In Praise of Ultramarine Blue
Written by Robert Gamblin
Lapis Lazuli to Ultramarine Blue
Ultramarine Blue is one of the most storied pigments in art history, coming from lapis lazuli in Afghanistan as early as the second century BC. The name comes to us from the Italian, oltre marino, or “beyond the sea.” During the Renaissance, it was the most expensive pigment used. When the patron requested Ultramarine Blue be used in a painting, the contract would state where it was going to be used and how much money was going to be made available for the purchase of the pigment. Sparked by a competition across Europe in the early 1800’s, a synthetic alternative was developed which has been known as Guimet’s Blue, French Ultramarine Blue, and today it is simply known as Ultramarine Blue.
But I think that even without any of this history, Ultramarine Blue would still be the most used color after white on the artist’s palette.
Gamblin’s Ultramarine Blue
Our Ultramarine Blue is beautiful in so many of its aspects. It is deep and rich in its masstone (pure from the tube), and as a cool glazing color it has been a standard for 150 years, and not without merit it is inexpensive! Once the most expensive color ever, in the form of purified ground lapis, it is now reasonably priced in the form of our contemporary Ultramarine.
But I hear that little voice in your head… “yeah it is cheaper but is it as beautiful as lapis?” In my opinion, having made both forms of ultramarine, our contemporary ultramarine is the most beautiful that has ever been made and ground into linseed oil.
Try this with Ultramarine Blue
My current favorite aspect of Ultramarine: take the Ultramarine straight from the tube, and begin adding VERY small amounts of white to it. Watch the light come on inside the ultramarine, the color gets more and more intense. At a certain point in adding more and more white, the intensity of the color drops off (see Munsell Chroma/Value “curve” diagram below). Find ways to use the dark intense ultramarine before this happens – it is breathtaking.
Sky Blue in a Tube
Even if blue is scarce underground, it is certainly abundant in sky, and water. Look straight up in the sky on a clear day, or at the color of recessed hills made lighter and bluer by atmospheric perspective, and one might conclude that Ultramarine Blue was made just for landscape painting. Since Ultramarine Blue is so useful in its tint, I formulated Radiant Blue using this pigment and Titanium White to be at Munsell Value 7.
Whether it is on account of its history, beauty, or usefulness, Ultramarine Blue certainly deserves to be one of the stars of our palette.
Thanks for reading.
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