ARTS: The Color Blue

Besides being a conservative commentator I, Nikitas, have been an artist my entire adult life. I graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont in 1976 with a degree in studio art (painting, sculpture, drawing). I spent 13 years in the art world in New York City. If you would like to see some of my own artworks, click here.

Blue is my favorite color. Worldwide polls show that blue is by far the most popular color. Blue is one of the primary colors, the others being red and yellow. If you mix red, yellow and blue you get brown. The opposite color of blue is orange. If you mix a color with its opposite, you get grey.

You might think that red would be the most popular color, but red is too aggressive to be popular. Blue, on the other hand, is passive and so it is easier to look at. Blue also is the comforting color of the sky and of Heaven. The sky and sea appear blue according to an effect called Rayleigh scattering.

Wealthy people throughout the ages chose bright colors in their clothing since colors were expensive to make and thus reflected high status. Charlemagne even wore red shoes to his coronation.

Blue was the color for the robes of Christ and the Virgin Mary in Byzantine icons, and then in Renaissance paintings, and then it became the clothing color of choice for wealthy people on and off for hundreds of years during and after the Early Renaissance. Today, however, anyone can buy brightly colored clothes since modern technology has made color available to all.

This is Massacio’s Virgin and Child With Angels, 1426, with the classic Virgin Mary in blue. It is tempera on wood panel and the pigment most likely was made from lapis lazuli (see below). By 1435 the Flemish Van Eyck brothers Jan and Hubert had developed paints with the same pigment but using oil as the medium. Oil makes colors more intense through the way that the paint absorbs and reflects light.

Yellow is not a popular color. Neither is purple. Yet green is popular since it is close to blue. In some languages green and blue are the same or similar words.

Blue truly is the “manly” color. After all a real man would never be seen in a yellow jacket or a purple one. On the page about the color blue you can read about the frequent application of blue to military uniforms, like those of police. The whole Wikipedia page about blue is fascinating and gives lots of information in one place, with many photos and art reproductions to back up the story.

I have been studying the laws of color recently. We all have heard about color “theory” which should never be confused with the “laws” of color.

To my mind color “theory” applies to individual artists. For instance, the painter El Greco (1541-1614) is known for his subdued palette, with lots of browns, burnt orange, pink, gold, etc. Here are some of his beautiful paintings:

Thus individual artists have their own theories about how colors interact and about what makes a painting successful color-wise. This gives the artist his trademark palette. But this is distinct from the “laws” of color which are the overarching rules that explain color to us.

There is a color called ‘pure blue’ or ‘high blue’ which I think is the single most important and beautiful color of all. I also consider it to be the most intense, direct, luminous, expressive, universal, evocative and objective color. You can see pure blue here on Wikipedia. Notice that Wikipedia shows us pure blue surrounded by black which is done since color is strongly affected by the colors around it, with black affecting colors least.

Under ‘shades of blue’ on Wikipedia you will see everything from baby blue to medium blue to ultramarine to Navy blue. And on and on. The special section at the bottom of this Wikipedia entry shows 63 different shades of blue. The human eye is reported to be able to perceive 10 million different colors.

Wikipedia is great if you wish to study color. It has hundreds of detailed pages about color, and the colors come up accurately on every computer screen. This is a miracle of technology and a way for us all to have access to every color. Just type in “blue” or “red” or “yellow” to Wikipedia to get lots of information about each color.

Surprisingly there is significant controversy even over the colors of the rainbow. Sir Isaac Newton said that those seven colors were red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. But since Newton’s time there has been serious debate about whether the color indigo is really separate from blue. Others have substituted the color cyan for green in a 6-color rainbow of red, orange, yellow, cyan, blue and violet.

Violet is a ‘spectral’ color in its own right with its own wavelength while purple, which looks like violet and is often confused with violet, is actually a composite of the two spectral colors blue and yellow.

Cyan is the blue-green color that traditionally is the color of nursing gowns and surgical gowns, while gowns formerly were white. Cyan is used for two principal reasons: First, cyan is a passive color and so is restful to patients in hospitals and going in to surgery. Second cyan does not distract the surgeon’s eye when he is doing his work, or create a distracting contrast with blood as a white gown would. Blood on a cyan gown appears black or brown.

I recently spotted some peonies in my neighbor’s garden. They appeared to be a brilliant magenta under the midday sun. Since I wanted to know precisely what color they were, I took a petal and put it next to my computer screen to see what it matched, but it was not at all magenta. It was really rose. I was quite surprised. And thus I believe hypothetically that all color should be determined under the cloudless and sunny sky at high noon, to equalize all colors in terms of light.

The primary source of the richest blue pigment for thousands of years has been lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone which is ground to a fine powder and used to produce expensive ultramarine paint. Lapis lazuli has been mined in Afghanistan for 6,000 years.

The element cobalt also has been used to make blue pigment, particularly in stained glass. Azurite also has been used. It is a form of copper which becomes blue with oxidation.

Commercial blue dyes are made from plants like woad, Crozophora tinctoria and Indigoferia tinctoria (indigo). Blue today is widely produced artificially in a product called phthalocyanine which was developed in the 1930s.

Color is a subjective experience while form is objective. By that I mean that color can change significantly according to the light that illuminates it. On the other hand a form like a triangle is not going to be perceived differently in low light than it is in high light. It remains a triangle. In other words form is infinitely more objective than color.

By dint of the fact that color is subjective, color also can be defined as emotional while form is intellectual. In other words color grabs our attention on a primal level but form appeals to our higher and more cerebral instincts.

I also believe that form is vastly more relevant to art than color. And you may wonder how I could make such a statement since color is such a crucial element in art.

But it is easily explained. First, the intellect is infinitely more significant than emotion. Then look at this painting by Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441), the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin of 1435, one of the great masterpieces of Western civilization. It is only about 2 feet square and is one of the first oil paintings ever made. Look at that rich red, blue and purple. Oil paint gives these colors vibrancy and depth while tempera would tend to subdue and flatten them.

Here is a detail of the Van Eyck painting which is only about 6 inches on a side.

Now to illustrate my “law” that form is significantly more important than color, imagine that you reproduced the Chancellor Rolin painting in black and white. It would remain great even though Van Eyck was famous for color.

But if you altered the formal structure of that work – for instance if the faces or bodies or the drapery were crudely painted – then the painting would lose its value even though the colors remained noteworthy.

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