The Color Blue: History, Regality, & Utility
Updated: Sep 22, 2022
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Last year we talked about the importance of color in interior design and the emotions it generates in people. Today I wanted to discuss one color, potentially the most influential on artists, crafters, and creatives in general, blue.
With its close connection to both the sky and sea, it is unsurprisingly dominant in so many paintings in history and is used in so many creative avenues, but this wasn’t always the case…
A Brief History Lesson
Let us start with a quick history of blue before we get into how it’s been used over the years by some of the greatest artists of all time.
Considering it is one of the primary colors, blue was relatively late to the scene in terms of its use in arts and crafts, the Greeks didn’t even have a word for it! Not being an earth color, blue first came to the public’s attention when the Egyptians used the semi-precious stone called lapis lazuli, mined exclusively in Afghanistan’s Sar-i Sang mines, to create a blue paste and believed it to be associated with the heavens.
For centuries this remained the only method for extracting the color, so it was elusive to most artists and even when plant-based dyes were introduced to make it more common in clothing, it was still too expensive for artists and craft makers to make use of outside of expensive commissions for places like churches and chapels.
As an example of how exclusive blue was for long periods when the stone was first imported to Europe and called Ultramarine (beyond the sea) when crushed into its powder form, it was once considered more expensive than gold! Eventually, it would become more common and was very popular during the Italian Renaissance.
Prussian blue was a breakthrough from an artist’s perspective, invented by Johann Jacob Diesbach after he experimented with potassium and iron sulfides. The synthetic pigment was much cheaper to produce than the popular Ultramarine, thus democratizing its use by artists moving forward.
And don’t think for a second that we’ve seen all the blues ever to be discovered. As recently as 2009 a professor and graduate at Oregon State University accidentally stumbled upon a brand-new blue, named YInMn (or Oregon Blue) when researching materials used in manufacturing electronics.
Without getting too data-heavy with you, as you didn’t come here to learn math, a study by Martin Bellander, where he compared over 130,000 pictures of fine art between 1800-2000, shows that blue became the most popular color in the 20th century, taking over from the previous leader, Orange.
A Regal Color
Due to the rarity of lapis lazuli, creating the color blue was difficult and expensive until the industrial revolution, so it was associated strongly with royalty and wealth. This is one of the key reasons why it is such a popular color today.
The association with royalty begins with the Egyptians, as many believe that the famous blue eyeshadow worn by Cleopatra is made directly from crushed lapis lazuli stone – quite an expensive make-up even by today’s standards! This has continued through history, for example, the France monarchy was obsessed with using color in clothing, decoration, and paintings and even depictions of King Arthur show him dressed entirely in blue cloth.
Blue was also popular in sculptures of the time, many of the artifacts found with Tutankhamun, including on the tomb itself are adorned with blue.
The most famous image from this collection is indeed the funeral mask where the headdress and eyeshadow on the king are made from a lapis lazuli paste.
Perhaps the most famous extension of the association between the color blue and royalty is in the creation of the pigment royal blue. The pigment was created for a competition in which a dress was to be worn by Queen Charlotte using expensive pigments from India and still sits on the Union Jack flag to this day.
The exclusive, regal, and expensive origins of the color mean it generates a feeling of importance and significance, which is why it has for a long time been popular in uniforms and with business suits. This gets carried through into the business world, with the color having a strong influence in boardroom designs, from furniture & wall colors through to the choice of art.
Many Positive Benefits
One of the reasons for the popularity of blue in all forms of creativity is the positive effect it is believed to have on the mind and body. It creates a calm feeling of rest, causing the body to produce chemicals that exude a feeling of tranquility. By its very nature, it is cooling and is rumored to help slow the human metabolism.
These are all strong reasons why both artists and interior designers focus on using blue in specific settings. For example, it’s often used in bathrooms and bedrooms because it has a calming effect, or an artist will use it to convey compassion.