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Jun 262014

The Ultramarine Blue Blues

These are the show notes that accompany episode 91 of the show.

Lady with a Lapis Lazuli Bowl by Guido Reni - 1638-1639

Lady with a Lapis Lazuli Bowl
by Guido Reni – 1638-1639

For thousands of years man has desired a true blue for art. The problem was  it was very rare. The only place to get vibrant blue was to extract it from a rare rock called Lapiz Lazuli. I When I say rare, I mean rare.  Lapiz Lazuli  could only be found in a single cave in Afghanistan. The church controlled the use of blue only for specific things because of it’s value and scarcity. But blue fever made artists rebel and the rest is history.

Lapiz Lazuli Rare source for ultramarine blue

Lapiz Lazuli this is the  Rare source for ultramarine blue.

Ultramarine is one of the oldest of the artists’ pigments that we still  use to this day. It is a brilliant blue that has  been used in paints for at least fifteen hundred years.  For thousands of  years it was extracted from the natural gemstone lapis lazuli which is a type of limestone containing a blue mineral named lazurite.

ultramarine blue has an intensity that varies depending on the type of made it is used for.

ultramarine blue has an intensity that varies depending on the type of paint  it is used for.


lapiz lazuli processed pigment

lapiz lazuli processed pigment

There is no source of lapis lazuli in Europe. It  had to be imported into the West and once  there,  had to go through 50 separate stages  to separate from it for a 10% yield of the pigment. Ultramarine as a result became the most expensive of artists’ color.  It’s value was more than  that of gold.  So it was used very sparingly.  It was so valuable that the Church stepped in to control it. The Vatican  decreed that the  highest quality ultramarine was  only  for painting the robes of Mary and the infant Christ.


Ultramarine was replaced by the cheaper copper carbonate mineral azurite for a while but  was back in favor by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  In most situations the patron bought the pigment separately for any picture he had commissioned. This resulted in a little cheat where cheap ass  azurite was  used for “underpainting” the ultramarine so less would be used to produce the brilliant blue color. This of course killed the brilliance of ultramarine.


Giotto and the heavenly blue Arena Chapel

Giotto's Arena Chapel 1305 Here Blue represented Heaven.

Giotto’s Arena Chapel 1305 Here Blue represented Heaven.



Ambrogio di Bondone AKA Giotto painted every square inch of the interior of  the Scrovegni family’s Chapel between 1303-6 in Padua.
This was considered the most beautiful chapel ever painted until the Sistine. Giotto had his work cut out for him. He needed to figure out  how to organize, design, and paint a series of stories about Christ and the Virgin Mary and  give an aesthetic and clearly legible story to a large sacred space.  In just under three years he presented the chapel as an illuminated manuscript through which the viewer could follow the dramatic story and simultaneously admire his gorgeous illustrations .

The betrayal of Jesus with a Kiss from Judas.

The betrayal of Jesus with a Kiss from Judas.


His repeated uses of blue showed just how “holy” and “rich” his patron’s little chapel was. This is one of the most important rooms in Western Art. The entire ceiling was painted blue, representing  not the sky but heaven. To Giotto heaven was blue.


TITIAN Blues everyone away!

Titian BACCHUS AND ARIADNE  1523 National Gallery, London 5' 9" x 6' 3"

BACCHUS AND ARIADNE 1523 by Titian  National Gallery, London
69″ x  75″

Titian's  Bacchus and  Ariadne  is a big painting.

Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne is a big painting.

Titian painted BACCHUS AND ARIADNE in oils on canvas in about 1521-3. It was commissioned by Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, as part of a
decorative scheme for a small room, the Camerino d’Alabastro (alabaster chamber), in the ducal palace. This is truly a magnificent painting.  Just look at the great whirl of movement with its huge expanse of insanely pure ultramarine  blue into which the beautiful Ariadne is pointing.  It cost a fortune and defied the church’s ban on usling blue for anything but the Virgin Mary. To Titian blue was like crack.

