History of the Colour Blue in Art


1. Introduction:

The colour blue has long been associated with the arts, from the Renaissance to contemporary times. In ancient Egypt, blue was often associated with the sun god Ra and the afterlife. The Greeks and Romans both used blues in their paintings, and blue was often seen in the paintings of the Renaissance. In the 18th and 19th centuries, blue was often used in religious works of art, such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and later, the Impressionists and modern artists all used blue in their work. It has been used to represent a range of emotions, from sadness to calm and serenity. Today, blue remains an important part of the art world, being used to represent a variety of themes and moods.

Sistine Chapel Ceiling With the Color Blue
Sistine Chapel Ceiling With the Color Blue

a. Definition of the Colour Blue

The colour blue is a cool, calming hue that is often associated with peace and tranquility. It ranges from a light, airy sky blue to a deep, royal navy blue. As the colour of the sky and the ocean, it is often associated with depth and stability. It symbolizes trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth, and heaven. Seen as a calming colour, it is often used to decorate offices, classrooms, and homes. It can also be cold and depressing. According to some studies, it is known to have a calming effect on people, reduce anxiety, and instill feelings of peace and serenity. It is thought to help people maintain a clear mind, think more clearly, and focus better.

b. Brief History of the Use of Colour in Art

The use of blue in art has a long, rich history. Ancient Egyptians were among the first to use the colour blue in art, using it to create stunning frescoes and sculptures. The ancient Greeks used lapis lazuli and other semi-precious stones to make deep blue pigments for their paintings. By the Middle Ages, blue was a popular colour for art, often seen in religious murals and tapestries. The Renaissance period saw a dramatic increase in the use of blue in art. This was due in part to the development of new technologies that allowed for the mass production of blue pigments, such as Prussian blue and ultramarine. Various blue-hued pigments were used to create beautiful works of art in Renaissance Italy. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael used blue to create stunning masterpieces. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, it continued to be an important colour in art. Its usage in painting, sculpture, and other forms of art has seen a resurgence in recent years, with some artists experimenting with the colour in new and innovative ways.

c. Accessibility of the Colour Blue

Throughout history, blue has been a mainstay in art, literature and even everyday life. It has symbolized everything from peace and tranquility to royalty and power. But for all its ubiquity today, blue wasn’t widely used in the ancient world.

Many ancient cultures had a limited range of pigments and dyes, which meant that blue was difficult to produce in a vivid and vibrant way. It was also an expensive pigment, which meant that it was generally reserved for the elite and wealthy. As a result, blue was rarely seen in ancient art and literature.

The ancient Egyptians were one of the few cultures to use blue to any significant extent. Their art often featured a specific shade known as Egyptian blue, which was first produced around 2,200 BC.

d. Cost Factors Influenced the Colour Blue and Its Use

Blue is an expensive colour to produce and gain access to because of its rarity. Historically, blue dyes were difficult to come by and expensive to manufacture. The most popular blue dye was derived from the murex shellfish, which was harvested from the Mediterranean Sea. The dye was incredibly expensive to process and could only be used in small batches. The dye was also quite labour-intensive and could take weeks to produce a single batch.

Another issue that made blue expensive was the availability of pigments. Ultramarine, a blue pigment made from lapis lazuli, was incredibly expensive and hard to acquire until the 19th century. This pigment was so rare and expensive that it was often reserved for the use of royalty and high-class individuals.

In more recent years, the cost has decreased significantly. Technology has improved the production of blue dyes and pigments and allowed for mass production of blue materials. However, the cost still remains significantly higher than other colours. For this reason, blue is still considered to be a luxurious and expensive colour to produce and gain access to.

