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A swap with Karin Roy Andersson

A swap with Karin Roy Andersson

The swap with my gorgeous friend, jewellery artist, Karin Roy Andersson was a serious one, because we both had quite concrete ideas of what we wanted and we were both anxious to meet the other’s anticipation. Karin was already part of the Karma Chroma’s post “Why are so many artists wearing black?“ and her fondness for the colour black is not limited to her wardrobe alone. She also really loves black jewellery. So her wish was that I would make her a necklace only with black graffiti scales. I immediately told her that it would take me a while, but only now, around two years later, I finally finished the piece for her and we could undertake the swap.

Karin Roy Andersson (born in 1983 in Umeå, Sweden) is promoting the field of art jewellery in various ways: as an active maker, as the manager and co-owner of gallery Four in Gothenburg and the a co-initiator of diagonal/ art projects, an online platform for contemporary jewellery. Her current jewellery series, Catching Big Fish, is mainly made up of reclaimed plastics from everyday products like shampoo bottles, ice cream boxes or oil cans. Not all plastics are suitable for this work, as they need to have a very specific thickness and texture. From these collected plastics, Karin is punching out circles and milling in structures from toilet paper (yes, really!) or tea bags. The oval textured scales, which are generated from this process, are then stitched together into flowing arched shapes, which then evoke images of a winding fish or the sleek shiny coat of a bird. Despite her own preference for black, Karin not only creates black pieces, and so she is always on the hunt for beautifully coloured plastics. At times this leaves her stuck in using a hygiene product for a while, she normally would not buy for herself, for instance a shower gel for men, which comes in dark grey bottles. Karin most likely could buy the perfectly proper plastics in sheets in a specialised shop, but she would never do that, she said. Considering the worldwide issue of plastic pollution it is important to her that she uses only reclaimed plastics, and like me, she likes the idea of giving the material a second life.

A swap with Karin Roy Andersson

A swap with Karin Roy Andersson

I especially love the bracelets of Karin Roy Andersson’s, Catching Big Fish– series, because they snuggle to the wrist so naturally without even the need of a locket. Firstly, I asked her to (re)make me a bracelet with a colour gradient from blue to beige, but the lovely shade of blue she had used for this piece originated from a single old oil bottle her father had given her and was not available anymore. So I chose a bracelet in shades of beige and light gold and I think it is really stunning too:

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Over the last few days, we had a little written chat about our work:

Carina: Karin, I am sorry that it took me so long to make this black necklace for you, I think we started talking about the swap two years ago, no?

Karin: Yes – I think we started planning the swap when Attai [Chen] had his exhibition at Four. I was actually happy that it took some time for you to collect the scales and I very much appreciate your effort! I also had a process of emptying shampoo and soap bottles for your bracelet, so it also took a long time to finish.

Carina: Same here. There is so little black in my graffiti sheets. I think the graffiti artists mainly use it for the outlines and not so much on bigger surfaces. So it took me half a year until I had collected enough black scales to even get started. But then I kept stealing again and again from my black box for other pieces, because I realized how amazing the black scales work to give a piece contrast in colour. A few months ago, there was a point when I thought I would never be able to finish your piece. This was when I asked you if all scales really needed to be black… an act of slight despair, because of course I knew the answer already. Luckily, I finally found a piece of graffiti sheet this summer, which generated a lot of black colour, actually even several layers of it. That felt like the gold digger hitting a gold mine! Now I still have so much black, I could make another one or two totally black pieces…
For some reason, making a really black piece is kind of difficult for me. I might have smuggled in a bit of colour unconsciously. So here is a funny but almost genuine question: Is it black enough?

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Karin: First of all, I have to say I love my new Shoshtary piece! I love it when I see myself wearing it in the mirror and I love watching it closer. I realized that I keep on seeing new details until I bring the piece so close to my eyes that I can’t see anything at all. In my eyes it is quite colourful. You have seen my suitcase, Carina, if you would put it there, it would be sparkling with colour, but on the other hand – I’m sure it would be very black like yours. So I guess my answer is that it has a lot of colour, but that it’s absolutely black enough!

