Inspiration Colour Blue: What It Means and How Artists Can Utilise the Benefits for Their Artworks
In this article, we discuss the various features of the colour blue. We will talk about its discovery, ancient and modern importance in society, what does the blue mean symbolically, and how we can effectively use it in creating outstanding work.
“Blue thou art, intensely blue; Flower, whence came thy dazzling hue?” – James Montgomery, British poet
What does the colour blue mean? One with the great skies and seas, blue is a colour that has been regarded with reverence since time immemorial. Intense, profound, and deep in nature, its beauty has mystified thousands of generations; making it one of the most valuable colours in mankind.
Where did the colour blue come from?
The origin of blue started with the discovery of lapis lazuli — a rare, deep blue metamorphic rock that was exclusively mined in the Sar-i Sang mines in Afghanistan, as early as the 7th millennium BCE.
Close-up shot of lazurite rock, aka lapis lazuli
The pigment was imported to Europe by Italian traders in the 15th century, where it was renamed ‘ultramarine’, from the Latin word ‘ultramarinus’ which translates to ‘beyond the sea’. Egyptians loved this bold colour and would pulverize lapis lazuli stones to mix with animal fat or vegetable gum, creating a thick blue paste. Elusive in nature, the pigment symbolised power and wealth, and became the most sought-after colour in medieval Europe. For hundreds of years, lapis lazuli rivalled even the price of gold.
Evolution of the Colour
With the emergence of lapis lazuli, Egyptians longed for a more stable and accessible pigment. This led them to manufacture their own type of blue, called ‘Egyptian blue’, which quickly spread throughout the ancient world. Soon after, many other variations were created by scientists and chemists, and up until this day, more pigments of blue are continually being discovered.
A collection of various blue powdered pigments
Symbolism and Meaning
Blue In The Ancient World
What does the colour blue mean in a historical context? Perhaps brought by its beauty and extreme rarity, the colour blue was associated with old magic, and Egyptians adorned the dead bodies of their royalty with lapis lazuli paste.
They used it for their jewellery and amulets, believing that it will defend them from jealousy or ‘the evil eye’. The Eye of Horus, also known as Wadjet, is an ancient Egyptian symbol of protection, royal power, and good health that is often illustrated using the colour blue.
The Eye of Horus sculpture, from the tomb of Tutankhamun, Cairo, Egypt
Upon the excavation of his tomb, scientists saw that lapis lazuli was used for the inlaid eyebrows and kohl on King Tutankhamen’s funeral mask. The body also came with a small paintbox with yellow pigment out of orpiment – a deep-coloured, orange-yellow mineral which symbolised eternity and imperishability.
Aside from her classic kohl liner, Cleopatra is known for wearing a bright blue eyeshadow on her eyelids, which was made of powdered lapis lazuli. According to historians, ancient Egyptians wore make-up to protect their eyes from the sun, and also to represent the eye of horus that ward off evil.
Funeral mask of King Tutankhamun, Valley of the Kings, Egypt
What does the blue mean in China?
In ancient Chinese culture, both blue and green are representative of wood. It symbolises spring and stands for healing, trust and long life. Shades of blue and green were used to decorate homes for longevity and harmony, and was also used to paint on ancient Chinese ceramics – which we will discuss further below.
Marian Blue: What does the blue mean spiritually?
Since the Medieval era, painters have depicted the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, clothed in Marian blue – a tone of the colour celeste, named for its exclusive use with the Virgin Mary. This associated the colour blue with holiness and purity. When artists weren’t using lapis lazuli, they used azurite – a less expensive mineral and a common secondary product found in copper mines. Sometimes, artists would use azurite for initial underpainting, and would later enhance the artwork with lapis lazuli.
The Virgin in Prayer, Sassoferatto, Oil on canvas, 1640-50
Universal meaning in past society and today
All of these factors have greatly contributed to the colour blue’s identity as one of wealth. The inclination of humans towards blue is so profound, that the deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite. With all its variations and hues, blue continues to be one of the most favoured shades on the colour spectrum.
Today, it is embraced as the colour of heaven, royalty, and authority. As opposed to red that’s warm, fiery, and intense, blue is breezy, comforting, and majestic. With its rich history, we come to understand why to this day, blue still carry an inherent charm that sweeps people off their feet.
From its use in ancient civilizations to modern-day discoveries, the pigment has enticed artists and designers all over the world.
What does blue mean in fashion?
Due to its image of luxury, the colour blue is a symbol of class and elegance in fashion. It was developed as the power suit in the corporate world, and used as uniforms of many authoritative figures. Especially medium and dark shades, blue is associated with intelligence, stability, unity, and conservatism.
Colour royal blue
During the Elizabethan period in England, only the royals were allowed to wear this colour. Royal blue was created for a competition to make a dress for Queen Charlotte, and the designer created this specific blue tone by using very expensive pigments from India. Today, the colour royal blue is featured on the United Kingdom’s flag, known as the Union Jack.