2. Early Uses of Blue in Art

Ancient Egyptians were among the first to use the colour in a range of artworks, including wall paintings and sculptures. It was also used by ancient Greeks and Romans in their art, often to represent the heavens or the sea. During the Middle Ages, blue pigments became rarer and more expensive, making it a colour reserved for the wealthiest of patrons. The Renaissance saw a revival of blue in art, with the discovery of new and affordable pigments, like Prussian Blue and Cobalt Blue. These new shades were used by many of the great masters such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Vermeer, often to convey a feeling of calm and serenity. Blue was also used in religious scenes to represent the Virgin Mary, and in landscapes to suggest coolness and distance. Today, it is just as popular as ever, with artists around the world using it to express different feelings and ideas in their works.

a. Ancient Egyptian Art

Blue was an important colour in ancient Egyptian art. It was often used in religious and symbolic contexts to represent the sky, water, and life. It was often used to decorate the bodies of gods and goddesses, to highlight important aspects of the scene, and to create an overall calming and tranquil atmosphere. Ancient Egyptians also used it to create shapes and figures that were symbolic of the divine. They believed that the blue colour represented a type of divine energy and used it to represent the gods and goddesses in their artwork. The blue colour was often used to represent the sun god Ra, the goddess Isis, and the god Osiris. Additionally, it was used to represent water and fertility. Ancient Egyptians used it to represent the Nile River and the flooding of the Nile which brought fertility and life to the land. This was an important part of their religion. Finally, blue was also used to express emotions and feelings. It was used to convey sadness and despair, joy and happiness. In some cases, blue was also used to represent death and the afterlife.

Pyxis made out of Egyptian blue
Pyxis made out of “Egyptian blue” faience): Imported to Italy from northern Syria, it was produced 750–700 BC. (Shown at Altes Museum in Berlin)
Bairuilong, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The use of blue in Ancient Egyptian art dates back to the Fourth Dynasty (about 2700 BC), when it was limited to the production of blue glazes and pigments. It wasn’t until the early Eighteenth Dynasty (about 1550 BC) that it became a major feature of Ancient Egyptian art. During this time, a new pigment called “Egyptian blue” was discovered, and it quickly became an important artistic medium. The pigment was made from quartz, lime, copper, and natron (a naturally occurring salt), and could be used to create a wide range of colours and shades depending on the proportions of the ingredients. It was not only used in painting, but also in jewellery, sculpture, and other forms of art.

b. Ancient Greek and Roman Art

Blue has been a staple of ancient Greek and Roman art for thousands of years. From the early geometric designs of the Mycenaean period to the later realism of the Hellenistic period, it was a common and important colour in ancient art. The earliest use of the colour in Greek art is found in the Mycenaean period, in which geometric designs were used to decorate pottery, jewellery, and textiles. These designs often featured alternating bands of dark and light blue, sometimes in combination with other colours. The use of blue in this period was likely inspired by the natural environment, as the Aegean Sea frequently appears in a deep blue hue. In the Classical period, it was a popular colour for the clothing of the gods. This is particularly evident in the art of the Parthenon, in which the gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece are all dressed in blue garments. This served to exemplify their divinity, as it was believed that the gods and goddesses could transform themselves into any colour they wished. The Roman Empire carried much of the same tradition of blue, but favoured the colour for its associations with power and wealth.

Blue was seen as a calming, peaceful and mystical colour to ancient Roman culture. As such, it was often used in paintings, sculptures and other works of art to represent the gods, such as the sea god Neptune, who was often depicted in a blue robe. Additionally, it was used in murals and mosaics, often to create a calming atmosphere in the home or in public spaces. It was also used to symbolize fidelity and, in particular, fidelity to the emperor. In the Arch of Constantine, for example, blue is used to frame the statues of the emperors and to symbolize the continuity of the Roman Empire. It was also used to decorate the interiors of palaces, temples and other public spaces, such as the Colosseum, highlighting the opulence of the Roman Empire. Lastly, it was often used to represent wealth, power, and status in art, as wealthy Romans often wore clothing and jewellery with blue stones embedded in them.

