“The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural… The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.” Wassily Kandinsky
Blue is big and boundless, the colour of the divine, the colour of longing and dreaming. In nature we mainly encounter blue in vast dimensions like the water of the ocean or the sky. For me blue is the colour of regeneration; quiet, but strong, soothing, but inspiring. Blue helps me to connect to myself, to find balance. It is like a trustworthy old friend for me and even though my favourite colours used to change every few years, blue was always amongst them.
Most people seem to have a similar affection for blue. Whereas the second most-popular colour varies from country to country, blue is the most popular colour all over the globe, even in China, where blue isn’t even considered a primary colour (based on the theory of the 5 elements and their colours). This worldwide preference for blue is very remarkable, because blue played only a minor role over a long period of time in human history. In fact its triumph as the most popular colour in art, decorations, language and literature is proportionally a quite young phenomenon.
Where ancient cultures able to see the colour blue?
There is no blue in ancient cave paintings and most ancient societies seem to have ignored it. The Greek didn’t have a name for it (Homer describes the ocean as “wine-dark”) and also ancient Hindu, Chinese, Arabic or Hebrew texts lack any mention of a word for blue. Researchers found out that the three colours, which were always named first were black, white (developing from light and dark) and red (blood?) followed by green and yellow (esculent things). Scientists were wondering if it was possible that people weren’t able to see the colour blue at the time, but disregarded the idea. It is much more likely that they didn´t notice it. Blue is not an earth colour, it rarely appears in nature (there are, for exemple, only a few blue animals, fruits or vegetables) and therefore people didn’t give it a name. And it seems the things we don’t give a name, don’t exist for us. The more detailed we describe something with words on the other hand, the more detailed we perceive it.
Researcher Jules Davidoff investigated this with the tribe of the Himba in Namibia, who have no word for blue, but several words for hues of green. He showed them a circle with 11 green squares and only one blue. The Himba often could not pick out the blue one, but when they were shown a circle with green squares and only one green square had a slightly different hue, they could easily notice the difference. Pretty fascinating!
Another research with native Russian speakers is also very interesting regarding this notion: In the Russian language there is no single word for blue, but a word for light blue (goluboy) and one for dark blue (siniy). The tests revealed that the Russian speakers could much faster identify the value of a shade of blue than the English speakers.
Blue in ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire
The first culture which produced blue pigments where the Egyptians when they discovered lapis lazuli by mining and this is probably also why they were the first to create a word for blue. The Egyptians admired the blue stone and made beautiful adornments combining it with gold. It is also said that Cleopatra used powdered lapis lazuli as eye shadow. The lapis lazuli however was so rare and the demand for blue pigment so high that they invented the world’s first artificial pigment (Egyptian Blue) by heating together limestone, sand and copper into calcium copper silicate. The new blue pigment was used for everything decorative- from painting wood to making faience beads, but also for funeral statuary and for dying the cloth of the mummies. The Egyptians believed that blue could protect the dead against the evil in the afterworld.
Even though the Romans imported blue dyes and pigments like indigo and Egyptian Blue and used blue pigment in large amounts for decoration like wall paintings, blue was not a reputable colour in ancient Rome. Only the working class wore blue dyed clothes. The Celts, who were actually quite fond of blue, painted their faces with dye from the woad plant to scare off Caesar’s army. This must have made an impression, because blue remained quite unfashionable in the Roman Empire. After all it was the colour of the “barbarians”. The aristocracy of Rome was wearing shades of red, which were so popular that the word for dyed (coloratus) and for red (ruber) were used as synonyms.
Blue in medieval Europe
During the earlier middle ages, blue played only a minor role in Europe. The nobility still wore mainly red and purple. The clergy had no use for blue either, neither in their rich robes, nor in the decoration of the churches. Also in art blue was of no importance. The sky was painted in white, red or gold. Family names, names of villages or cities also never referred to the colour blue…
The dramatic change began after glass painters finished the blue windows of the new building of the Saint Denis Basilica in Paris around 1140, which became the wonder of the Christian world. From there the blue church windows spread all across Europe. Another important factor increased the prestige of blue simultaneously: Blue was now used for depictions of the Virgin Mary’s cloak. In the past she was dressed in different dark colours like black, brown, dark blue or dark green. After 1150 the cloak of Mary became a lighter and more luscious blue, painted with the most expensive pigment; ultramarine, the pigment made of lapis lazuli. Henceforth the colour blue was associated with holiness, humility and virtue. The Virgin Mary’s symbolic colours would still change a couple of times through the centuries, but the ascent of the colour blue was set in motion. Other professions absorbed the use of blue like the enamel painters and book illustrators.
