The Arty Bit – Don’t get the January blues

With Barry Whitehouse of The Artery in Banbury Using the right blue paint can make an amazing difference to a painting. In most landscapes, blue is the dominant colour...

With Barry Whitehouse of The Artery in Banbury

Using the right blue paint can make an amazing difference to a painting. In most landscapes, blue is the dominant colour and is present either on its own, or in many mixes.

Wintry Blues: Prussian Blue is the perfect blue for winter scenes. It is a dark, green-based blue and gives a very cold or eerie feel. Often called the first of the ‘modern’ pigments.

Autumn and Spring Blues: Cerluean Blue (sometimes known as Coeruleum) is a light green  blue that shades pale cold skies often seen even on the sunniest of autumn or spring evenings. The name comes from a derivative of the Latin caelulum meaning ‘heaven’ or ‘sky’.

Summer Blues: Cobalt Blue. Available since the early 1800s and originally designed as a cheaper alternative to Ultramarine, Cobalt Blue is the most used blue for painting skies. It was in fact Vincent van Gogh’s favourite blue to use.

Smalt, a colour made from cobalt blue glass was around as early as the middle ages, but wasn’t very stable.

Phthalocyanine Blue is a modern pigment which has been available since the 1930s. It is sometimes known as Intense Blue. It is a vibrant, staining bright, green-blue colour and is perfect for tropical skies and seas. When diluted though, it can mimic the tones created with Cerulean.

Ultramarine Blue is the oldest of blue pigments used today. Sometimes known as French Ultramarine, or by its original name Lapis Lazuli, it was first mined in Afghanistan 6,000 years ago. It is a natural purple-blue made from the Lapis Lazuli stone and was first used by the Ancient Egyptians in jewellery and ground into paint. Since the nineteenth century however, nearly all Ultramarine paint has been made artificially to keep costs down. The modern version is almost unidentifiable against the original.

Blue did not exist

In fact, it wasn’t until the Egyptians began using Lapis Lazuli in their art work, that civilisation had a name for the colour blue. In other words, the colour blue did not exist! Nowhere in any ancient writings was there a word for the colour blue. Even the writer Homer described the sea as ‘wine-dark’. If you think about it, blue doesn’t really exist in nature – flowers are generally more purple (even bluebells are not blue), blue eyes are rare. It stands to reason then, that anything we call blue now, was considered as either a shade of purple or green, two colours more dominant in the natural world.

Scientists have studied this.

Scientists have visited tribes where there has been no previous outside human contact.

They showed them a colour wheel with shades of green, with one shade of blue. They then asked the tribes people to pick out the odd colour. They couldn’t do it; to these tribes people, blue was just another shade of green!

Our knowledge of language decides which colours we can see

It is fascinating to think how important language is to the development of our understanding of colour. Until there is a word for something, it doesn’t really exist in its own right. If you think of the language and the words associated with colour, a child can see only red, blue, yellow, orange, purple, green, black, and white.

These are the only colours they are taught, the colours of the rainbow and so on. It isn’t until the child grows older and their language develops, that they then begin to see a wider range of colour: purple becomes lilac, lavender, plum, aubergine, and so on. Pink becomes magenta, cerise, coral, salmon etc.

It isn’t that these colours didn’t exist before, they were just lumped into one label which they colour understand more easily. So it could therefore be argued that artists ‘see’ more colours than anyone else, because they have a greater vocabulary to identify subtle shades. One only need look at the wide variety of white paint available to an artist – zinc, titanium, mixing, flake; or white paper available in shades of snow white, high white, ice white, super white, polar white, cotton white, and sot white!

So nothing is black and white in the art world!