The legendary Michelangelo was working on a painting Entombment. He could never complete this painting because he couldn’t afford the paint ultramarine. The great Rafael did not use ultramarine for his regular paintings and used it only for the final coat because of its cost. This tells you how popular the color ultramarine was. This is one of the best shades of blue that is considered a superlative color. The article tells you all about the ultramarine blue symbolism and interesting facts about this color.
What is Ultramarine?
Before getting into the blue symbolism of ultramarine, it is important to understand what it is. Ultramarine is a shade of blue color. It is one of the deepest and most vibrant shades of blue. It is considered as the best blue shade and became the favorite choice of painters over the ages. The meaning of the name ultramarine means that which is beyond the sea. This refers to the deep blue color of the sea and indicates that ultramarine is beyond this shade. Another reason for this name was because it came beyond the sea from Asia.
The origin of ultramarine
The blue symbolism of ultramarine comes from the fact that the blue originated from a precious gem. Lapis lazuli, a precious gem is the source of the ultramarine shade. There are some who believe that lapis lazuli was available with the ancient Egyptians and they used it in the artwork in the pyramids. The source of lapis lazuli is the Sar-i-sang mines in Afghanistan. According to historians the gem was mined as early as 7th BCE.
Lapis is a metamorphic rock that is deep blue in color. This rock mined from the ground is considered a precious stone and used as a gem. Lapis is the Latin word for a stone while lazuli is derived from an Arabic word that means blue. Lapis lazuli contains lazurite, a blue silicate mineral. Lapis is polished into gems used to make jewelry, ornaments, vases, etc.
The lapis stone was ground into a powder to create the ultramarine color pigment. This pigment was then used for various purposes. Traders from Italy were the first to get lapis stones from Afghanistan to Europe in the 14th century. One of the first references to ultramarine is made by the artist Cennino Cennine in the 15th century. He refers to it as a glorious and most perfect pigment. He describes how the ground lapis powder was mixed with resins, oils, and melted wax. This mixture was kneaded in lye solution. This was done repeatedly until the rich ultramarine particles were obtained.
Ultramarine in paintings
The discovery of ultramarine blue pigment was a boon for painters. The blue symbolism in paintings can represent the sky, sea, purity, and divinity. The deep shade of blue that ultramarine brought was used by painters to make their paintings look strikingly attractive. The famous painting of Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring was brought to life by the use of the ultramarine shade. Ultramarine and lead white were used for the painting.
Sassoferrato used ultramarine to make the blue cloak of the Virgin Mary stand out in his painting of the Bless Virgin Mary. The frescos of Giotto di Bondone in the Arena Chapel in Padua made use of ultramarine pigment. The ultramarine blue symbolism was associated with Mary and the child Christ. It was extensively used for this by painters in the renaissance age. Vermeer’s Lady standing at a virginal is another famous painting that extensively made use of ultramarine.
Ultramarine becomes costly
Ultramarine became highly popular the moment it was introduced into Europe. Painters and sculptors fell in love with this brilliant shade of blue and started using it extensively. Immediately after its introduction, it became a favorite of painters in the 14th and 15th centuries. Since ultramarine was derived from lapis lazuli, there was a shortage when the supply of lapis reduced. The increase in the cost of lapis led to an increase if the cost of ultramarine.
Soon it became so expensive that painters started using it sparingly. Vermeer was so besotted with this shade that he went into severe debt just to acquire this color. During these times, ultramarine was considered most costly than gold. Unscrupulous artists started using indigo and claimed they used ultramarine to deceive their patrons.
The high cost of ultramarine led to a situation, where an alternative known as azurite began to be used instead of ultramarine. While azurite had a striking blue shade, it could not match ultramarine. With no option, painters began using azurite. When there was a shortage of azurite, it created further problems leading to the price of ultramarine going sky high. The shortage of ultramarine led to a situation where the Societe d’ Encouragement announced a reward of six thousand francs for anyone who would develop an alternative to ultramarine.
The invention of synthetic ultramarine
Goethe was one of the first to observe an alternative to ultramarine. He observed a blue deposit on the walls of lime kilns near Palermo. This was used as an alternative to ultramarine for decorative applications. But its use as a pigment was not documented. Tassaert visited a lime kiln in St. Gobain’s where he observed a blue compound. It was his discovery that prompted the Societe d’ Encouragement to offer a reward for anyone who developed ultramarine.
Soon scientists began to work in the lab to try to develop a synthetic version of ultramarine. There was a fierce competition between a French chemist Guimet and a German professor Gmelin. Both claimed to have invented the synthetic version of ultramarine. Finally, the society awarded the reward to Jean-Baptiste Guimet. The synthetic blue he invented was known as the French ultramarine.
All about synthetic ultramarine
Synthetic ultramarine was made in France using Guimet’s formula. In Germany, Gmelin published his work leading to the growth of the artificial ultramarine industry. Synthetic ultramarine is made from china clay, sulfur, and calcium carbonate in equal quantities. Silica and rosin are added to this mixture. It is then fired to 1380 degrees Fahrenheit in a sealed furnace and cooled. The shade of this blue varies depending on the ingredients used.
French ultramarine was so vivid in color that it became more popular than the original ultramarine. With the original ultramarine running out of supply and its costs exorbitant, synthetic ultramarine became very popular. The French ultramarine became so popular that it began to be considered as a better shade of blue than the original ultramarine made from lapis.
It is sulfur that gives the blue color to synthetic ultramarine. Sulfur is yellow in color but surprisingly it helps to create such a vivid blue color. The chromophore produced from sulfur is represented as S3-. This chromophore is blue in color and is the main element responsible for imparting color to synthetic ultramarine. The problem with this chromophore was that it was unstable and would oxidize. China clay or kaolin is the substance that acts like a protective cage and stabilizes the chromophore.
The resulting synthetic ultramarine is transparent. This imparts a blue undertone to the transparent polymer. It ensures there is no yellowness in white plastics that are opaque. It is a safe pigment to use. There are no heavy metals used in the production process. The process ensures the removal of unreacted sulfur that may cause an odor. The resulting pigment is pure ultramarine. In modern days, there are two grades of ultramarine. Coarse ultramarine is used in laundry powder manufacture. The fine ultramarine measures 1 to 3 microns and is used for technical applications.
Applications and uses of ultramarine
Synthetic ultramarine blue is used in a range of applications today.
- The main use of ultramarine is as a blue colorant in the paint. It is also used in making printing ink and resin. The vivid color makes this popular in the paint industry.
- It is used to prepare paint finishes and to make industrial paints.
- Ultramarine is used as an optical whitener for paints, rubber, plastic, and paper.
- It is used in powder coating processes.
- Coloring natural and synthetic rubber are done using ultramarine blue.
- Decorative emulsion paints and gloss paints are where ultramarine has its applications.
- When it comes to decorative uses, ultramarine is more suited for indoor uses than external. This is because weather elements can make the blue become dull.
The safety involved in the ultramarine blue production ensures it can be used in vast applications. This includes in making plastics for food packaging and in the toy industry. It helps in improving the undertone when used in off-white colors.
The blue symbolism of ultramarine lies in the fact that it represents the deepest shade of blue. This calls a man and moves him towards purity and the supernatural. Of all the shades of blue, there is no doubt that the ultramarine blue is the most striking. This is why it has been popular over the ages. The wide variety of applications today show the benefits of this color pigment.