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Carina: I also totally love the bracelet I got from you! And now I am actually happy that it didn’t work out with the blue piece, because the beige and gold colours of the bracelet you made me fits with both of my favourite colours to wear, blue and red.

Karin: I was very nervous about the colour for your bracelet. I got to know your excellent eye for colour when you helped Attai choose a background colour for presenting his pieces. I remember that you sort of looked at the collection – ranging from almost black to red and green and white – went out and came back with a lilac nuance that made all the pieces pop out from the wall. Your bracelet is made of scales of recycled plastic. I have to find a container with a specific colour tone, in other words I can’t colour the scales afterwards. I like it when the bracelets have two or three different nuances, but with the beige one like you wanted, it is hard to find colours that match, and I knew you wouldn’t be happy if it wasn’t right. Usually, I try to take away the background from the photos of my pieces, and to be honest, I’m not always too careful that the colours come out exactly right, but when I sent the picture to you, I almost didn’t dare to do anything.

Carina: What I find really special about this series of yours is that you managed to transform the impression of the reclaimed plastics so well. There are many artists that work with recycled plastics, but mostly the plastic keeps its characteristics, which I often find is not so attractive. When I look at your pieces and touch them, I would still guess that they are made from some kind of plastic, but this is more because of the weight and the touch. The cheap looks which normally come with using used plastics is totally gone. On the contrary, the pieces have a very precious, almost glamorous appearance to them. I think it must be the subtle textures you mill into the scales, your sensitive choice of colours, and also the smooth way the piece connects to the body.
You told me that before you made these pieces from the collected plastic bottles etc., you made similar pieces from metal. Was it difficult for you to make this change? Did you immediately “respect” the plastic?

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Karin: I’m so flattered and glad to hear how you describe my pieces! Getting away from the “plastic look” was something I aimed for. I tried to also make pieces with scales that still had the shiny plastic surface of the original material, but that just looked trashy. For me, working with textile techniques came before I started using metal, and switching between or mixing metal and other materials has never been a problem. But conquering a new material is always difficult. I think you have to reach a point when you can appreciate and make use of a material’s qualities. For example, the way the plastic scales got a bit curved when I milled them was a problem at first since they made the sawn material curl together. But in the end, that makes the bracelets close without a locket, which turned out to be very practical. 
How do you feel about working with metal, or maybe how it is NOT to work with metal – how has the “material hierarchy” affected your work?

Carina: I work with metal too, mainly as a second-rank material though. For the places where the jewellery piece lies on the body, connects to the clothes or to another material, metal just has unbeatable qualities and so I often use it for this purpose. I use the graffiti sheets because I wanted to bring colour into my work and I use the wood because it is easy to shape and it is light in weight. Each and every material brings its own advantages and disadvantages and I totally agree with you, that only when you know about them and learn to channel them can a material really unfold its potential for a successful creative process. In this sense, all materials are equal, a very liberating notion I find.

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Karin: Yes, to me too, all materials are equally precious and not precious. It’s factors like the circumstances, the environment and the work you put into it that decides the value. I work with garbage so off course I see great potential in some things people throw away, but I also sometimes work in a pawn shop where gold and diamonds can be treated quite disrespectfully, and to be honest – gold in the shape of fat neck chains weighing over 500 g is as much trash to me as the material I find in the streets.

Carina: I would like to know a bit about your work as a gallery owner. In 2010, you founded the contemporary jewellery gallery Four with three friends and colleagues of yours, Hanna Liljenberg, Linnéa Eriksson and Malin Lövgren. This was only one year after you graduated from HDK, Academy of Design and Crafts, Gothenburg, which I find to be a really courageous and determined move. How has the gallery work influenced your view on contemporary jewellery or your personal creative work?

