Blue Notes:"The Blue Edition" at Art Bastion Gallery

Nico Kos for Art Bastion Gallery
Dec 13, 2016 3:01PM

The Blue Edition marks the beginning of a cycle of events around the concept of blue, the most beguiling colour in the history of art. Ten artists have created works exclusively for this show – Andrea Hamilton, Carol Bruton, Nancy Cadogan, Dominique Gerolini, Azadeh Ghotbi, Suki Jobson, Emma Levine, Echo Morgan, Edwina Sandys, and Deborah Tarr – exploring the infinite variations of blue across a wide range of media. Their work highlights the extraordinary catalogue of emotions associated with blue: from joy to sadness, eroticism to purity, a connection with the world (sea, sky), and our increasing dependence on the blue light of our computer screens.

“Blue has no dimensions; it is beyond dimensions… All colours arouse specific associative ideas, psychologically material or tangible, while blue suggests at most the sea and the sky, and they, after all, are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract.” Yves Klein

Seen from space the earth is blue. When William Anders took his iconic photograph Earth Rise in 1968, our blue planet finally came into view. Its clear skies and vast expanses of ocean appear blue because of an optical effect known as Rayleigh scattering. When sunlight passes through the atmosphere, the blue wavelengths are are scattered more widely by the oxygen and nitrogen molecules, and more blue reaches our eyes. This phenomenon also explains blue eyes: it is not blue pigment we see but a reflection of blue light. 

Isaac Newton taught us that light was not an activating principle of colour, nor a vehicle for colour, but the medium of colour itself. Light is made up of electromagnetic particles that travel in waves; blue light has a very short wavelength of between approximately 380nm and 500nm. It is the frequency of these vibrating waves that determines the colour of light. How we perceive things to be a certain colour depends on how the light interacts with matter and whether it is scattered or absorbed. As Philip Ball says in Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour, “matter sings along with sunlight.” The resonant vibration of a material absorbs light waves on the same frequency. It strips out colour from the spectrum that it is in tune with, and rejects the frequencies that do not correspond, which either pass through the material or are reflected.

Most of the blue we perceive in the natural world is caused by a scattering of blue light: swimming pools, open skies, a butterfly’s wings or the iridescent tail of a peacock. Natural blue pigments - materials which absorb all the other light waves and only reflect blue light - are rare. This makes blue a beguiling colour for artists, because the colour we see in pigment - in paintings and photographs - is a phenomena that is governed by a material’s specific frequency. In order to show blue an artist has to pick materials that are actively in tune with blue. 

This history of the colour blue in art is an extraordinary one. A painter never uses blue, she uses cobalt blue or Prussian blue, ultramarine or cerulean. Indeed, pure blue was not considered a primary colour until the 16th century when Thomas Younger revealed his theory of colour vision. Today this single perceptual concept, blue, encompasses a whole sea of hues including cyan, indigo, ultramarine, manganese, navy, Phthalo, cerulean and most recently YInMn Blue. Throughout history blue has been used to portray a vast number of subjects, with the specific resonance of each blue eliciting an equally varied number of emotions. We speak about the world in colour. “The language of colour,” Ball surmises, “reveals much about the way we conceptualise the world.” 

The Egyptians, known to have created the first blue pigment, associated the blue depths of the ocean with the female principle. It is the colour of the sky, and connects us to a notion of things that are far away, with the spiritual and the divine. It is a colour that recedes, its cool tone allows us to look beyond, and increases our perspective outwards. The colour of distant hills and shadows, an artists uses blue to show perspective. Blue also induces a sense of wonder; for Matisse it was the colour of exuberance, but it can also be tinged with sorrow as in Picasso’s mournful Blue Period works. To the abstract artist Kandinsky, blue was synonymous with infinity, and for Yves Klein it was the colour of freedom.

