‘All the blues I ever dreamt of’

Alexandra Loske on the queen of colours.

The past is a foreign country. In my case, quite literally so. I am writing this piece about the colour blue on a short break under the low, dull skies of Northern Germany, where I was born and grew up. The Rhine is a mighty river in these parts, yet it never inspired me. I’m not alone: the light of the Mediterranean was one of the main reasons why Northern European artists have always flocked to Italy and Greece.

But, from an early age, I was drawn to somewhere closer to the Rhineland: England, with its watery fabric and everchanging skies. When I was in my early twenties, an admirer, knowing about my interest in British culture, sent me daily postcards of JMW Turner watercolours. Forty or so arrived, depicting mist, storms, rain and untamed water. I began to create my own image of England. It emerged from Turner’s hazy visions, Constable’s obsession with atmospheric conditions, and the many poets and writers who had managed to describe the same in words.

Years later, working as a museum curator at the Royal Pavilion & Brighton Museums, I found myself glued to a small screen, watching an art auction at which Brighton Museum acquired a small watercolour painting: Turner’s Brighthelmstone, which depicts Brighton in 1824, seen from the sea, just off the nowgone Chain Pier, with the Royal Pavilion visible among the scramble of elegant Georgian houses. The sea is wild, and painted in deep – now somewhat faded – blues, suggesting the artist sketched the image while being tossed around in a boat, and the sky is filled with clouds that have just emptied themselves of rain and are parting over the town to reveal a lighter blue, and a faint rainbow. It reflected perfectly how I imagined England to be, before I lived here: buzzing with life, and framed by skies and sea. Landscape that tells story after story… and many of them in blue.

Our world is mostly blue

Seen from space, our world looks like a blue, veined, glowing marble in a sea of dark infinity. In most of the world, what we see when we look up on a cloudless day is a bright blue sky, and at night the firmament often appears to be inky blue. One of the elements of life, water, although colourless, also appears blue to the human eye. The deeper the water, the deeper its hue of blue. We are surrounded by blue on a cosmic, all-encompassing scale.

Blue is the most visible of colours to humans. Blues and purples form the largest part of our spectrum. When the sun is high in the sky, light gets scattered in all directions. Blue light is more likely to be scattered than red light because of its shorter wavelength, which is why we see the sky as blue. In many respects blue stands for distance. The further away objects are, the bluer they appear, which is something painters often utilise when attempting to create perspective and depth in a painting. But in the Western world blue is also associated with otherness and exoticism, because of the geographical distance of the raw materials needed to create blue paints and dyes. Indigo dye came from India, and the allure of cobalt blue in Chinese and Japanese porcelain created a craze for Asian ceramics for many centuries.

Ultramarine: the bluest of blues

In Medieval and Renaissance painting there was one blue that was the unrivalled queen of colours: ultramarine. This was a pigment with a name as romantic and exciting as the depth and quality of the colour it produced. It was the most coveted and expensive colour in art for hundreds of years, mixed only cautiously and sparingly with other colours by painters and often paired with gold leaf.

Traditionally ground from the semiprecious stone lapis lazuli, it can produce the most intense, cool shades of blue. It also has a particular translucency that gives paintings a brilliance that no other pigment can provide. And, crucially, it is stable, meaning it does not deteriorate or fade easily. Frequently referred to as ‘the royal pigment’ or ‘the diamond of pigments’, its name reflects its geographical remoteness: ultramarine literally means ‘from across the sea’, alluding to the distant place where it was sourced: the Sar-e-Sang mines in the mountainous terrain of the Badakshan region of modern-day Afghanistan.

The remote origin, rarity and brilliance of ultramarine were reflected in its price, which used to be higher than that of gold, but also in the way it was used and in what an artist chose to depict with it. Patrons often gave clear instructions to artists as to exactly how much ultramarine should be used in a painting, and where exactly it should be applied. It might also occasionally have served as currency in Renaissance Venice. A pigment of such high value became naturally associated with the most revered subjects, and achieved an almost divine status. It is not surprising that ultramarine was often used in Christian art to depict the robes of the Virgin Mary, Christ, or particular saints.