Karin: The work with Four is really something I enjoy a lot and that gives me both inspiration and time for my own work. Of course, I put a lot of time into making the exhibitions, inviting artists, trying to get attention from the media etc, but I really enjoy meeting all these fantastic people and to show their work to the audience in Göteborg. This might sound a bit childish but it makes me so proud when people from outside the jewellery bubble come into the gallery and discover what amazing work we are showing. We are right now setting up a show with Jiro Kamata and had a journalist there yesterday. She asked me why I had invited Jiro and I just felt that I could talk forever about his work; his materials, his personal expression that you can follow through all of his career, the flawless finish and technique, and not least the thoughts and genuine love he puts into the work.

When I keep the gallery open and we don’t have visitors, I have time to do my own work (there is a workshop behind the showing room). I have been running the gallery over the last years and lately, I have mostly been there by myself. I’m not a person, who likes being alone for too long so the gallery is also a sort of a social refuge.

Carina: Thank you, Karin!

Karin Roy Andersson

Images:
1 left: Karin Roy Andersson: Catching Big Fish, bracelet, 2014; Recycled plastics (from soap- and shampoo bottles) thread; Photo: Attai Chen; Model: Carina Shoshtary; 1 right: Carina Shoshtary: Nymphaea 3, necklace, 2016; Graffiti, glass, silver; Photo: Lasse Karlsson; Model: Karin Roy Andersson
2 Karin Roy Andersson: Dove, necklace, 2016; Recycled plastics (from snuff boxes and soap bottles) thread, steel, silver; 18 cm x23 cm x 5 cm; Photo: Karin Roy Andersson
3 Karin Roy Andersson: Catching Big Fish, bracelet, 2014; Recycled plastics (from snuff boxes and motor oil bottles) thread; Photo: Karin Roy Andersson
4 Karin Roy Andersson: Catching Big Fish, bracelet, 2014; Recycled plastics (from soap- and shampoo bottles) thread; Photo: Karin Roy Andersson
5/6 Carina Shoshtary: Nymphaea 3, necklace, 2016; Graffiti, glass, silver; Photos: Mirei Takeuchi
7 Karin’s suitcase; Photo: Karin Roy Andersson
8 Karin Roy Andersson: Dove, brooch, 2016; Recycled plastics (from snuff boxes and soap bottles) thread, steel, silver; 13,5 cm x 11,5 cm x 4,0 cm; Photo: Karin Roy Andersson
9 Carina Shoshtary: Carnivore 2, brooch, 2015; Wood, graffiti, glass, silver, stainless steel, paint; 10,7 cm x 7,2 cm x 3,7 cm; Photos: Mirei Takeuchi
10 Karin Roy Andersson: Backupfront, earrings, 2015; Recycled plastics (from snuffboxes and motor-oil bottle), silver, varnish, steel, textile; Photo: Karin Roy Andersson

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The history of blue- Part 2. With art jewellery by Flora Vagi

waves of blue brch(LR) copy

Blue in the early modern history

At the end of the middle-ages, Europe had become a gloomy place regarding colour. After the black death had raged and with the introduction of The Inquisition, the Christian world chose sombre colours to express humility and virtue. Incipient from Spain, the 15th century became the century of the colour black, from which the colour blue profited immensely, because red and other “louder” colours were largely forbidden.

The leaders of the Protestant reformation were preaching a kind of colour puritanism in matters of religion, art and social life. Colours played a major role in the catholic liturgy and therefore symbolised the vanity and wastefulness of the Catholic Church. Red was especially regarded as the colour of luxury and sin for the protestants. As blue traditionally wasn’t part of this Catholic colour system, the Protestant Reformation accepted blue besides black, white, grey and brown as a decent colour. This spare use of colour was naturally adopted by protestant painters like Rembrandt for example.

Bigblue Seanemone (LR)

During the Renaissance, the trend in art was towards realism. Artists discovered the linear perspective and studied light, shadow and anatomy. Colours were used to create a three-dimensional space, in which blue played a major role. Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by the impact of colours and filled notebooks with his observations. He realised that blue created the illusion of distance: ”… make the first building in its own color; the next most distant make more blue, at another distance bluer yet and that which is five times more distant make five times more blue.” Da Vinci called this painting technique the aerial perspective. As the landscape recedes in his famous Mona Lisa, the mountains and the water become progressively paler and bluer to disappear into a vaporous distance.