The first blue pigment was made with azurite, a natural mineral. By 2,200 BC the Egyptians had manufactured Egyptian blue, a combination of lime, sand and azurite that was fired like glass. Mixed with egg white it created a beautiful light blue, the colour of Hockney’s swimming pool, Andrea Hamilton’s sculptural ice images or Nancy Cadogan’s sky. But during the middle ages the recipe was lost. 

Not until the miracle of ultramarine - a vibrant blue created out of ground lapis lazuli - did the colour blue take its place in the history of art. Ultramarine (from beyond the sea) was first brought to the Venetian courts in the early Renaissance from blue veined quarries by the River Oxus, in Afghanistan. Around 1351 Cennino Cennini wrote the first “how to” book for artists (Il Libro dell’ Arte) which described the complex process for making ultramarine. The stone had to be ground up, and worked over three days into a dough of acacia gum then suspended in a alkali solution which released the brilliant blue lazurite particles. More expensive than gold, artists often used a base layer of azurite (which has a greenish tinge) and finished the surface with ultramarine. It was so precious - and therefore powerful - that the Catholic Church wanted to control it. Blue was reserved exclusively for the Virgin Mary, as if the ritual layering of the Madonna’s robes in ultramarine would to confer virtue on a painting. Blue was thus intimately bound with the divine, perfect for displaying the splendour of the church. Standing beneath Giotto’s sensational ultramarine roof fresco punctuated by golden stars in the Arena Chapel, Padue (1305), is to behold a miracle.  

But there was one artist who dared to use ultramarine with abandon: Titian. His masterpiece, Bacchus and Adriane, dazzles with an ultramarine sky across half the canvas. It represents a moment in art history when the colour blue was liberated. As painters found that mixing pure ultramarine with oil reduced its intensity, they started combining it with white lead. In his book Venetian Colour, P Hill tells us “only once the long-standing reluctance to mix ultramarine with white was overcome were painters free to discover the value of a whole range of blues in gradations of lightness…”2. From this moment on, as Ball so eloquently states, “each artist makes his or her own contract with the colours of the time,” a theme that resonates profoundly with Andrea Hamilton’s project the Colours of Time.

Cobalt metal was initially used to make smalt (blue glass), a method first known to be used in ancient Mesopotamia. It was used to mesmerising effect in the blue stained glass windows of Medieval cathedrals such as that in St Denis and Chartres, inspiring Marc Chagall (Peace) and Matisse (Chapelle du Rosaire) to create translucent masterpieces in blue glass. Cobalt became an important glaze on porcelain during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) to create their distinctive blue and white porcelain.

Between the 15th and 18th centuries the only alternative to ultramarine available to painters was a side product of silver mining: the artificial copper blues or ‘verditers’. The first real synthetic blue pigment arrived by happy accident when the German druggist Diesbach was experimenting with potassium and iron sulphides. He did not know that his potash contained ox blood (potassium ferrocyanide),  and this resulted in the wondrous creation of Prussian blue in 1709. A pigment deeply affected by natural light, it fades dramatically over time. 

Whilst this presented a problem for painters, it created an opportunity for the innovator Sir John Herschel. Initially he covered paper with ammonium ferric citrate and let it dry, then shone light onto the paper and plunged it into potassium ferricyanide and it turned blue (cyan). However when he put an object between the light and the paper and repeated the process, the form of the object remained. It was the first“cyanotype” and it led him to also create the first “blueprint” by repeating the process using tracing paper. The following year Anna Atkins created a series of cyanotype limited-edition books that documented ferns and other plant life from her extensive seaweed collection. Placing specimens directly onto coated paper, the action of light created hauntingly beautiful silhouettes. Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions published in 1843 was the first book of photographic images, and Anna Atkins is considered the first female photographer.