A revolutionary blue: Prussian Blue

In the early eighteenth century a new, powerful blue arrived on the scene, and it revolutionised painting and printing: Prussian Blue. Soon after its discovery it was used everywhere: in oil painting, interior decoration, watercolours, in Japanese woodblock prints, and even on stamps.

Prussian Blue is often considered the first synthetically produced pigment of the modern age. It is a ferric ferrocyanide and was discovered by chance between 1704 and 1707, by the German alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel. The exact recipe of the pigment and its production methods were kept secret until 1724, but by the later 1720s the pigment had become widely available in Europe.

A powerful, deep colour, Prussian Blue was a good alternative to ultramarine, but it was nowhere near as bright and luminous. Large areas of the Royal Pavilion, where I still work as a curator, are covered in Prussian Blue, found on printed wallpaper and decorated surfaces. However, in areas where a lighter blue was required, such as in the galleries on the upper floor, we see a copper-based, lighter blue called Blue Verditer. When you are closer to the sky, you clearly need a blue that looks more sky-like.

Sussex artists’ blues

In 2017 I interviewed a Sussex artist, Mary Anne Aytoun Ellis, in her studio at the foot of Lewes Castle, while preparing an exhibition catalogue. I was intrigued by a small area of particularly vivid blue in one of her paintings. And sure enough, it was ultramarine. The real thing, made from lapis lazuli sourced in Afghanistan. She decided to use it very carefully and in specific areas. We both pored over the beauty of the raw pigment, and I accepted payment for the writing in the form of a couple of spoonfuls of ultramarine, a piece of bright sky in a jar.

Recently we hung a painting by the now little-known Sussex artist Edward Louis Lawrenson (1868–1940) in Brighton Museum, titled Moonrise on the Rape of Hastings, East Sussex . He loved spending time on the road, travelling widely in England and on the continent in a motorcar, painting in the open air. He was particularly keen on capturing the effects of light, and – in true Impressionist manner – largely avoided black or very dark tones in his palette. In this painting Lawrenson expresses his passion for changing light conditions, capturing a late summer moonrise framed by tall trees that dramatically cut vertically through the composition. He chose a range of muted blues, greys and greens to depict the crepuscular evening light. Looking at it reminds me of Goethe’s notes on colour and light, but there is also a melancholy that is associated with blue landscapes.

I am lucky to live with several paintings by artist Fergus Hare, and have over the years had many conversations with him about blue. We share an interest in ‘cosmic blues’, and I have used his observational studies of the moon and night skies in some of my publications. But I am also interested in what blue paints and pigments he uses, and have learnt a lot about how the materiality of colour matters in art.

A few years ago, he was almost exclusively using Prussian Blue, partly because it mixes well, having experimented with many different blues. To my surprise, he was never too keen on ultramarine, stating that he found it too purple. Fergus is still “getting lost”, he tells me, in the enticing world of blues, but likes to restrict himself to one or two. Now that he paints more in acrylics, he works mostly with Cerulean Blue (as a pure blue), and Payne’s Grey to darken most tones.

A blue postscript

Just before the pandemic, a very generous art collector gave me a blue thumbprint of Turner, in lieu of a Christmas card. Turner had left this smudge accidently on a small sheet of watercolour samples. It is one of my prized possessions, and incidentally the blue is very similar to that corner of blue sky after rain in the 1824 Brighthelmstone painting. Later, the same person gave me a small watercolour that might well be by Turner, depicting the Sussex coast, in intense deep blues. The county I now call home has given me all the blues I ever dreamt of, while living under those low Rhineland skies.

Alexandra Loske is a curator at Royal Pavilion & Brighton Museums and the author of Colour: A Visual History (Tate, 2019)