3. Middle Ages and the Renaissance

The colour blue has long been a source of fascination and inspiration for many cultures throughout history, especially during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In this era, it became increasingly popular and was used to express a wide range of emotions and meanings. Blue was used in art, literature, fashion, and even the home, making it a highly sought after hue in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. From its symbolic representation of faith to its evocative associations with the sky and sea, blue has been a timeless source of beauty and creativity for centuries.

a. Religious Paintings

Blue has been used as a powerful tool in religious paintings throughout the history of western art. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the colour blue was often used to evoke spiritual and emotional states in viewers, as well as to represent spiritual concepts. In Christian art, the colour was used to symbolize the Virgin Mary and her importance to the Christian faith. Paintings of the Virgin Mary often incorporated the colour to represent her holiness and purity. It was also used to represent the sky and other celestial imagery in religious paintings, often to symbolize the divine power of God. In the Renaissance, artists began to explore the use of blue in more subtle ways, often using it to convey spiritual meaning. For example, the use of azure blue in the paintings of Raphael was used to represent the heavens, and the presence of God. The symbolic use in religious paintings has been a consistent theme throughout the history of western art, and the use of blue continues to be used to evoke feelings of awe and spiritual wonder in viewers.

Madonna and Child – painting by Giovanni Bellini (MET, 08.183.1)
Bairuilong, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

b. Symbolism of Blue

The colour blue was widely used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance as a way to evoke a sense of power, grandeur, and emotional depth. During these periods, it was typically associated with the heavens and the divine, and was the chosen colour of the Virgin Mary and many of the great saints of the Catholic faith. It also symbolized loyalty, wisdom, and trustworthiness. The blue of the Virgin Mary’s mantle was representative of the heavens, while the bright blues of the stained glass windows of the cathedrals were often a reminder of the power of God and his divine grace. In the Renaissance, it was a popular colour for clothing, particularly among the wealthy and powerful. Wearing the colour blue was seen as a sign of status, but also of a connection to the divine. It was also associated with knowledge and wisdom, making it a popular choice for academics and scholars of the day. The use of blue in art also reached its peak in the Renaissance. The rich blues of the paintings of the period were a reminder of the power of God and the idea of a heavenly realm.

4. 18th and 19th Centuries

In the 18th and 19th centuries, blue took on a more prominent role in many artworks, with its symbolism ranging from spiritual to political. The deep, rich hues of cobalt and ultramarine blue were particularly popular in Romantic, Neoclassical, and Pre-Raphaelite art, while the lighter blues of powder, electric and sky blue were more common in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism works. In many of these artworks, it was used to evoke a sense of peace, serenity, and calmness, while at the same time being a powerful visual statement of the artist’s political or spiritual beliefs.

a. Romanticism and Impressionism

In the romanticism and impressionism period of the 18th and 19th centuries, the colour blue was used to express a range of emotions and feelings. In particular, it was seen as a means of conveying a sense of freedom, serenity and escape from reality. In the romanticism period, the colour was often used to evoke a sense of longing and nostalgia for a simpler, more spiritual life. It was also used to express hope and optimism, as well as a spiritual connection to nature and the natural world. In the impressionism period, the colour was used to express a sense of dreamy nostalgia, a sense of beauty and tranquility. It was also used as a symbol of inner peace and contemplation. In both periods, the colour blue was seen as a gateway to express emotions and feelings that were not always easy to put into words.

b. Blue as a Token of Sadness and Melancholy

The colour blue in the 18th and 19th centuries was often used to signify sadness and melancholy. This is due to the fact that the colour was associated with feelings of loneliness, sadness, and despair. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the colour was often used to express sorrow and grief in both art and literature. In the age of Romanticism, it evoked emotions of loneliness and despair. The colour was often used to describe moods of depression and loneliness in literary works. This idea was particularly evident in the works of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, who often used the colour blue to symbolize his feelings of sadness and melancholy. The association of it with melancholy and sadness became particularly popular in the 19th century, when the so-called “blue period” of art captivated audiences. During this period, many famous painters such as Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin used the colour blue to depict moods of despair and loneliness. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was often used to symbolize sorrow and sadness.

