An ode to blue: the pigment of our imagination

Blue is rare enough in the natural world. Now, paint makers say they’re running out of raw materials for the synthetic version too. The colour is an integral part of modern life — it’s in our plastics, paintings, public profiles and protests. How did this shade end up infusing our world?
Blue pigments have taken over our world, representing everything from royalty to the colour of resistance. And they tell stories of art, commerce, history and science. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Blue pigments have taken over our world, representing everything from royalty to the colour of resistance. And they tell stories of art, commerce, history and science. (Shutterstock)
Updated on Nov 14, 2021 02:44 PM IST
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Your world is about to get a little less blue. Last month, Dutch paint manufacturer AkzoNobel announced that the pandemic has affected supply chains, causing a shortage of key tints and ingredients required to produce some shades of the colour. The world is readjusting. Trend forecasters, interior designers and fashion houses will pivot to different segments of the rainbow for the next few seasons. And blue paints for cars, homes and other commodities might cost a bit more.

This isn’t the first time that blue has made global forces jittery. “This colour has a special place in history; it’s been influencing trade winds right from the start,” says Kaustav Sengupta, a fashion trend analyst with a doctorate in the colour psychology of India.

Consider, for a moment, how little of the natural world is blue. There’s no blue pigment in the sky or the sea. What we perceive as blue is merely the shortest wavelength of light scattered across the air and reflected in water. Even the blue on most plants, butterflies and birds comes from a similar optical illusion. Studies show that in most languages, blue was among the last colours to be given a name — the sea is “wine-dark” in Homer’s Odyssey (7th or 8th century BCE). Even the Sanskrit śyāmā, a term typically used to describe the cosmos or divinity, refers more to a quality, a rich darkness, than an actual hue, much like the Chinese qing.

So it’s no surprise that unlike mineral reds, charcoal blacks and ochre yellows, blue minerals have been harder to source, the recipes for their dyes complicated and highly prized. “But once we managed to produce blue, it kind of took over the party,” Sengupta says. It started out as a marker of social status — reserved only for images of kings, nobility and gods. But it spread quickly across cultures.

Indigo dyes have a long and politically fraught connection to India. It’s fuelled mutinies and a new wave of eco-conscious commerce. (Wikimedia Commons)
Indigo dyes have a long and politically fraught connection to India. It’s fuelled mutinies and a new wave of eco-conscious commerce. (Wikimedia Commons)

“In India blue means indigo, in all its infinite variety,” says Laila Tyabji, founder of the crafts organisation Dastkar. “It is a pervading part of the Indian aesthetic, from the blue robes of Nihang Sikhs and the midnight blue kasuti-embroidered Chandrakala saris of north Karnataka brides to the blues of traditional Kalamkari paintings and the ubiquitous blue jeans.”

The world loves blue. The colour shows up in the logos of 28% of the world’s highest-earning companies. Blue ticks on WhatsApp make us feel seen. Blue ticks on social media handles make us feel official. Our emojis weep and laugh blue tears. Blue universally signifies the cold setting on any temperature scale.

“Indigo dye pits, foul-smelling but able to produce lustrous blues in dozens of shades ranging from soft cerulean azure to deepest blue-black, are springing up again across India,” says Tyabji. And far from its lofty beginnings, deep blue is showing up as boilersuits, housekeeping uniforms and Dalit-rights activism. “It’s become the colour of protest, activism and the underclass,” says Sengupta. “A different kind of blue connotes luxury now — the minty cool aqua variation.”

Hong Kong police sprayed protestors with indelible blue dye in 2019, to identify individuals later, sparking worldwide outrage. (Wikimedia Commons)
Hong Kong police sprayed protestors with indelible blue dye in 2019, to identify individuals later, sparking worldwide outrage. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mas Subramanian, the India-born scientist who developed the world’s first new blue pigment in over 200 years in his lab at the Oregon State University in the US in 2009, says he’s not surprised that the raw material for blue pigments is becoming hard to find. His own creation, YInMn Blue is made from rare yttrium, indium and manganese oxides. “The ingredients for most synthetic blues today come from South Africa and China, so supply-chain disruptions are common,” he says. “And stricter environmental regulations mean that older processes have been discontinued. The US, for instance, no longer manufactures synthetic ultramarine because of its sulphur byproducts, though Indian factories still make it.”

The world won’t be leached of blue for long. Sengupta, who consults for Nippon Paint, says the Japanese firm has enough stock to ride out the short term, and the supply chain will be righted eventually. “The world is connected enough that we’ll all experience repercussions,” he says. For the next few months, blue will be the stuff of star-crossed romance, we’ll be able to describe, imagine, recall and even recreate it virtually. But in reality, it might be tantalisingly out of reach.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Rachel Lopez is a a writer and editor with the Hindustan Times. She has worked with the Times Group, Time Out and Vogue and has a special interest in city history, culture, etymology and internet and society.

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Saturday, December 04, 2021