Gmelin. Gmelin insisted that the prize should be his, because he claimed to have developed the pigment a year ago.
But the happy chemist knew how to fight. He explained that he’d already discovered his ultramarine in 1826, but had kept it a secret for two long years. In fact, he’d given it to painters to experiment with as early as 1827: Neoclassical painter Jean Ingres used it to paint the robes of one of the key figures in The Apotheosis of Homer, which now hangs bright and resplendent in the Louvre.
The fight ran for years, but eventually Guimet had proof enough to convince the society that he had been the first all along. He kept his prize, kept his glory, and the pigment was labelled French ultramarine.
By sometime in 1830 Guimet’s pigment production had gone industrial, and he opened a thriving factory. Eventually, Guimet’s son Émile took over production, and the laboratory blue that surprised the world became a family business, and then a family fortune, and then a family legacy.
In some ways this was the beginning of the end for blue. Almost overnight, ultramarine blue was instantly available to painters of any means — but there was something about the elusive, impossible nature of the world’s truest blue that was lost once it went mainstream.
Blue is everywhere now. It is the light in our screens and the colour of our jeans; it is Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Zoom. In the outside world we have conquered the skies; we have chartered our oceans, sorted them, named them, clipped trackers on whales and studied algae under microscopes. Today, buying a sweater in blue is an unremarkable act, there is a blue pencil in every set, and even birthday cakes come in blue. It is the most popular and the most trusted colour in the world, and it is no longer unreachable.
But blue still drags some of us to the deep end.
Remember the French boy who signed his name to the sky? The story of the colour blue would not be complete without the story of Yves Klein, because the colour blue turned Yves Klein upside down, changed his life, and rewrote the story of art as we know it.
Klein’s obsession with the sky began as an obsession with space — with what he called the void. But when he returned to the family trade as a painter at twenty-six, he began to experiment with the very definitions of art. He came to resent the lines and figures that made up traditional paintings. He became determined to “liberate colour from the prison that is the line,” and slowly — then all at once — his world turned blue.
Once Yves Klein discovered blue he had no need for other colours. He renounced the rest of the rainbow and pledged his allegiance to the one colour that “is beyond dimensions.”
He teamed up with a Parisian colour-maker named Edouard Adam and developed a matte resin that would bind to the ultramarine pigment and create a blue that was wholly untouchable. It wouldn’t glimmer and wouldn’t glisten, and so retained all its dry, untouchable depth, casting no glow and revealing no impurities. Yves painted sculptures and canvases and objects and human bodies in his signature ultramarine. He coloured globes and plates and sponges and tabletops and his mad blue pigment became a masterpiece of its own. He registered the formula as International Klein Blue. He never patented it, and maybe he didn’t need to — it’s still called IK Blue today.
Maybe Yves Klein saw in blue what others seek but never find. Maybe in blue he saw all the questions and abandoned the need for answers. The sky was his first inspiration, his eternal studio, his ultimate masterpiece. He died at thirty-four of an unexpected heart attack, right at the height of his art world fame. But just before his death, he turned to his friend. “I’m about to go,” he said. “I’m about to go into the biggest studio in the world, and I will only do immaterial works.”