The blue background of the Mona Lisa was painted with ultramarine, which was still the most expensive and adored pigment, being even more valuable per ounce than gold. The painters of the Renaissance often had to find a patron to commission a work, if they wanted to use it. The contract of commission would say exactly how much ultramarine had to be used for which areas of the painting and of which quality the pigment had to be. To cut costs without losing vibrancy, some painters used a base layer of a cheaper blue pigment and only covered the surface with ultramarine.
Titian is known for his generous use of pure ultramarine, which he ground either finely or quite roughly to get subtle variations in the blue. Like many of his Italian contemporaries he profited from Venice’s location as a trading port with a good access to products from the east where the ultramarine came from. Not all artists were so lucky to be situated close to the source though. In several letters Albrecht Dürer complained angrily on the high prices of ultramarine.

One of my most favourite painters was celebrating the beauty of ultramarine in an almost unorthodox way: Jan Vermeer. Genuine ultramarine can be found in every Vermeer painting, often in lavish amounts. He used the brilliant blue not only for blue objects or blue background surfaces, but also to form shadows, light reflexions and to give other colours more luminosity. In his painting The Girl with a Wineglass, the shadows of the red satin dress are entirely underpainted in ultramarine. Vermeer had 10 children and piled an increasing amount of debts (when the fortune of his parents-in-law decreased), but still he never ceased using ultramarine in such fashion.

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Blue in the 18th and 19th century

 In 1709 an artificial blue pigment was created totally by accident in Berlin. A colour producer and merchant, to whom a polluted component had been sold to make a red pigment, was astonished when the result happened to be a deep blue. Prussian blue was the first modern inorganic pigment, which could not be found in nature. It’s great qualities, such as good coverage, colour-strength and light-fastness made it very popular both amongst artists and cloth dyers and it is still used for many purposes even today.

At the end of the 19th century, the German chemist Adolf von Baeyer managed to produce synthetic indigo, which started the second indigo clash. The first conflict took place in the Middle Ages, when an imported indigo from India endangered the woad industry in Europe as it was deemed to be superior. The new indigo won, both times. The company BASF hence produced synthetic indigo in large amounts, which caused the ruin of the indigo industry in India. The artificial pigment was simply cheaper and better.

Military uniforms were colourful at that time. The English soldiers (“red coats”) fought in their legendary red uniforms for several centuries. Blue, which was a colour to convey respect and decency, became predominant for all kinds of uniforms in Europe. The French army wore uniformly blue after the French revolution (blue was the colour of all who favoured the revolution), the Prussian army had already been identified by its dark blue uniforms since the 17th century. This changed only in World War 1, when soldiers had to face modern weapons, which were far reaching and produced less smoke. Henceforth soldiers had to become as invisible as possible.

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THG_blue.red flwr brch(HR)

In the 18th century blue finally rose to become the most fashionable colour of them all. Until that time the nobility only liked dark blue garments, lighter blue shades were still worn only by the working class. Quite suddenly, hues of pastel and sky blue were the latest thing in the upper circles and words had to be invented to describe the new favourite blues. In 1724 the French language had 24 commonly used words for shades of blue (which were all produced by cloth dyers), 16 referred to light blue shades.

The literature of the Enlightenment and the Romanticism in Europe picked up this trend, fashion and literature mutually intensified this development further. Perhaps the best example of this is the blue tailcoat of Goethe’s character Werther from The Sorrows of Young Werther. The novel was so successful that the blue tailcoat of the desperate, amorous hero became fashionable for young men all over Europe. Blue was a special colour for Goethe, it appears in many of his writings. Blue and yellow are also the central components in his theory of colours as he experienced them as the perfect chromatic harmony.

