a bit about the colour blue

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Blue is probably our most favoured colour and is listed as the colour which comes out as the favourite in every country of the world. Blue sky and warm blue seas evoke thoughts of summer holidays when we are all calm and relaxed, so it is no wonder it comes out on top.

It is considered a calm colour which in its serenity represents intellect and responsibility whilst also signifying power, traditionalism, depth, and tranquillity. This is true of both light and dark shades of the colour with the lightest of blues being considered to be peaceful and the darkest representing power without being threatening.

My gorgeous son has blue eyes.

So what do we know about this fabulous colour? Firstly there are very few things in nature which are coloured blue. This is true of animals, plants, and foods. Also there are not many blue-eyed people in the world, apparently!

In nature, fewer than 10% of plants have flowers which are blue, the list of blue foods growing naturally is only just into double figures and the number of blue animals, although you can probably count quite a few, is very low compared to the number of animal species.

Why is blue so rare? Well, part of the reason for its rarity is that there isn’t actually a true-blue colour/pigment present in nature and in order to appear blue a trick is performed with light. 

The colour blue is achieved by mixing naturally occurring colours/pigments, commonly red pigments called anthocyanins. The science behind all this is fascinating but slightly complex so I decided not to dive down that rabbit hole but take a look around and you will find very few flowers, butterflies, mammals etc. which are blue.   

However, some of my favourite flowers, such as bluebells, cornflowers, and hydrangeas, are blue but finding plants with blue stems and leaves is almost impossible. There are apparently a handful of plants with blue in them located on the floor of tropical rainforests but as I don’t like bugs, I will never see them for myself.

In the animal world, many of those creatures who are blue derive their colour from the foods they eat. For instance, flamingos are pink because of the pink shrimp they eat. As there are so few foods which are blue and because there is no true-blue pigment in plants, animals are unable to use their food to turn themselves blue.

In order to appear blue, the blue morpho butterfly has ridges in its wings which effectively bend light so that only the blue colour is reflected from them. No ridges and the blue would disappear. There is an exception and that is the obrina olivewing butterfly, which is the only known animal to produce a true-blue pigment. With birds their feathers are made up from light scattering microscopic beads spaced in such a way that every wavelength of colour is cancelled out except blue.

What about the history of the colour? Well, blue was first produced by the Egyptians and used in decorating the tombs of their pharaohs as well as their ceramics and statues. Egyptian blue, also known as Cuprorivaite, was discovered/created around 2,200 BCE. This colour blue was made by using ground limestone mixed with sand and azurite or malachite (both materials which contain copper), which were then heated to between 1470 and 1650° F (approx. 800-900° C).

This process produced a blue opaque glass which was then crushed and thickening agents like egg whites were added to produce a long-lasting paint which was more like a glaze. The process was employed for a couple of thousand years until new methods of production became apparent.

An interesting fact about Egyptian blue is that it glows under fluorescent light, which indicates that the pigment emits infrared radiation. This has helped historians date ancient works and can also assist in detecting items which are being presented as being much older than they actually are (i.e. preventing forgery).

Looking at some of the blue colours, ultramarine was made from lapis lazuli, a deep-blue metamorphic rock (i.e. one transformed physically or chemically at high temperature) used as a semi-precious stone and long prized for its intense colour.

The name ultramarine comes from the Latin ultramarinus, literally ‘beyond the sea’, because the pigment was imported from mines in Afghanistan by Italian traders in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Despite all their efforts, the Egyptians were not able to make a suitable paint colour from it. It just turned grey, so they simply turned the stones into jewellery. However, the Italians were successful and produced an incredible blue which you will find was used in religious paintings during the 14th century.

This amazing colour was highly sought after but was so expensive only the very rich and the Roman Catholic Church were able to afford it. Because of this the Church would commission artists to produce religious paintings and the blue was only allowed to be used for the Virgin Mary and Jesus. It is believed that Michelangelo left his painting The Entombment unfinished simply because he could not afford the price of the ultramarine blue paint. The high cost of this incredible colour remained an issue until a synthetic version, named French Ultramarine, was invented in 1862 by a French chemist.

A variety of blues were used in this watercolour piece.

Cobalt blue was developed in the 8th century and was used in China to decorate their widely known Willow pattern ceramics and their jewellery. A new version of the colour was developed in 1802 by a French chemist, Louis Jacques Thénard, and went into commercial production in 1807. This colour was widely used by painters such as J.M.W. Turner, Van Gogh and Renoir as it was less expensive than Ultramarine.

In 1999, Pantone declared in a press release that Cerulean was the colour of the Millennium and the hue of the future. The artist’s pigment was not available until 1860 when it was sold to Rowney and Co. but named as Coeruleum. Composed of cobalt magnesium stannate this blue was developed further by Andreas Höpfner by roasting cobalt and tin oxides.

Used to this day in the dyeing of blue denim jeans, the colour indigo originally was derived from a crop called ‘Indigofera tinctoria’ which is grown across the world. This textile dye was used by painters as a far cheaper version of blue than the rare lapis lazuli. However, within the textile community the import of this product caused trade problems between Europe and America. This natural indigo colour/dye was replaced by a synthetic version in the 1880s.

Scientists have discovered that the Indigofera tinctoria plant can be biogenetically engineered to produce the same chemical reaction in the plants as the bacteria Escherichia coli. This discovery is likely to play a large part in the future production of environmentally friendly dyeing techniques in fabric, particularly in denim.

Indigo was also used to dye the fabric for Royal Navy uniforms. Originally called Marine Blue and latterly Navy Blue, the colour was adopted by the Royal Navy in 1748. More modern navy blues have been produced with black in to darken the colour in an attempt to stop it from fading.

Prussian blue was discovered by the German dye-maker Johann Jacob Diesbach, purely by accident. While working to create a new red, a material called potash came into contact with some animal blood and, unexpectedly, instead of making the red he was after, created this amazing vibrant blue colour instead.

I haven’t used this colour blue which was not released for commercial use until June 2016. Discovered by Professor Mas Subramanian and his student Andrew E Smith when experimenting with materials to make electronics at Oregon State University, one of the samples they were working with turned blue when it was heated. It was named YInMn after the chemicals used to make it: yttrium, indium, and manganese. If you have tried it, I would love to know what you think of it. Apparently, it has been added to the colour range for Crayola crayons.

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