My love affair with the colour blue - moody, symbolic, historic and expansive.


I’m currently going through a blue period. I’m finding myself strongly infatuated with the colour blue. Particularly in my On The Plain Series and my Seascape series. Like most people, I have a favourite colour – yellow. It’s sunny, uplifting and joyful. Many of my paintings in my first few years in London were based on a fundamentally yellow colour palette – including my Not Another Rose Series, my Straight Stories Series, and my Subversive Square series. But over the past 2-3 years, my preference has shifted towards more gemstone rich colours. Amethyst purples, ruby reds, garnet magentas, pink sapphire fuchsias, emerald forest greens and of course blue. In my most recent paintings (my Seascape series), blue is the predominant colour that I use.

 Blue colour used in original ink and acrylic painting by London artist Vera Blagev

I adore the history and the significance of the colour blue. Historically, blue has been a particularly difficult colour of paint to create as the natural sources are very limited. Unlike other nature inspired colours such as ochres, reds and browns, and even greens, blue is not often found in nature in a raw state. In the olden times, the blue that you see in paintings of icons, renaissance paintings and others most often comes from a blue semiprecious gemstone – lapis lazuli. Lapis, as it’s known sometimes, is a deep striking blue gemstone that often has inclusions of calcite (white) or pyrite (golden colour), which has been prized since the time of Ancient Egyptians for its intensity of colour. Excellent examples of lapis lazuli from ancient times can be seen at the British Museum in London. Primarily mined in Afghanistan, at the end of the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli began to be exported to Europe, where it was ground into powder and made into ultramarine, the finest and most expensive of all blue pigments. The word ultramarine comes from the Latin word “ultramarinus” meaning “beyond the sea”, because the pigment was imported into Europe from Afghanistan. Ultramarine was the finest and most expensive blue used by Renaissance painters. Because of its rarity and expense, blue was often used as a final accent or particular significance – such as the veil of the Virgin Mary in countless paintings of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

 

Lapis lazuli also has the distinct honour of having a colour named after it – the English word azure comes from the name and the colour of lapis lazuli. Even though modern day paints are mostly manufactured without needing to grind rocks and gems, this history of blue colour in artwork is particularly significant. Ultramarine was most extensively used during the 14th through 15th centuries, particularly in countless illuminated manuscripts and Italian panel paintings. If you were lucky enough to visit the Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination exhibition at the British Library a few years ago or have a visit to most major national museums including the National Gallery, you will see excellent examples of this rich vibrant hue. It is said that because lapis lazuli was imported to Europe most likely through Venice, little of the ultramarine pigment reached countries further up north, and therefore very few artists in Germany or Austria used this colour. Another well-known artist who used ultramarine extensively in his paintings is Johannes Vermeer. His most famous painting (The Girl With The Pearl Earring) uses ultramarine.

 

There is also a deep history of another type of blue – indigo. Indigo is a hugely historic colour that goes back hundreds of years. Its rich almost blackish blue hue has been around for hundreds of years and can be traced back to the Greco-Roman era. It is believed that India has the longest tradition of dying textiles with indigo dye which is derived from the plant Indigofera tinctori. It is this connection with India that gives the colour its modern day name – the Greek word for dye was indikon and the Roman word for dye was indicum, which ultimately became indigo in English. Indigo was one of the early materials to be exported abroad and although the indigo dye was not suitable as a pigment for artist colours for fine art purposes, its rich deep hue was excellent for colouring all sorts of textiles. In modern day, true indigo is often replaced by synthetic dyes, which are often more permanent and lightfast.

 

Cobalt blue – is another blue colour that has a more recent but equally illustrious history in art. A lighter more medium blue than Lapis Lazuli or Indigo, impure forms of Cobalt blue have historically been used as a colouring agent for ceramics (in particular Chinese porcelain) for centuries, beginning in the late 8th or early 9th century.. But Louis Jacques Thénard is generally credited as having discovered this pigment in 1802. Cobalt blue was used particularly by the Impressionists including Renoir and Monet, as well as Turner and Van Gogh.

 

I love that I can contribute to the long artistic tradition of artists using blue in their artworks. It is said blue is the favourite colour of more than half the population. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because we’re surrounded by blue on a daily basis – blue sky, blue water. But the reality seems to go deeper. In the natural world of flora and fauna, the colour blue is again one of the most rare. Of course, blueberries and bluebells immediately spring to mind, but when compared to the prevalence of other colours (not only green of course, but yellow and red), blue is very rare. And yet it is so prevalent in the two biggest areas of reality that capture our attention and our imagination – the sky and bodies of water. It has been suggested by Dr. Helen Czerski in the recent BBC TV show – Colour: The Spectrum of Science that the reason why so many humans are drawn to the colour blue is because it is always out of reach. Yes, the sky is blue (mostly) and water is blue (or at least we see it as blue… mostly). And for many people, they see both blue sky and blue water daily. But it is always out of reach. The blue sky feels miles away – you can’t touch it, you can’t interact and engage with it, like you can with a red rose, or a green leaf or an orange, well, orange. Blue water loses its colour the second you try to take some with you. The second you plunge your hands into the sea and cup them to hold some water in, the colour changes. It is most certainly no longer blue. Dr. Czerski argues that it is this distance yet ubiquity of the colour blue that makes it particularly captivating, significant and emotive for humans. And this is an argument that I agree with.

 

As the writer Jay Griffiths says in her wonderful poetic book, Wild, An Elemental Journey, “blue is the last colour to be named in many societies, according to anthropologists – perhaps because it is remembered from the deepest memories of evolution of evolution, a remembered blue that thrills along the veins with a timbre of its own, a pitch where colour is sound and sound colour, where low light shines. Blue has the intensity of the pitch of grief or love, blue fathoms the past as no other colour.”

 

Blue is a hugely symbolic colour. It is one of those colours that humans ascribe substantial importance and meaning. Usually, this symbolism is seen as good – whether it’s to symbolize purity, saintliness, humility, and an ethereal otherworldliness in the blue robes of the Virgin Mary. Often, it symbolizes calmness, contemplation and serenity (note one of the two Pantone colours of the year is a light blue they call serenity). And yet, there is the negative symbolism of the colour blue – if you feel blue, you’re sad. Singing the blues is singing songs of melancholy melody. In truth, blue is such a complex colour and has such strong symbolic associations with various ideas and fundamental parts of the human experience, that no wonder it’s such a popular colour.

 

As an artist, I adore using blue in my artwork. I feel very lucky that modern day paints and inks come in such a huge variety of blues – from the dense dark indigo through to ultramarine pure blue and into cobalt blue and into pale almost translucent blues. Blue is captivating and eye catching. It’s expansive. No other colour has the same ability to make the painting look bigger than it is, than blue. In my art practice, blue means space. Whether it’s water or sky, blue expands across the painting to carry the eye of the viewer. Blue is fundamentally an expansive colour – one that speaks of freedom and wilderness and space – endless space – expanding space. Space in water and space in sky. It is comforting and familiar. And it is also emblematic of open skies and open waters – opportunities, future adventures, exotic places abroad. I also particularly love blue’s ability to set an atmosphere and capture a mood.

 

In my case, I also like the elegant way that the colour blue and my chosen medium talk to each other. I work predominantly in water based media – a variety of inks and ink washes. Ink fundamentally relies on the interaction with water (and paper or canvas) to bring out its true ability, its true hue and its texture. And of course, water is mostly associated with being the colour blue. And that is the connection that I particularly love in using blue in my art practice – that the symbolism of the typical blue water interacts with the reality of the water that is a fundamental part of my artwork creation process.


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