Early western paintings were dark and earth toned in color. Colors such as blue and purple were hard to come by and very expensive.
Surveys have told us that today, blue is the most popular color of all. It was not always. According to the book “The Secret Lives of Colors” by Kassia St. Clair, at one time blue was associated with barbarians and degenerates. Celtic soldiers had "dyed their bodies blue" and women were accused of doing the same before participating in an orgy. Much has changed.
In the twelfth century a prominent figure in the French court named Abbot Suger believed the color blue was divine. He was responsible for the addition of cobalt blue being added to the windows in Chartres in Paris and Le Mans. Around the same time the Virgin Mary’s robe became depicted as a brilliant bright blue instead of a dark color that expressed the loss of her son, Jesus.
A color called Ultramarine (Latin- “beyond” - ultra and “sea” mare) became a color worth traveling for. Lapis Lazuli (the blue stone in Latin) at one time came from Afghanistan. There was a lengthy process to produce a color known as ultramarine ashes after grinding, mixing, kneading and removing the colors from the impurities it was laced with. It was mixed with oil to produce ultramarine blue oil paint.
There are examples of blue pigment found in some fifth-century wall paintings in Chinese Turkmeistan. It wasn’t until the 8th century that this color would appear in Rome. The price was extremely expensive and few artists could afford it. Italians from Venice became the first suppliers so the use of these beautiful blues began in many Italian paintings, like Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, painted in the early 1520’s. Artists from Northern Europe often paid over 100 times more for ultramarine blue so they used it more sparingly.
Artists in the 15th century often included a provision for a trip to Venice in their contracts when they were painting a commission. Today, we have synthetic paints and a variety of qualities to choose from ranging from student grade to a high quality professional grade.
One contract in 1515 for Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna of the Harpies stipulated that the Virgin’s robe would be painted with ultramarine “at least five broad florins the ounce.” A French chemist in 1824 finally came up with an alternative synthetic and less expensive ultramarine color now known as French Ultramarine.
All paint is not equal. Students, use student grade paint because while you are still practicing, learning and more often struggling. it is way less expensive. I threw away most of my beginning pieces for a variety of reasons, one being that the quality of draftsmanship, painting skills and even the paint I used was inferior to what I wanted to put my name on. A quality painting is proudly handed down generation to generation. It is important to use quality paint, grounds and archival materials on artwork meant to last.
One of my favorite brands of paint is Gamblin which has both a professional and student grade line. I also recommend Richeson's oil paints and have a double primary starter set packaged for my students that is available online to order. Currently there is a pastel set of my 80 favorite pastel colors made into the Color & Energy set of soft hand-rolled pastels by Jack Richeson company at: Art & Frame in Sarasota online or in the store.
I found St. Clair’s book a fascinating read about the history of one of my favorite topics- Color. Below is one of my latest paintings with my favorite versions of the color blue (although Island Sunset is a pastel). One of the reasons I love pastel is that the color that is placed on the surface remains true. When an oil paint color dries, the color dulls until it is varnished which allows the color to be restored. When varnishing, I like using Gamvar as this varnish is easily removed. Varnish is also important to protect the painting. Gamvar can be applied as soon as the paint is dry to the touch rather than a normal varnish that sometimes requires waiting for the painting to be totally dry, which sometimes takes a year. That is because of the color red which dries slower, but that is another day's blog.