In 1802, Novalis` unfinished novel “Heinrich von Ofterdingen” was published posthumously, two years after his death. In the story, a young poet sees a blue flower in his dream, which transforms into the face of a beautiful girl. He goes away looking for her and finally finds Mathilde, who unfortunately dies soon after. The tale is about the longing for a meaning in life, which according to Novalis can derive only from mystic insights. The colour blue reached a cultic status during the European Romanticism. Blue became a symbol of love, longing and for the pursuit of the infinite. This romantic but melancholic blue survived until today.

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Blue Jeans- the world´s most popular piece of clothing

In 1853 a young Jew named Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco, where the gold rush was at its peak. He tried to earn a living by selling tent fabrics, but it didn´t go well. When someone told him that what they really needed were sturdy trousers, Strauss made trousers from the fabrics he had; with huge success. His enterprise was expanding rapidly. Around 1860 Levi Strauss replaced the tent fabric with a denim, a strong cotton fabric from Europe dyed blue with woad, which was mainly used for the clothes of mine and factory workers. The word jeans derives from Genoese; the original tent fabric Strauss used came from Genua. The fabric was too dense to be dyed evenly and in a deep colour, but this only increased its success. The blue of Strauss’ jeans was lively and special. Over the years, he improved his models. The jeans for lumbermen for exemple were decorated with rivets around the pockets. When in 1890 Levi Strauss’ patent ended, other companies started to manufacture similar products, but nevertheless, Levi Strauss died a very rich man in 1902. His jeans were the first items of clothing to be branded with a label in order to mark their genuineness.

In the 1940s, blue jeans were already very popular as casual trousers in the USA. “Vogue” had published its first advertisement for luxury jeans and in Europe the triumph of the jeans began after the 2nd Word War. In the 50s a pair of jeans was an essential part of the look of the greaser subculture. In the 60s and 70s, the hippies loved blue jeans no less than the punk rock and heavy metal youths in the 80s. Each generation and each fashion period discovered blue jeans anew.
But even though they were so commonly worn, blue jeans became a symbol of the resistance against capitalism. During the 70s, clothes became cheaper than ever before. It was the beginning of our throwaway society and naturally a counter movement developed who’s supporters wore blue jeans, which were still an icon for the real, durable thing.
Today everybody is wearing them everywhere in the world… Why are blue jeans so popular? Yves Saint Laurent has an answer: “I have often said that I wish I had invented blue jeans: the most spectacular, the most practical, the most relaxed and nonchalant. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity- all I hope for in my clothes.”

Sea waves_ brooch(LR)

Blue in Modern Art

With the industrial manufacturing of synthetic pigments the colour blue lost its prominent position, but there were a few modern artists, who developed a special bond with blue nevertheless. Just to name a few:

Pablo Picasso´s Blue Period is a series of monochromatic paintings in blues and greens created between 1901 and 1904. Even though they are amongst his most popular paintings today, he had difficulties selling them at the time. They were too melancholic for his contemporaries. Indeed Picasso was depressed when he started this series. He had just lost a good friend and arrived alone and penniless in Montmartre without speaking much French.

In his late period Mark Rothko created his signature colour block paintings. The early paintings of that series are composed of bright, vibrant colours like reds and yellows, but later from the mid 50s on, he preferred darker colours, above all dark shades of blue. Also here the shift towards blue was a sign of unhappiness. Dark blue served him to express a growing dissatisfaction in his life. Even though his increasing fame and wealth, Rothko felt misunderstood as an artist. He was afraid that people bought his pieces only out of fashion and he didn’t want to be seen as an abstractionist, as he explains here; “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on — and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!”