The countless sumptuary laws allowed only the nobility to wear red, but everybody was allowed to wear blue and so blue became a popular colour for the working class. The more brilliant fine blue cloth (e.g. blue silk imported from China) was reserved for the high society as well though. Around 1200 the cloth dyers in Europe managed to produce a more luminous light blue with the dye from the woad plant for the first time. Before this discovery, blue woad cloth had been washed out and greyish. Woad was soon grown industrially in some regions in Europe, which specialized in this thriving industry to meet the growing demand.
In German “blau sein” (to be blue) means not to be melancholic, but to be drunk. This expression has its roots in the woad dying. The leaves of the woad plant were mashed in human urine and then dried in the sun. The fermenting process produced alcohol, which released the blue dye from the leaves. The chemical details were of course not known at the time, but it was noted that the dye got stronger if alcohol was added. However, alcohol was too precious to use directly for this purpose, and so the logical conclusion was to drink it first and then use the enriched urine to make the dye. Old recipes suggest that the drunker the man, the better the blue. Producing blue dye from woad must have been a merry matter. Another German expression is proof for this: “Blau machen” (to make blue) means to stay absent from work without good reason. As generally known the sun in Germany can be absent for painfully long periods of time. The woad mush needed the sun though to reveal the blue and the dyers often didn’t have much more to do than to wait for the sun to come out again.
King Louis IX of France (1214- 1270) was the first king who regularly dressed in blue, which was quickly imitated by other kings and their royal suites. This contributed immensely to the image of blue, which is also clearly evident in the heraldry of Europe; between the middle of the 12th century and the end of the 15th century the use of blue in the coat of arms all over Europe raised from 5 to 30 percent. The most famous exemple of this is the Fleur-de-lis of the king of France (golden lilies upon a blue background). In Europe, blue had advanced to the royal colour, per se, and symbolised wealth and power. Slowly but surely, blue was on the rise to replace the primacy of the colour red.
Part 2 will be following soon.
Zaria Forman was born in South Natick in 1982, Massachusetts and currently works and resides in Brooklyn, New York. She studied at the Student Art Centers International in Florence, Italy and received a BS in Studio Arts at Skidmore College in New York. Zaria’s works have been in publications such as Juxtapoz Magazine, National Geographic Magazine, Huffington Post, and the Smithsonian Magazine. Zaria was featured on Good Day New York, Fox News, and interviewed by Lucy Yang on ABC7 Eyewitness News. Zaria recently participated in Banksy’s Dismaland; soon she will speak at a live TED event at the Town Hall Theater in NYC, and embark as an artist-in-residence aboard the National Geographic Explorer for five weeks in Antarctica.
1 Zaria Forman: Lemarie Channel, Antarctica, 2015; Soft pastel on paper; 44” x 60”; Image courtesy: Zaria Forman
2 Zaria Forman: Greenland no.60, 2013; Soft pastel on paper; 30” x 44”; Image courtesy: Zaria Forman
3 Zaria Forman: Greenland no.52, 2012; Soft pastel on paper; 45” x 60”; Image courtesy: Zaria Forman
4 Zaria Forman: Maldives no.4; 2013; Soft pastel on paper; 41” x 60”; Image courtesy: Zaria Forman
5 Zaria Forman: Deception Island, Antarctica, 2015; Soft pastel on paper; 72” x 128”; Image courtesy: Zaria Forman
6 Zaria Forman: Greenland no.68, 2013; Soft pastel on paper; 30” x 44”; Image courtesy: Zaria Forman
7 Zaria Forman: Greenland no.61, 2013; Soft pastel on paper; 40” x 60”; Image courtesy: Zaria Forman
Text edit: Hayley Grafflin