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, Quentin Mestys the Younger, Oil on canvas, c. 1583
Contrary to colour royal blue, denim fabrics dyed with the indigo plant were associated with a lower class of society. The use of blue denim began with American gold miners who needed strong and long-lasting work clothes to get them through hard labour. In the 1950s, denim stood as a symbol of rebellion by the young people, and it continued to do so until celebrities and politicians started wearing them to send political messages. Today, trousers and jackets made out of denim are a universal fashion staple!
Renowned Italian designer Giorgio Armani has had the ‘Armani Blue’ associated with his brand since the 1990s. He is known to work with neutral colour palettes, and prefers timeless and elegant designs over too much detail. The designer has a long history of fascination with blue, making it a staple colour in all his collections. His most recent collection, the Fall/Winter 2019 showed an all-blue ensemble in the runway of Milan Fashion Week.
American workers in Levi’s denim coveralls, USA
The Psychology of Blue
Blue is the colour of the ocean and the sky, also symbolising distance, divinity, and dreams. It has a cool, calming effect that delivers a sense of security and relaxation, but what does the colour blue mean in psychology?
“The Blue Mind” is a term that was coined by Wallace J. Nichols in his 2014 book: Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do.
It refers to the immeasurable sense of peace that we, humans, feel, when we are around water. It is defined as our escape to the hyper-connected, over-stimulated state of modern-day life, in favour of solitude. In his book, he states how research has long found that humans are pulled toward Mother Nature’s blue for (in part) its restorative benefits to the soul.
However, just as “seeing red” alludes to the strong emotions, “feeling blue” also represents the extreme calm feelings associated with this colour. It can sometimes mean sadness, melancholy, or lack of strong emotion. In the eighteenth century, the Blaue Blume or blue flower emerged as a central symbol for metaphysical longing.
Using the colour blue in our artworks
Blues in creating seascapes and landscapes
Given that, we must use the colour with the utmost care in our artworks and not leave our viewers guessing what does the colour blue mean in our creations! We should know the difference between its hues, and understand how it impacts our work overall.
In art, seascapes and landscapes are two subjects where blue tones are generously used all the time.
Red Right Returning, Whitney Knapp Bowditch, Oil on paper, 2018
Seascapes usually depict any view that has a body of moving water included in the work – like a lakeside with a faraway mountain view, or a beach sunset with crashing waves. It includes other elements of nature but focuses on the texture of water.
On the other hand, landscapes are typically composed of a vast sky, a horizon, and natural elements on the foreground, middle ground, and background. These include mountains, various types of trees, bushes, flowers, animals, and still life.
In creating their very versatile oil paint palettes, ZenART Supplies selected universal blue tones that are perfect to use on their own, or can be mixed with other pigments to achieve the desired tone of blue.
Made by grinding lapis lazuli into powder form (cue: Cleopatra’s eye makeup!), it was the finest and most expensive blue favoured by Renaissance artists, often used to represent holiness. It remained an extremely expensive pigment until a synthetic one was invented in 1826.
As a very rich colour, it is included in ZenART’s Impressionist Palette and can be used in creating accent points in paintings and achieving surreal colours.
A mixture of ZenART’s blue-toned oil paints in a palette board
Prussian blue was the first modern synthetic pigment developed after the discovery of lapis lazuli. It is also known as Berlin Blue and Paris Blue, and was widely used in Japanese woodblock prints like Hokusai’s The Great Wave Of Kanagawa.
This can be mixed with black and yellow tones to achieve the colour navy blue.
Being a staple colour in producing impressionist works, Prussian blue is included in ZenART Supplies’ Impressionist Palette. Vincent Van Gogh used the colour a whole lot in his famous 1889 work – The Starry Night!
Did you know? Crayola’s crayon selection once included Prussian blue. However, they later renamed it Midnight Blue.
Hailing from the Latin word “caeruleus” which means heaven and sky, cerulean is a shade of opaque blue ranging between azure and a darker sky blue. The pigment was discovered in 1789, and since then, artists have used it to depict deep, bright skies. It can be mixed with light tones like titanium white to achieve the colour of baby blue.
Cerulean Blue is important in painting seascapes, landscapes, and still life – therefore it has a special place in ZenART’s Essential Palette!
Cerulean Blue and Cobalt Blue paints from ZenART’s Essential oil palette
Although it carries a deep shade of blue as well, cobalt is much lighter and less intense than Prussian Blue. It is a stable pigment that has historically been used as a colouring agent in Chinese porcelain, jewellery, and paintings.
This shade of blue can be used to depict the deeper parts of the ocean, and mixed with cerulean to render waves in seascape paintings. Its colour is close to ultramarine, and can be used as a replacement in the lack thereof. Cobalt blue is included in ZenART’s Essential Palette.
Famous artists who used the colour blue
Sandro Botticelli – The Birth of Venus
Painted in 1486, The Birth of Venus depicts the Goddess Venus coming from the sea and rising out of a seashell in all her glory. The painting was done in a soft and romantic manner, as if luring you in; a staple style of Renaissance art.
