2.Vault of Scrovegni Chapel (detail) ,Fresco , 1305, Padua, by Giotto di Bondone
3.The Vesica Pisces or Mandorla shape is created by the overlapping of the Heavenly and Earthly realms, bridged by the Tree of Life.
As part of my series exploring the unique “voice” of each colour and its ability to create a specific mood, atmosphere or association, BLUE is the colour that beckons the beholder to follow it into the far, distant yonder... As Goethe put it “... a blue surface seems to recede from us ... it draws us after it”.
Blue seems to lend itself quite naturally to the creation of unbounded, deep space: physical, intellectual and spiritual. Blue evokes Contemplation, Transcendence and Detachment. All three of which we could benefit from hugely in this age of the pandemic and the bankruptcy of materialism.
Blue may be a primary colour (a primary is a fundamental colour that you cannot create by combining any other colours together), but it has many different guises: Ultramarine, Cobalt, Phthalo, Prussian, Cerulean, Cyan... Blue is a cold colour; it cools and calms. Blue light slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure and retards the growth of plants. It is the colour of moonlight and deep shadows when we slow down, sleep and dream.
Apart from the cerulean blue sky and the deep blue ocean, blue is one of the most rare colours in nature. Homer didn’t even have a word for blue, referring to the “wine dark sea”.
Artists have been fascinated by blue as it was an extremely rare, expensive and ethereal colour. Ultramarine is probably the oldest of them all.
The name Ultramarine Blue comes from the Italian “azzurro oltremarino”, which means ‘blue from beyond the sea’.
It was made from lazulite rock which originated in the mines of Sar-e-Sang, Afghanistan, very near to the place where the Taliban blew up those venerable Buddhist statues...
Ultramarine blue was manufactured by a complex process that separated the lapis lazuli from the grey gangue rock with which it is associated in nature and ground into a powder. 100 grams of stone only produced 3 grams of the pigment. So genuine Ultramarine was the costliest of pigments, worth more than twice its weight in gold. Mediaeval princes doled it out, and artists cleaned their brushes ever so carefully in order to save the last precious bits. Unfinished works such as Michelangelo’s “Entombment”, and others which required considerable amounts of blue to paint the Virgin Mary’s robes, were probably brought to a halt because artists couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
These days, Ultramarine blue is known as a “furnace product”, made with a roasting process of an equally magical nature.
Ultramarine blue is reported to be one of the most useful of colours, permanent in all applications- except fresco.
In full strength, or mixed with white, the tone is most ethereal. So it’s hardly surprising that Christianity adopted it fervently for its heavenly connotations.
Ultramarine blue seems to breathe. It represents the air between the viewer and the viewed. Aerial perspective can’t live without it.
More than any other colour, Ultramarine blue holds sky-magic, the zenith, the spiritual -closest thing to heaven- and the most profound of the colour mysteries.
Blue will always be loved. “Just as there are connoisseurs of wine, there are connoisseurs of blue”, said the French writer Colette.
Everything can be gained by playing with colours -seeing and understanding what they do.
For example, Ultramarine blue is at least friendly with Raw umber and certainly in love with Burnt sienna. Their mutual neutralization is almost perfect.
When used as a neutraliser with all the warmer tones, it makes for sophisticated greys. Mixed with burnt umber it produces a good black.
Ultramarine blue also flirts outrageously with Cadmium red and Alizarin crimson.
Many artists now find that Ultramarine and Phthalocyanine are the only blues they need.
Pthalo is the modern replacement for the less reliable Prussian blue, and provides a harder, cooler tone than Ultramarine.
Phthalo (both red and green shade) is the blue of choice for glazing because of its staining qualities.
But glazes of Phthalo blue need to be protected with a final varnish containing Ultra Violet Light Stabilizers.
Here are some striking examples of artists’ explorations in the realm of blue:
4. The moonlit figures in Honoré Daumier’s , “Mother”, 1855
5. Vincent Van Gogh, “Starry Night”, 1889
6. Rene Magritte, “False Mirror”, 1928
7. Pablo Picasso, “La Celestina” 1904
8. Henri Matisse “Blue Nude I”, 1952
9. Barbara Hepworth, “Eos”, 1946
10.Mark Rothko, “Green Over Blue”, 1956
Picasso went through a whole Blue Period in his early years, where he depicted poverty, melancholy and blindness.
In the last decade of his life, confined to a wheelchair and then to his bed, Henri Matisse started “drawing with scissors”; cutting out shapes out of sheets of flat painted colour (uniting colour, line, shape and pattern) and elevating collage into a new art-form.
Barbara Hepworth explored the possibility of introducing colour into the concave spaces of her sculpture “Eos” (which means Dawn in Greek), evoking a further sense of depth and an illusion of an inner materiality. Colour became subject-matter all on its own and Abstract Expressionist painters, like Mark Rothko, explored the spiritual effects of colour.
11. Yves Klein, “Untitled Blue Sponge Relief”, 1958
12. Yves Klein, “Blue Venus”, 1962
13. Yves Klein, “Anthropometria”, 1960
Yves Klein pushed colour to its extreme with his monochrome works made in his very own signature blue hue which he patented as International Klein Blue (IKB). He turned his art into live, public spectacle in his “Happenings” and literally used his models as “live paintbrushes”, daubing them in paint and imprinting their naked bodies onto canvas... (Talk about objectifying the feminine, this was turning the female body into a tool to further his lofty ambitions!) By restricting his palette to only one colour he radically ended the function of painting as an illusionistic art-form, turning it into a pure colour/object. The materiality of colour and the idea of “all is one” is vividly demonstrated when he saturated sea sponges with paint, attached to an equally blue canvas. A familiar, natural object became alien, creating a new reality. To all these creative acts, Yves Klein attributed metaphysical, philosophical and spiritual meanings.
14.. Anish Kapoor, “A Flower, A Drama Like Death”, 1986
15. Anish Kapoor, “Mother As A Ship”, 1989
16. Anish Kapoor, “My Body Your Body”, 1993
British sculptor Anish Kapoor, explores ideas of spiritual and physical space through his richly pigmented concave and convex colour-spaces, environments and organic forms. The 3-dimensional vesica pisces shape in “Mother As A Ship” is created by overlapping not just two circles, as demonstrated by the angels holding up the earthly and the celestial realms (see Image 3), but two concave spheres. The result is an enveloping deep space inviting the viewer to re-enter the birth canal of a more metaphysical Mother.
On the cosmic scale, it is worth remembering that the “little blue dot” of a planet we live on, is in dire straits at this time. It’s blueness comes from the reflection of deep space on water; the water we depend on for our very survival. Both the colour blue and the element of water are primaries; fundamentals or “foundationals”; without them nothing much can develop or even survive both in art and life. So in these confusing times when a cacophony of egotistic and strident voices are swamping the airwaves, let us listen to the invitation of blue to go into a deeper realm of consciousness through mindfulness, contemplation and meditation. Don’t pray for help. Nobody’s listening. Help can only come from within. Amen!
With love- always,