The Invention of Blue: the First and Last color



March 26, 2020

As the Apollo 17 crew made their astral voyage towards the moon in 1972 they turned their cameras around and snapped a picture of the Earth. This photo, famously known now as the Blue Marble, captured the striking natural landscapes, blue oceans, and shifting clouds of the southern hemisphere. While we today identify the atmosphere as being blue, shifts in time, scale, and weather, have led the sky, and its image in the sea, to be identified with a variety of color palettes. Ranging from the blackest nights, to blood red and deep violet sunrises, to pale white noondays, and periwinkle blue evenings. However, blue on its own is an exceedingly rare material color in the world. Few animals, plants, or minerals possess its pigment. In fact, for most of human history blue was very difficult to procure and in some regions we did not even know of its existence.

For nearly 10,000 years the miners of Sar-i Sang have dug up small stones from deep within the caves along a rural limestone valley in modern day Afghanistan. In spite of empires shifting around them, lapis lazuli has traversed thousands of trade routes from these small caves to every known corner of the ancient world. These caves were the origins of blue. Even today lapis lazuli remains a rare and precious stone. This scarcity of access has only led it to be associated with the wealthiest and most powerful elements of society. It has been venerated as a material of the gods from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Bible, and found in the possession of royalty from the funerary mask of Tutankhamun to the Fabergé eggs of the last Romanovs of Russia. As a result of the expense of obtaining lapis lazuli, the ancient Egyptians became one of the first cultures to mass produce a synthetic colourant to replace it. 7,000 years ago they created Egyptian blue or calcium copper silicate. This manufactured pigment allowed for the greater democratization of blue and allowed its use to expand to a great range of objects and beyond the borders of Egypt itself. It soon came to cover many mass-produced pots, jewelry, and religious statuaries all across the ancient world. During this time a parallel trade in blue dye rose through the Jewish communities that had emerged around the Mediterranean sea. Tekhelet was a popular blue dye that was made by processing pigments from a sea creature found around the Mediterranean. In Judaism, it was traditionally used as the blue pigment for the tzitzit. Tzitzit are tassels originally worn to identify members of the ancient nation of Israel during the time of the First Temple of Solomon as referenced in the Torah. However, after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans the knowledge, trade, and development of tekhelet was soon wiped out. As a result of this uncertainty about the origin of blue dye and the rabbinic discourse surrounding it, the tassels were left white and undyed for a millennium and a half. Similarly, the trade in Egyptian blue declined during this time due to the geopolitical conflicts of the 4th century CE surrounding the dissolution of the Roman Empire, of which Egypt was a province. At the same time a lesser quality and splotchier blue dye, made from the leaves of the yellow woad flower, had become popular. Due to the complex networks and high degree of manufacturing knowledge associated with producing Egyptian blue and tekhelet, woad blue became a cheaper mass-produced alternative.

By the Middle ages, the proliferation of this lesser quality woad blue had begun to be identified with the clothes worn by the masses of the peasant populace of Europe. However, this changed in the 12th and 13th centuries with the rise of the cult of the Virgin Mary and the development of colored pigments in western Europe. Blue ultramarine paints made with lapis lazuli were refined during this time and became more valuable than gold due to the colors they produced. Therefore, in order to venerate the mother of Jesus only the best and most valuable new blue paint would be used to paint her and the Christ child. Blue once again became a prominent religious pigment. It wasn’t until 1706—when the dyer Johann Jacob Diesbach accidentally created Prussian blue by attempting to make red—that synthetic pigments began to displace lapis lazuli as the origin of blue. And it was not until 1961, when Yves Klein invented International Klein Blue—with the paint supplier Edouard Adam for the painting Blue Monochrome—did a paint exist that could emulate the same shades and hues of ultramarine made from lapis lazuli.

Due to this historic rarity, blue is often one of the last hues to be identified and added to a language’s color palette. In his analysis of Homer’s Odyssey, William Gladstone found that the descriptions of the natural and nautical environments made color analogies primarily to black and white, a few references to reds, greens, and yellows, but no reference to blue at all. However, at this time the English speaking world tended to identify colors as merely being a visible shade or hue, while the ancient Greeks and many other societies tended to lend other experiential identifiers to color words. Therefore the Greek word glaukos,γλαυκός, meaning gleaming or bright, could also double to cover colors that we would describe today as being blue, gray, green, yellow, or orange. Looking at this further in 1969, two Professors from Berkely, Brent Berlin and Peter Kay, conducted a color study with twenty bilingual speakers of English. This study was later expanded to 2,600 speakers of 110 languages and an evolution of color hierarchy began to emerge. The majority of color identifiers in languages start with those associated with black and white, followed by red, then yellow and green, and eventually blue, with other hues coming after that point such as brown and orange. Certain languages such as Russian have even developed to have two distinct shades of dark and light blue, goluboy and siniy, similar to English’s red and pink distinction. Other languages such as Japanese and Korean possess overlapping and conditional terms for the colors green and blue, without making a strong distinction between the two.

Today blue has become more than just a color. Blue has come to be an emotional identifier due to the sorrows experienced by painters Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso; to feel blue becoming a byword for sadness, sorrow, and loss. There are now blue states and towns identified as the political base for the Democratic party in America where people vote and bleed blue. Blue jeans originally meant for miners and railway workers now belong to the casual wear of youth movements ever since the 1950s. From the time of the discovery of those small stones in Afghanistan, to our attempts to create a color, to eventually finding its name and seeing it all around us, all those moments lead up to the instance when those astronauts could look back and see our planet, and name it that Blue Marble suspended in time and space.