The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Tempera on Panel, 1483-1485
The painting was done in tempera on canvas, and the canvas was prepared with a mixture of gesso and blue pigment. According to art historians, Sandro Botticelli intended for the colour blue to predominate the work.
Venus and the work were meant to convey a profound sense of beauty and elegance to the observer — and his choice of the colour palette does that successfully. Painted in the mid-1480s, this work was done in the height of Sandro’s popularity and success; and is considered one of the most beautiful and greatest pieces of European art.
Pablo Picasso – The Blue Period
What does the colour blue mean for Pablo Picasso?
In between 1900 and 1904, Picasso painted monochromatic works in shades of melancholic blues, blue-greens, and dusky greys — only occasionally warmed by other colours. This period defined a period in his artistic career that is now known as The Blue Era.
During this time, Picasso was living in poverty in Paris, with no foreseeable success in his artistic career. His health was failing, and he was struggling to even continue with his day to day living. Picasso was at a very low point in his life, but it was not until his closest friend – the Spanish poet Carles Casagemas, shot himself – that Picasso’s Blue Era really dominated his career.
The Blue Room, Pablo Picasso, Oil on canvas, 1901
Outcasts became Picasso’s subjects during this blue period. In addition to artists and rebels frowned upon by society, he included prostitutes, drunks, the homeless, and those simply struggling with the pressures of everyday life. These sombre but magnificent paintings are now some of his most popular works, and has helped defined Picasso’s artistic identity. His story is a perfect example that adversity can always be turned into a chance for artistic growth.
But life goes on, and as the artist said, “Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions”. After his blue period, Picasso’s works developed a more joyful mood as he transitioned to his Rose Period, where he produced works dominated by orange and blush tones.
Alexandra Velichko – Sea paintings
Blue is still widely used in modern art, and our friend Alexandra Velichko specialises in the use of the colour. Her paintings are focused on seascapes, and she beautifully depicts the ebbs and flows of waves, the changing of light, and the raw beauty of the ocean.
Untitled seascape, Alexandra Velichko, Oil on canvas, 2018
We asked her a few questions regarding her work and on what does the colour blue mean to her. We hope that you find this short Q&A useful in creating your own works using the blue.
Q: Hi Alexandra! What is it about the colour blue that draws you in?
A: I’m blue addicted. My favourite blue colour is Prussian blue. This is a colour of Adriatic Sea (I’ve sailed there a lot), so it’s like you dive there when you paint with this colour. Plus – it gives you a lot of colours when you mix it with different yellows and white!
Q: What are your favourite shades of blue to use in your works?
A: My favourite shades of soft blue is definitely ultramarines. You can add some pink (kraplak) and you will get perfect violet; or add some warmth, (red ochre for example) and you will get perfect shades for the clouds.
Q: Do you think your usage of blue in artworks affect the viewers in a positive way?
A: For me – the blue colour is the colour of calm and happiness, so to answer your question: Yes, it does.
The charm of blue in our everyday life
Blue is a colour that’s so easy to love. It gives life, soothes, and communicates with us just by existing. Blue goes beyond dimensions, and incorporating this colour in our everyday lives will certainly make us happier, more peaceful, and more insightful of our experiences. Did we answer your question on what does the colour blue mean? We hope that through this article, we have inspired your appreciation for the colour and use it more in creating your best works of art.
Blue aesthetic featuring fabric dyed by master indigo artist Aboubakar Fofana
Find your inspiration. Write down your thoughts. Create concepts. Do not let go of your ideas, and bring them to life. A trusty bullet journal will help you in achieving these goals, tracking your everyday progress.
ZenART’s new line of bullet journal notebooks can do the job of keeping these precious ideas for you. Of course, they are available in the perfect shades of blue, (Turquoise and Lavender Blue) with traditional Japanese edging designs that hope to inspire you in your everyday quest to create. If you want to learn more about how bullet journaling and can act as a tool for therapy in your life, then check out this article.
How did you find this article from the #zenartcolours series? What is your favourite variation of blue, and which colour would you like to learn about next? Your feedback is so important to us! If you have any questions or concerns, do not hesitate to leave a comment down below. We’re so excited to hear you out!
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— MEET THE AUTHOR—
Ardak Kassenova is a London based contemporary artist, co-founder and creative director of ZenART Supplies. Her visual style—contemporary impressionism—share similar aesthetic qualities with those by the French Impressionists. After 20 years of a successful corporate career, becoming a mother to two wonderful girls, and with the continuous development of her practice by taking private lessons from the best artists she could find; Ardak decided it’s time to align her life with her true passion, Art. Driven by this passion and her corporate leadership background, she co-founded ZenART.
“My heart and soul were always with Art, and since my childhood as long as I remember myself, I was dreaming to be an artist. I was painting after work, when I had time, and teaching myself through the books, videos, visiting art galleries and museums. I’ve been very curious about different techniques and styles, and therefore accumulated knowledge and experience on a variety of mediums.”
Read more about Ardak Kassenova in this feature. Say hello to @ardak_zenart on Instagram!
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