Ultramarine Blue is often regarded as the king of blues and it is clearly the most popular blue in artists paints. It first appeared in Europe at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, probably brought in as an exotic curiosity by Arab dhows trading in Venice. The color was at that point sensational and had spread from Persia to India, China, and now Europe. It cost as much as the same weight in gold and only the aristocracy could afford paintings made with it which tended to increase its reputation as something very special. Italian artists knew nothing of its origins apart from the fact that Persians brought it in on boats and so it became known as Ultramarine Blue which literally means “the blue from overseas”. During this period artists would be forced to use the pigment since its use would be specified in contracts, and many artists would attempt to adulterate the color or use other tricks such as painting a blue area with the far cheaper azurite and then glazing a thin layer of Ultramarine Blue over the top. This became easy to do once oil paint became established and only ended when Europeans learned how to make the color and the costs slowly dropped for the pigment. After the development of synthetic Ultramarine Blue in the 1830’s the cost of the color became almost as low as cheap ochre and the usage of the color skyrocketed.
The color descends from the practice of crushing dark blue lapis lazuli gemstones. Lapis lazuli has been mined since antiquity. The oldest working mine in the world is a lapis lazuli mine in Afghanistan which has been continuously mined for around 7,000 years. The stone was used only as a gem in the early millennia. It is possible that people knew how to make the pigment but a similar dark blue was made by the ancient Egyptians in which a dark blue glass was made and then crushed into a powder. This was far cheaper than crushing gemstones so the lapis was not needed. Following the collapse of European and Mediterranean economies in the 5th century it is probably that exports of the Egyptian Blue became unavailable and it is around this time that lapis lazuli pigment is found for the first time in Afghani artworks. The color made by the simple crushing method was problematic. It was weak, and the pigment made a paint that had poor brushing qualities, plus it was hugely expensive but there was no other dark blue color available at the time and so it was used for another 600 years in the east.
In the 13th century a new process for making the color was developed in Persia. After crushing the stone would be treated chemically using lye and other substances. This extracted the blue coloring agent from the matrix of the stone. This produced a far more pure blue which made excellent paint but because of what was then high tech wizardry, it was even more expensive than the crushed gems. This is the color that soon after found its way to Venice and then to the rest of Europe and also became popular in India and China around the same time. It took more than a century for the secrets of how to extract the Ultramarine from the gems to be discovered by European alchemists and artists, but after that the availability and usage of the color slowly increased and prices slowly fell a little but remained higher than that of any other color except for gold leaf.
During the Industrial Revolution the first modern synthetic pigments were developed by chemists. Prussian Blue lead the pack in 1706 and its success lead the French government to offer a substantial cash prize in 1824 for the first to synthesize the pigment. Since a dark blue Ultramarine-like color had already been described in 1816 as an accidental by product of lime making, chemists essentially reverse engineered the accident, experimented further and by 1826 Jean Baptiste Guimet had made the essential discovery. He wanted to keep his process a secret but did collect the prize and established a factory for making Ultramarine Blue but two years later an academic, Christian Gmelin devised another method which he published, and it is on his process which modern Ultramarine production is based.
It has become a huge industry. At the time it was first synthesized the color was used only for artists paints and wall decorations for palaces. The synthetic Ultramarine proved to be very cheap once Gmelin’s method was known to all pigment manufacturers, and the uses for the color multiplied. It is used principally in the manufacture of paper (the addition of a small amount of blue to an otherwise naturally creamy colored paper will make it look more white, but it also is used to make blue colored papers), laundry products and cleaners (“blueing” agents in detergents are often Ultramarine Blue), in textiles for making fabrics look “whiter”, in cosmetics, especially eye make ups, house, automotive, and aircraft paints, and is the principle coloring agent in blue roofing materials due to its great resistance to light.
Synthetic Ultramarine Blue should be regarded as similar but different to the Ultramarine made from lapis lazuli. In many ways it is a far superior color, but not everything is better. Many would regard the older color as more beautiful but that is a very subjective opinion and as much to do with the mystique of the past rather than objective reality. The lapis derived Ultramarine has a much larger and more irregular crystalline structure which gives it a more intensely dark blue color. On the other hand the smaller crystals of the modern Ultramarine reflect more light and make a much brighter color. The older color had a deeper, but less violet color than the modern color. If given the choice of shades without being told the origin of both, most modern artists tend to choose what is often called French Ultramarine, which is another name for the shades of Ultramarine that have a slightly violet tinge that artists love. Matisse Ultramarine Blue is of this French Ultramarine type. While the lapis lazuli derived Ultramarine had only one color - that of the gemstone which it is made from, the synthetic Ultramarine is sold by manufacturers in a wide range of blue shades from greenish blue to the shade favored by artists. It is also made in green and violet versions which are used industrially and to a lesser extent. The obsolete color called Ultramarine Yellow was not real Ultramarine but was a Barium pigment.
Ultramarine Blue is a very warm, and transparent blue which is used by the artist as a workhorse blue in everything from sky colors to olive greens when mixed with Yellow Oxide. The greens made with Ultramarine are very useful. Because Ultramarine is so far to the violet end of the blue color range it is impossible to use it to make bright greens, but so much of the greens we see in nature are much duller anyway and using Ultramarine when making green by mixing with colors like Cadmium Yellow Medium makes soft leaf greens and mixing with Yellow Oxide or Raw Sienna gives a wider range of olivey sorts of greens. When mixed with a cool red of high permanence such as Matisse Rose Madder it makes clean violets of great beauty which are more lightfast than Dioxazine Purple and with any cool red from Brilliant Alizarine to Magenta Quin Violet it will make exquisite violet colors. More earthy violets are made by mixtures using Venetian Red or Cadmium Red. Beautiful dark colors that can be excellent substitutes for black are made by mixing Ultramarine with Burnt Umber. With such versatility on the palette, it is very easy to understand the popularity of Ultramarine Blue as the artists number one blue color.