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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.

Blue is popular in wedding planning because of its association with peace and its strong connections with religion. The choice of table settings and decorations often lean on the color. Blue gemstones are a good example as they are believed to be calming and aid relaxation, opening the flow of communication and helping people to have the courage to speak from the heart.

In fact, for a long time, due to both its exclusive (and expensive) nature, as well as its religious connections, blue was not to be used in art depiction (on canvas or on walls) unless it was associated with the Virgin Mary – the church sought to protect this idea through the implementation of laws, something that lasted for several centuries.

Many Haunted Souls

The color blue has not always been associated solely with peace, royalty, and positivity. For others, it is closely linked with melancholy or even sadness and used by those creating works of art to depict a solemn presence. The term ‘feeling blue’ is a popular expression to convey sadness and it’s certainly a technique used in art to convey this emotion.

Many famous artists over the years have followed this technique. Picasso most famously with his blue period after the death of his close friend Carlos Casagemas, we also have the lovers in Edvard Munch’s Kiss in the Window and Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Clothing and Plant-Based Dyes

Blue was more popular for clothing and crafting before it became mainstream in the art world. This is due to the plant-based dyes that could be used for creating the color on cloth whilst it was still not reliable enough to be used within painting.

The most famous use of the color blue in clothing and potentially all creative avenues utilize the pigment of indigo. Jeans can come in many colors but 99% are blue and they all steam from indigo, which itself has an interesting and violent history.

Indigo caused trade wars, inspired the peasant movement named the ‘indigo revolt’ in Bengal, and was part of Sir Issac Newton’s ‘color spectrum’, first published in 1672.

Choose Your Shade Carefully

Due to the large variety of shades and tints of blue, artists and crafting professionals always select the specific blue they use very carefully.

If they are looking to portray a luxurious image, then a dark blue color is important. A dark blue like Cetacean Blue is seen as sophisticated, and elegant, and generally makes the end product feel more expensive.

Light blue meanwhile is far more about honesty and generates a sense of trust and calm. You’d use something like Ethereal Blue if you wanted to create a soothing feeling in a spa.

The slight twist on this is a royal blue color, which can be seen as a superior color and is often used in places where people are trying to make a power statement.

International Klein Blue

It feels appropriate to end by talking about the artist most associated with the color blue in history, Yves Klein. The French conceptional artist became obsessed with color as a way of capturing the sky’s vast expanse. In 1947 he began creating the first of over 200 blue monochrome paintings, spraying them with various shades of blue, specifically starting with ultramarine.

Eventually, he created his own pigment, known universally as International Klein Blue (IKB), and maybe the power of the color blue is best left described in Yves Klein’s own words:

“Blue is the invisible becoming visible. Blue has no dimensions; it is beyond the dimensions of which other colors partake.'

Do you want to know the story behind the color green?

Of course, you do! That’s why I write about colors and their meanings on my blog. I want to help you understand the psychology of colors and how they can be used in your everyday life.

I also provide tips on how to use different colors in your art, home decor, and fashion choices. Whether you’re looking for a new paint color for your bedroom or want to know what color goes best with your skin tone, I have you covered.

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