5. 20th Century and Beyond

Blue has been a favourite hue amongst many of the 20th century’s greatest artists, from abstract expressionist Mark Rothko and cubist Pablo Picasso to postmodernist Yves Klein and contemporary painter Yayoi Kusama. It has been used to convey a range of emotions from sorrow and nostalgia to optimism and joy. It has the power to evoke scenes of nature, the sea, and even futuristic landscapes. Through its various shades and tones, it has been used to capture subtle nuances of emotion, allowing artists to express themselves in a myriad of ways. We explore how various 20th century and beyond artists have used this colour in their art to express their unique visions and perspectives.

a. Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism

It wasn’t until the 20th century that blue achieved a special resonance in the art world. Its use in expressionism, cubism and surrealism marks a definitive point in art history, as the colour has the ability to create powerful, emotive imagery. In Expressionism, blue is used to convey emotions and feelings that transcend the physical world. The Expressionist movement sought to create works that were highly expressive, often intense and dark. Blue has become a signature colour of the movement, and when used in combination with darker tones, it creates a powerful and often unsettling effect. Cubism also used blue as a way of imbuing its works with emotion, but it did so in a more abstract way. By breaking down shapes and forms into flat planes of colour, an artist could create a feeling of depth, and blue was often used to add a sense of mystery and emotion to the artwork. Surrealism took it a step further, using it to create dream-like works that explored the subconscious.

b. Blue in Popular Culture

Blue has been a major part of popular culture throughout the 20th century. In the 1950s and 60s, it was often associated with symbols of innocence and purity, such as baby dolls and blue-eyed boy-next-door actors. It was also used in the pastel designs of clothing and household decor, reinforcing the idea of a peaceful, comfortable life. In the 1970s and 80s, blue took on a new life as the colour of rebellion. Music groups like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith wore blue for their iconic performances. Blue denim jeans were also a fashion staple of this era, with everyone from punk rockers to yuppies strutting their stuff in them. At the end of the century, blue had become a symbol of technology. The “Sky Blue” of Microsoft’s Windows 95 was one of the most recognizable shades of the decade. Meanwhile, the “Electric Blue” of Apple’s iMac was an iconic colour of the late 1990s and early 2000s, representing the cutting edge of computer technology and design. In the present day, it is seen as a colour of calmness, strength, and trust.

6. Conclusion

In conclusion, the colour blue has been used in art for a very long time, and its use has evolved over the centuries. It has been a powerful and evocative symbol, often invoking feelings of peace, trust, and tranquility. It has a long and varied history in art, and it continues to be a popular colour used by artists today.

a. Summary of Blue’s Evolution in Art

Blue has been used in art for centuries, ranging from ancient cave paintings to modern masterpieces. It has been used to create a variety of effects, from calming and serene to powerful and foreboding. The use of the colour in art has evolved from pale shades of blue to darker, richer hues, allowing artists to explore the range of emotions it can evoke. By combining blue with other colours, such as yellow, red and green, artists have been able to create interesting and complex pieces that explore themes such as love, loss, joy and despair. It continues to be an integral part of art, and its evolution over time reveals the power of this timeless colour.

b. Reflection on the Role of the Colour Blue in Art

The colour blue has long been used in art to evoke a range of emotions, from serenity and calm to melancholy and sadness. Its associations with the natural world, such as the sky and the sea, make it an excellent way to represent the vastness of the universe and evoke a sense of wonder. As such, it has been used by many artists in their works to inspire awe and admiration. It can also be used to convey a sense of calm and peacefulness, as well as a sense of nostalgia and longing. This versatility makes it a popular choice among many artists, allowing them to create a wide range of works with a unified colour palette.





2 responses to “History of the Colour Blue in Art”

  1. Gustavo Avatar

    Fantastic post Thanks

  2. Karyn Avatar

    Really beautiful writing about the color blue! I really loved reading this synapses of the history of blue!

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