“Blue color is everlastingly appointed by the deity to be a source of delight.” John Ruskin
Except for the Egyptians, there is a remarkable absence of the color blue in the art and culture of the ancient world. The Egyptians not only noticed the blues around them, they placed a high value on the color and set about creating blue pigments using the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli and the mineral azurite.
For centuries, the Egyptians cornered the market on a synthetic blue pigment, but they weren't the only ones who came to adore the mesmerizing color of lapis lazuli. Renaissance painters used lapis lazuli to create the coveted ultramarine, a pigment with a vibrancy like no other blue. Ultramarine was extremely expensive, because the lapis lazuli had to be imported from Afghanistan and then required a labor-intensive process to turn it into a pigment.
Leonardo da Vinci and other great painters of the time demanded that their clients and patrons supply this precious pigment as part of their contracts, and the shade was so expensive that unscrupulous sellers would sometimes try to pass off paint made with azurite as ultramarine. Although similar in look, these minerals differed in chemical makeup. Once ground up, azurite was greener and more translucent. From an aesthetic standpoint, it lacked the prized essence of lapis lazuli: the latter’s deep purplish blue. Azurite was also worth a fraction of the price.
Titian used copious amounts of ultramarine in his epic painting Bacchus and Ariadne. Johannes Vermeer used it to paint the head scarf of The Girl With the Pearl Earring. For many painters, including Da Vinci, who used ultramarine in his paintings Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, the cost of the pigment was well worth the investment. Ultramarine elevated their works with its unparalleled luminescence, intensity and purity. It also ensured its monetary value. When completed, the paintings cost as much as precious gems in terms of materials alone. And their wealthy owners showed them off as proudly as their sapphire and diamond rings.
Tell me true, why, oh why, is the sky so blue?
The white light coming from the sun is made up of all the colors of the rainbow. As the light from the sun enters Earth’s atmosphere, much of the red, yellow and green wavelengths of light (mixed together and still nearly white) pass through the atmosphere to our eyes. The blue waves, however, are just the right length to hit and bounce off molecules of gas in the atmosphere. This causes the blue waves to separate from the rest of the light and scatter in every direction. Because blue light travels as shorter, smaller waves, it scatters more widely than other colors, and that’s why the sky is blue. (Red skies are another story.)