In 1824 a prize of 6,000 francs was offered to the anyone who could synthesise ultramarine. The French chemist Jean Baptiste Guimet and German Christian Gmelin went head to head, with the French bleu winning the prize. At first it was considered an inferior product, but eventually this artificial ultramarine would completely replace the natural pigment. Cobalt blue, a pigment of cobalt oxide-aluminium oxide, was made stable by the chemist Louis Jacques Thenard in 1802, this was followed by cerulean blue. These new synthetic pigments considerably expanded the palettes of painters. J.M.W Turner experimented masterfully with cobalt, whilst the Impressionists used the new ultramarine, cobalt and cerulean with abandon: think of Monet’s shimmering Sunrise or Rodin’s The Umbrellas. It was a favourite of Renoir and Vincent Van Gogh who once said “cobalt is a divine colour and there is nothing so beautiful for putting atmosphere around things…”

No other colour has been as important to our continuous search for an emotional connection to this world. At the turn of the 20th century Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc named their Expressionist group The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter). They prized blue for its ability to convey emotional and spiritual expression. To Kandinsky it was the most spiritual colour, “the deeper it is the more it awakens the desire for the eternal.” In the 1960s Yves Klein abandoned other colours completely, making blue the singular element of both his paintings and performances, and patented his own pigment International Klein Blue. It was a deep ultramarine, powdery in quality, and to Klein it revealed the properties of pure space. Only two months ago, scientists in Oregon discovered a new pigment YInMn Blue, the first new blue in 200 years.

In parallel to the evolution of blue pigments is the story of indigo and blue dye. As early as the 7th century BC in Mesopotamia clay tablets were carved with recipes for making indigo dye. In the 1500s the Portuguese found it in Goa and brought it to Europe which was far superior than blue dye from woad. The French and English adopted this colour with relish, but in 1744 they were at war. Far away in South Carolina, a young woman named Eliza Lucas found herself in charge of a 600 acre estate, her father away at war in the colonies and her mother lost to illness. Her fortunes changed when her father sent her indigo seeds. Seeing the opportunity she set about trying to harvest her first crop for the British Admiralty. She lost the first crop to frost, the second was destroyed by the con artist Nicholas Cromwell who deliberately added too much lime, and the third to caterpillars. But the fourth crop was a success. In her moment of victory Eliza made an unusual business decision: rather than keep her methods a secret she shared her seeds and knowledge with her neighbours and thus established South Carolina’s indigo market.

In a similar spirit, the fine art photographer Andrea Hamilton has opened up her London studio, bringing together an exciting group of contemporary artists working with the colour blue. Each artist displays a unique use of media, one that resonates with their intuitive sense of colour. Andrea Hamilton’s photographic works are meditative and profoundly moving; Deborah Tarr’s abstract oil paintings luxuriate in their own materiality; Emma Levine’s delicate assemblages question our compulsion towards beauty in nature; Suki Jobson’s gestural works on paper and site specific works speak of exploration; Nancy Cadogan’s wondrous figurative paintings invite us to be still; Dominique Gerolini’s geometric abstractions sing like musical scores; Carol Bruton’s reflective sculptures take us back to the ocean; Edwina Sandys' sculpture is a potent reminder of what the Blue Stockings and “the Queen of the Blues” Elizabeth Montague did for subsequent generations; and Echo Morgan’s intimate performance speaks of fragility, a quality which underpins strength. Each of these artists has been repeatedly drawn to blue, and developed their signature blue. The Blue Edition brings together the best of blue, showcasing the endless and evolving possibilities of this extraordinary hue, one that takes us into the sublime.

“As basic rules of a language must be practiced continually, and therefore are never fixed, so exercises toward distinct colour effects never are done or over. New and different cases will be discovered time and time again.” Josef Albers

  1. Philip Ball , Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour (Vintage, 2009).
  2. P Hill Venetian Colour (Yale University Press, New Haven,CT, 1999), p 136
  3. Blue: Cobalt to Cerulean in Art and Culture (Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 2015)
  4. Victoria Finlay The Brilliant History of Colour in Art (J. Paul Getty Museum, November 1st 2014)
Nico Kos for Art Bastion Gallery