Picasso’s Blue Period  (1901-04)

picasso old guitarist Pablo Picasso 1903–04Oil on panel 48.4" × 32.5" Art Institute of Chicago

Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso 1903–04 Oil on panel 48.4″ × 32.5″ Art Institute of Chicago

 At the turn of the last century Picasso created a pictorial world entirely in shades of blue sparked by the suicide of his friend. On February 17, 1901, a young Spanish poet and close friend of Pablo Picasso’s named Carles Casagemas invited several people to a bar in Paris. After a few drinks he pulled out a gun and shot at his girlfriend. He missed her and then blew his brains out.

Casagemas’s death had deeply affected Picasso, who painted a series of somber, blue-toned pictures in his memory including “Casagemas in his Coffin”
It was these works that led Picasso to develop his first truly individual style: the “Blue Period.”



Pablo Picasso 1903–04Oil on panel 48.4" × 32.5" Art Institute of Chicago

Middle panel Pablo Picasso 1903–04 Oil on panel 48.4″ × 32.5″ Art Institute of Chicago


Yves Klein. Cutting Edge Avant-garde Genius or Narcissistic Lying Douche-bag? YES!

When I think of Blue I think of Yves Klein. Although he made art in lots of different colors and media, it is his pure blue paintings, velvety in their depth of pigment, of which he made nearly 200, that are his most significant contribution to art history. In May 1960 Klein commissioned his ideal blue ( International Klein Blue, or IKB) to be made and tried to patent it.

IKB International Klein Blue

IKB International Klein Blue


IKB Klein Monochrome 1960

IKB Klein Monochrome 1960

IKB  represented for him the immateriality of deep space.  Developed with chemists at the French pharmaceutical company IKB is made from ordinary synthetic ultramarine pigment, but with a polymer binder to preserve the color’s intensity. To Klein IKB stood proud as a dazzling object in its own right and also,  to offer an “open window to freedom as the possibility of being immersed in the immeasurable existence of color.”

Yves Klein’s work often revolved around his concept of “The Void”, a nirvana-like state that is void of worldly influences. He created spaces and images that ask us to observe our own sensibilities.

n 1960, he created a photo montage of himself leaping from a balcony called the “Leap into the Void”.   It was his way of embracing the irrational and celebrating fantasy in an our increasingly mechanized world bound by convention. The picture captures both the eye and the imagination because it does not conform to expectations. It captures an act of defiance both against what any sensible person would do and against gravity itself.



Leap into the Void  Yves Klein 1960

Leap into the Void Yves Klein 1960


Of course he didn’t really jump out onto the pavement. He had some buddies catch him with a blanket. Then he used another pic covered them up. An early form of Photoshop if you will.

Yves Klein Leap into the void.  How it was done pre Photoshop.

Yves Klein Leap into the void. How it was done pre Photoshop.

There is a lesson here for artists.

We have a tendency to get attached to things that we:

  1. Think “look right”.
  2. Think others expect of us.
  3. Think other artists are doing.

We should  instead of focus on developing our own unique sensibilities, tastes and intuitions.

I like that this image inspires us to be a little reckless and oblivious with our creativity, no matter how unconventional an idea might seem.




 The Blue Planet Rises

Earthrise captured 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission.

Earthrise captured 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission.

The world famous photo of “Earthrise” over the lunar horizon was taken by the Apollo 8 crew  Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders in December 1968, showing Earth for the first time as it appears from deep space.

Apollo 8 achieved many  firsts.

  1. The first humans to leave Earth Orbit and enter the Moon’s orbit.
  2. The first manned mission launched on the Saturn V rocket from NASA’s new Moonport.
  3. Taking the first pictures of the Earth from deep space

The funny thing is that during the months of training leading up to the mission, no one thought to train the crew to on what to do when they encounter the view of Earth from lunar orbit. So when the crew noticed the big blue beautiful Earth rising over the boring gray lunar horizon, they freaked!

“Earthrise” is the name given to that photograph of the Earth taken by Anders during lunar orbit on Dec. 24, 1968. Earthrise became one of the most famous photographs from all of the Apollo missions and one of the most reproduced space photographs of all time.


The picture showed us our world as a blue jewel suspended in the inky blackness of space. All through history blue  was the color of the great beyond. The color of the horizon. When we finally achieved our wish of going beyond the horizon we discovered that blue was the color of our home.





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