InvisiBLUE: From the Invisible Color to the Most Precious Color in Art. By Francesca Lungarotti

One of the colors most present in Nature is Blue – just think of the sky, the sea, the ice! Blue is all around us in its many shades but yet it is strange to think that In nature, blue pigment is difficult to find!  In the early days of art and painting there were no immediate materials to make this particular dye.   The color blue, as we know it today, did not always exist and is not easily found in the early years of art history.

The ancient Greeks didn’t seem to have a word for it, combining it instead with what we would think of other colors, such as red and purple. Homer, in his epic poem Odyssey, typically described the sea as ‘wine-dark’ rather than calling it blue. In art, the color blue was a luxury. It wasn’t until the Egyptians began mining and found lapis lazuli that people were able to create art featuring the color blue. As a semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli was very expensive.  Blue was later made by combining metals, but until a method of extracting dye from the leaves of plants was found, blue was—for a long time—seen as a prestigious color.

Due to its value, the color blue was used to depict important people in Renaissance and pre-Renaissance eras. The Virgin Mary is most commonly depicted wearing blue as a mark of respect and to make her stand out. Blue became associated with royalty when the monarchy in France began regularly wearing the color. 

While blue continued to be seen as a prestigious color in art, the introduction of plant-based dyes for clothes meant that blue became available to the masses. Indigo and woad were made by soaking plant leaves. Renaissance artists began experimenting with new colors, and the most illustrious of these new pigments was ultramarine.   Working class people were able to don this ‘luxurious’ color, but artists still struggled to find a cheaper alternative to ultramarine to use in their paintings. Before a decent alternative was found, high quality ultramarine cost more than gold gram for gram.

This new color was favored by many painters. The famous Japanese painting, The Great Wave (1829-1833), uses this new blue. Impressionists used it alongside newly invented blue pigments. Renoir, Turner and Manet regularly used cobalt blue to create many notable paintings. Van Gogh wrote of cobalt blue: ‘There is nothing so beautiful for putting atmosphere around things.’ The Impressionists experimented with the color and placed it against its complementary colors of orange and yellow.  In the early 20th century, Picasso dedicated a whole era of his painting to the color blue. His ‘Blue Period’ utilizes the emotional and symbolic values of the color. 

Today, blue is used in a great variety of ways. It can be a serious color, like the blue uniforms of the New York City Police Department; or it can be emotional and used to display sadness or faith. 

The color blue continues to evolve, with the latest shade discovered less than a decade ago. 


A Brief History of the Color Blue – Arts & Collections (

The History of the Color Blue: From Ancient Egypt to New Discoveries (

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