See how these blue paints were born, and how they took over the world
Natural blue is rare – even the blue on many birds and insects comes not from a pigment but an optical illusion caused by the scattering of light. So the quest to create a manmade pigment in this shade, first done using minerals and later with chemicals, has been long and challenging. “Blue has been valuable right from the start,” says Kaustav Sengupta, fashion-trend analyst and colour researcher. Check out the more famous blues and how they’ve coloured our world
Egyptian blue: It shines bright in tombs and on artefacts even after 4,500 years. Ancient Egyptians produced blue pigment from calcium copper silicate, using it to highlight facial features and costumes on murals, as well as in sculptures, seals and beads. This blue shows up in paintings in ancient Greece, India, and Rome. The recipe for it is lost, but modern chemists have used the same ingredients — sand, copper, lime and sodium compounds — to produce similar results.
Maya blue: It’s on Mayan and Aztec murals and pottery. It hasn’t faded yet, but use of the sky-blue hue disappeared as the Europeans colonised Central America. We know the Mayans mixed clay with leaves from the indigo plant, but the rest of the recipe remains a mystery.
Han blue: Also called Chinese blue, it may have been adapted from (or even been a precursor of) Egyptian blue. The two have several components in common. Han blue shows up in murals from ancient and imperial China from 1045 BC until 220 AD.
Japanese indigo: Deeper than the Indian version, it’s made by fermenting the dried green leaves of the Persicaria tinctoria plant. It made a robust dye for peasants’ cotton clothes in the Edo period (1603-1868), when only the rich could afford silks and bright colours. Samurais loved the dye’s anti-bacterial properties. It’s still handmade and prized in Japan today.
Prussian Blue: This blue was created by accident, in 1706 Berlin (it’s often called Berlin blue), when red-dye ingredients in the workshop of dye-maker Johann Jacob Diesbach accidently came in contact with animal blood. The rich blue found takers as far way as Japan, where printmaker Hokusai would use it for the waves in his iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1820). Picasso used it liberally during his Blue Period. It’s more than paint — doctors administer pills containing the dye to patients with heavy-metal poisoning. The pigment is also sensitive to light. In 1842, a process involving the pigment and semi-transparent paper allowed copies of line-drawings to be created. Architects found it perfect for drafting building plans. We still call them blueprints.
Ultramarine: This is perhaps the only pigment in history that has cost more than gold. Ultramarine was created using lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that was mined in present-day Afghanistan and made its way to Europe in the 13th century via the Silk Road. It was rare and labour-intensive to mine. And because the blue it produced was so striking, artists reserved it for the most hallowed subjects — heaven, the divine, the Virgin Mary. Michelangelo couldn’t afford it. It left Vermeer in debt. It became such a status symbol that commoners were banned from wearing clothes dyed in it (they couldn’t have afforded them anyway). For centuries, Europeans tried to replicate the colour cheaply. Then, in 1825, French chemist Jean Baptiste Guimet heated up kaolinite, sodium carbonate and sulphur to produce a synthetic version. At a time when a pound of lapis lazuli cost 3,000 to 5,000 francs, his pigment cost a mere 400. Artists, understandably, rejoiced.
Cobalt blue: This is another blue developed by a French chemist. Louis Jacques Thénard’s pigment, created in 1802, was based on cobalt aluminium oxide and yielded a blue with a weaker, milky quality. It looked like silver ore, and was toxic to miners. Germans called it “goblin ore”. This durable shade, however, turned out to be great for painting watercolour skies.
Cerulean blue: First made commercially available in the 1860s, it became a favourite with the Impressionists for skies, and of course ponds.
Gharda blue: Thank Indian chemist and entrepreneur Keki Gharda for giving India a blue to call its own. In the 1960s, when the nation was struggling with a ballooning foreign-exchange deficit, he found a way to take the sting out of German Phthalogen Brilliant Blue, a colour used in millions of school uniforms. He engineered a cheaper version, Gharda Blue, his venture’s first big success. Gharda, 80, now helms a conglomerate worth ₹3,000 crore, covering agrochemicals, polymers and public-health products.
International Klein Blue: French artist Yves Klein was all of 19, sprawled on a beach with two friends in 1947, when they decided to divide the world amongst them. His friends picked the air and the land. Klein took the sky. He’s spent his career trying to capture that expansive spread, working only in blue since 1957. He even created a matte-textured ultramarine, patenting the process as International Klein Blue in 1960.
Indian indigo: “Indigo blue was introduced to the Western world from India around the 12th century, hence the name,” says Laila Tyabji, co-founder of the crafts organisation Dastkar. The dye is made with the leaves of the Indigofera tinctoria plant and produces a rich, deep blue, the envy of the world. In the late 1500s, much before the British arrived, France and Norway tried to ban it, in an effort to support homegrown pigments. Europe and the American colonies warred over it for much of the next two centuries. “Greatly prized, it brought great riches but also suffering,” says Tyabji. It was valuable enough that the British forced farmers in Bengal and Bihar to switch from growing food crops to cultivating indigo instead. The system thrived on generations of bonded labour. So when cultivators joined the Indigo Revolt in 1859, global indigo trade came to a halt. The indigo plantations in Champaran in Bihar are where Mahatma Gandhi launched his first satyagraha in 1917. “Natural indigo almost died out, only to be revived recently with new interest in natural dyes and eco-friendly processes,” says Tyabji. In south India, home to the largest plantations, the farmers reverently call the crop Neel Atha or Blue Mother.
YInMn blue: Chennai-born American scientist Mas Subramanian’s chance discovery, in 2009, of the first new blue pigment in more than 200 years hit a new milestone this year. Tubes of YinMn blue, named for the chemicals that make up the pigment (yttrium, indium, manganese), went on sale. Artists say it’s a true opaque blue, making ultramarine and cobalt blue look greener in comparison.
Tiff blue: The iconic, luminous pale turquoise created by Tiffany & Co’s cofounders in 1837 was trademarked in 1998. This year, artist Stuart Semple recreated a high-quality matte version of that blue, named it Tiff Blue, and put it on sale in 150ml tubes as a stunt. Each tube cost $28 and they were quickly sold out, adding yet another chapter to our obsession with this tint.