The modern artist who is probably most associated with the colour blue is Yves Klein. He created monochrome vibrant blue paintings from one single pigment. Together with the art supplier Edouard Adam he invented a deep blue very similar to ultramarine, which he had patented under the name International Klein Blue. This blue pigment wasn’t unique because of its colour though, but because of the synthetic resin binder, in which the pigment was suspended. The special component made it possible for Klein to maintain as much of its original qualities as possible. But once dissolved in resin, his blue paint was only applicable for 45 minutes and Klein had to work very fast to accomplish his pieces. His fascination for the colour blue began with his love for the perfect sky: “On this day I started to hate the birds, because they passed my cloudless sky and tried to drill wholes in my biggest and most beautiful piece of art.”

yvesebony nckl(HR)

The most favourite colour

First opinion surveys regarding the favourite colours of people in Europe were made in the late 19th century. In the last hundred years these kind of surveys multiplied exponentially as they play an important role for marketing researches. The result is the same as it was back then: The Western world is standing firmly behind the colour blue.
The question about a favourite colour is extremely vague. What does it mean if someone calls a colour his/her favourite? I believe that it is normally a collective perception of a colour inside a society, the virtues we connect to it makes us prefer a colour to others.
The colour blue is the most accepted colour in Western countries. We perceive it as pieceful, risk-free, almost neutral. If you choose black as your favourite colour, you might be seen as a sombre character, if you choose red, it might be interpreted as an aggressive streak (just imagine the flag of the United Nations was red and not blue). But if you choose blue, you are normally on the safe side.

Whatever the reasons are why the colour blue is so popular, the historical ascent of blue is extremely fascinating. Humans didn´t pay it much attention in their early history, but from the moment its otherwordly beauty was discovered, humans granted blue a very special positioning. Blue was always connected to our ability to innovate and to create.

THG series_deep blue flwrs brch(HR)

References: Eva Heller: Wie Farben auf Gefühl und Verstand wirken; Michel Pastoureau: Blau- Die Geschichte einer Farbe; World Wide Web

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Flora Vagi was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1978. She studied at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Taxco, Mexico, the Alchimia Contemporary Jewellery School in Florence, Italy, and made her MA in Goldsmithing/Silversmithing in the Royal College of Art in London, UK. Currently she is doing her PhD in sculpture at the University of Pécs, Hungary. Flora has shown her work internationally at galleries, museums and fairs including Flow Gallery, London, UK; Gallery Velvet da Vinci, San Francisco, USA; Museum Bellerive, Zurich, Switzerland; Coda Museum, Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, and the Internationale Handwerksmesse, Munich, Germany. She was awarded the Talente Prize for Design, Munich, Germany, the Bakri Yehia Memorial Award of the Royal College of Art, London, UK, and the Young Talent Prize of the World Craft Council, Belgium. Her work is part of public collections, e.g. the collection of the CODA Museum, Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, and the Grassi Museum, Leipzig, Germany.

Images:
1 Flora Vagi: Waves of blue, brooch; Ebony, pigment, acrylic paint, steel; Photo: Flora Vagi
2 Flora Vagi: Bigblue Seanemone, brooch; Book pages, acrylic paint, pigment, cold enamel, silver, steel; Photo: Flora Vagi
3 Flora Vagi: Azur Reverse, necklace; Ebony, silk, cold enamel, 18ct gold; Photo: Flora Vagi
4 Flora Vagi: Things happen in a Garden Series – Big blue-red, brooch; Wood, pigment, acrylic paint, silver, steel, glass; Photo: Flora Vagi, Model: Samira Götz
5 Flora Vagi: Things happen in a Garden Series – Big blue-red, brooch; Wood, pigment, acrylic paint, silver, steel, glass; Photo: Flora Vagi
6 Flora Vagi: Yves’ branch, brooch; Tree branches, pigment, acrylic paint, glass, 18ct gold; Photo: Flora Vagi
7 Flora Vagi: Sea waves, brooch; Wood, pigment, acrylic paint, silver, steel; Photo: Flora Vagi
8 Flora Vagi: Yves Ebony Waves, necklace; Ebony, acrylic paint, pigment, silk; Photo: Flora Vagi
9 Flora Vagi: Things Happen in a Garden Series – Deep blue flowers, brooch; Wood, pigment, acrylic paint, silver, steel; Photo: Flora Vagi

Text edit: Hayley Grafflin

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The history of blue- Part 1. With drawings by Zaria Forman

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“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.

Zaria Forman 2

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.

Zaria Forman 3

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.

Zaria Forman 4

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Images:
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