Ultramarine blue originally signified pigment made of lapis lazuli - a super-precious paint made from a semi-precious stone from Afghanistan. Genuine ultramarine was so expensive that a prize was offered to whoever could develop a synthetic alternative that was a tenth of the cost. Not one, but two, individuals met that challenge in 1828 by creating a silicate of sodium and aluminum with sulfur. Shades from green to violet could be made by tweaking the production process. Manufactured from 1830 onward—and called french ultramarine, artificial ultramarine blue, new blue, or permanent blue—the pigment PB29 became one of the most popular colors on artists’ palettes.
Chemically, lapis lazuli paint and ultramarine blue paint are identical, but they do look distinct. Ultramarine blue has small, uniformly sized particles of a single color, but (being a ground-up natural stone) lapis pigment is a mix of colors and irregularly shaped particles, which have a different texture and reflect light differently. Today, we often mean the synthetic version when we say ultramarine blue, tacking on the specifier “genuine” if we intend the much rarer mineral version. All below reference is to PB29 paint.
Limn Colors ultramarine blue is a saturated, semitransparent, dark, violet-leaning blue. It makes clean violet mixes with cool reds and magentas and is nicely neutralized with siennas or raw umber. Ultramarine's unique property of flocculation—the tendency of its particles to clump up together—give it a lively granulating texture in washes. Interesting effects can be achieved when mixing ultramarine with a micronized pigment, as some of the heavier blue particles will sink a bit while the lightest particles will float above. You can try this by blending ultramarine blue and quinacridone magenta, then applying in a very wet wash. By the time the violet dries, there will likely be some separation of the two paints.
ULTRAMARINE BLUE USAGE
Ultramarine blue is a safe, lightfast pigment used for ultra-whitening fabrics and papers, achieving that Liz-Taylor-in-Cleopatra eye look, dramatic interior decorating, and of course fine art.
- One of the hues in Pablo Picasso’s blue period was ultramarine blue.
- Ultramarine blue is the base for International Klein Blue, the vivid blue invented in 1960 and used extensively in 2D, 3D, and performance art by Frenchman Yves Klein. His formula included a resin that added a lapis-like luster to the synthetic pigment.
- Vincent Van Gogh painted the deeper blues in Starry Night with ultramarine blue.
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Umbrellas was painted in two stages, the earlier portion with cobalt blue and the later with ultramarine.
- It’s a who’s who of blue: John Singer Sargent, Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, Piet Mondrian, J. M. W. Turner, Claude Monet...
WARM BLUE VS COOL BLUE
This is not a trick question: do you think ultramarine blue is a cool blue or a warm blue? A blue can lean more green and thus yellow, like phthalo blue gs, or more violet and thus red, like ultramarine. But not everyone agrees which direction is warm and which is cool. Itten’s color theory defines blue-green as the coolest color on the wheel, so that would make blue-violet warmer. Plus, the rule of "cool colors recede" would indicate ultramarine is a warm blue as it seems to come forward in a painting. Others say violet, the coolest color on the ROYGBV spectrum line, should mean purply blues are cooler; and if yellow is the hottest color, then greenish blues are warmer. Books, artists, and color theorists don’t see eye-to-eye on this one. Brain melting.
- Eight Blue Moments in Art History, Tate
- The Secret History of the Color Blue, Google Arts & Culture
- All About the Color Blue, Sensational Color
- A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and their Impact on French Artists, Norton Simon Museum
- Pigment Blue 29, Handprint
- History of Ultramarine, Pigments through the Ages
- The Elements of Color, Johannes Itten
- The Brilliant History of Color in Art, Victoria Finlay
- The Materials & Techniques of Painting, Kurt Wehlte
- Painting Materials, Rutherford Gettens and George Stout
- An Introduction to the Chemistry of Paints, J. Newton Friend
- The Chemistry of Paints and Painting, Sir Arthur Church
- Colors: What They Mean and How to Make Them, Anne Varichon
- The Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair