Turning Blue

posted in: Painting | 1

Woad, Indigo, Lapis Lazuli, Azurite, and Smalt, were all sources for blue since antiquity. Blue was viewed skeptically by Romans because their enemies to the North possessed unfamiliar blue eyes. Blue, a color for the mischievous Krishna as the 8th incarnation of Vishnu meant blue could be fun but, tricky (example 1). Blue’s opposites yellow, red and orange were the preferred noble colors in India and Asia. The Indigo dyers in India were of a lower caste so that any well respecting Brahmin knew to stay away from them and blue.  It wasn’t only tinted; it was tainted!  Contact with indigo required ritual purging for the Brahmin.

Example 1. Krishna on a field of blue,

But, blue held attractions.  Lapis Lazuli and Azurite (a more cerulean blue) were mined in Afghanistan and required careful manipulations before being converted to useable pigments. The ultramarine derived from Lapis Lazuli was deep and extended into purple making it more appealingly royal for Romans and later Europeans. And, it was expensive! Scarcity usually improves market value.  By 1400 ultramarine blue had become the preferred color for cloaking the Virgin Mary (example 2). Ultramarine blue was seen as the color of the dome of heaven. Azurite, its less expensive substitute (though greener and paler) grew in value as well.

Example 2. Mary and Jesus depicted by Benedetto di Bindi in 1400 in Ultramarine blue.

By the 18th century Mary was cast in Ultramarine, Azurite, Carmine and Vermillion.  If she were depicted ascending to heaven then the predominant colors were azurite and ultramarine blue (example 3). Tiepolo’s example gives a feeling of movement and atmosphere. The didactic sharp edges of 1400 have given way to atmospheric space.

Example 3. Tiepolo’s Ascension of Mary.

Notice the relationship of yellow (ochre or gold) against areas of blue.  By the 20th Century artists and color theorists proposed proportional color relationships. A bright yellow was better balanced with dark ultramarine blue when it occupied much less space within the painting.  Johannes Itten provided proportional color wheels to help divine the proper quantities. These lessons are still taught in contemporary design schools.  They affect how our clothing is colored and how our homes are painted. Examples 4 and 5 present Itten’s proportional color program as used in the famous Bauhaus school.

Example 4.  Proportional color wheel,

Example 5.  Complementary color proportions as balanced,

Richard Diebenkorn and other artists would take these color-balance recipes to heart as you see in example 6.

Example 6.  Diebenkorn balcony after Matisse,

I created the following images (oil on dibond) pursuing a blue atmosphere and, the proportionally balanced color complements of blue and yellow. Consider example 7, 8, and 9,

Example 7.  My original multilayered, color adjusted photo of Grand Central Terminal,

Example 8.  Step one, in ultramarine blue,

Example  9. Step two, with yellow and blue atmosphere, “Turning Blue”

Examples 10 and 11 demonstrate my reconsiderations of a design while adding more atmosphere.

Example 10. Step one, solitary figure which I deemed as too focal,

Example 11.  Step two, more atmosphere and a crowd a more unified design,”Approaching Light”,

I persevered searching for a more ethereal light which explains my example 12, “Walking in Blue”.   The recipes for proportional color balancing between yellow and blue are loosely applied here.   The figure wades into an atmosphere of blue light.  Hopefully, you, the viewer will follow.

Example 12. “Walking in Blue” oil on white dibond,.

I invite you to join me on Sunday March 5th, 2017 for a lecture on Color: Its Meanings and Uses across Time and Cultures at the Silvermine Arts Center in New Canaan, Ct. 203 966 6668 ext2.





  1. Gail Ingis

    Who doesn’t love blue? Wonderful post David. Did you watch/listen to Mr. President last night. He wore a tie of blue and white, and his Vice President and Speaker of the House wore ties of Lapis.

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