The Secret History of the Colour Known as “Blue”

You probably all know by now that I am fascinated by the human vision and colour perception.  As I have always stated, the world around us is entirely colourless, that is as colour as we perceive it.

The ancient civilisation had a very limited knowledge and language to describe the different colours.  In some parts of the world, there are isolated tribes and populations who still know green and a host of words to describe green and similarly red and all shades of red through to orange.  But Blue!!!!!!!!

The Himbas in North western Namibia describe blue as one of the green varieties in their language, even after they have learnt what blue is in English and Afrikaans.  We may think that is crazy, but believe me, their language is far richer than our own when they describe other colours and especially greens.

In Zulu, blue is luhlaza and green is luhlaza.  Confused?  Well to distinuguish they will add for example blue water is amanzi alulhlaza.   A prefix “a” is added to the Zulu for green when describing the colour of the water as blue.  Similarly, green grass is utshani oluhlaza.  Here the prefix “u” is added.

Wow!  I am in the zone having to use all my wits to get the Zulu translation correct.  This is similar in Xhosa as well.


I have been asked how did we – yes you and I – learn to know colour.  The answer is so simple.  Our parents showed us pretty coloured pictures and repeatedly told us that the sky was blue, the ball was red, the wall was yellow and so on.


Where did the colour blue come from?  But when it comes to the pigment for painting, blue has an altogether different story as the rarest and most precious shade of all.  Some artists even went into debt to use the colour!

The first of the Blues – that’s the colour blue and not the music genre, is known as the Barbaric blue

The Greeks and Romans didn’t have a word for the colour blue. Homer described the sea as “wine-red”.  Blue was associated with the barbaric Celts who supposedly dyed their bodies blue for battle, women with blue eyes were thought to have loose morals, and descriptions of the rainbow in Ancient Greece and Rome omitted blue altogether. But although the colour was not named, it still existed in pigment form. In fact, it was one of the colours used for clothing as seen on this woman’s tunic from a decorative medallion painted on a house in Pompeii.

Painted roundel with portraits of a man and a woman, 20 BCE (British Museum)

The clocked moved on and the next blue is referred to as Synthetic blue

A favourite precious stone of the Egyptians was the lapis and turquoise.  In fact they were so moggy over this colour that they invented the first synthetic blue pigment in order to affordably copy their favourite and special colour. “Egyptian blue” was made by mixing silica, lime, copper, and alkali, and it could be used on stone, wood, plaster, papyrus and canvas. Many decorative objects that have survived until today attest to the presence of blue in Egyptian life.

 This blue-painted pot made during the Eighteenth Dynasty (circa 1543–1292 BC) is just one of the hundreds of Egyptian artifacts.  I have seen some of the artifacts in Madrid, Spain in both the Prado Gallery and the National Museum of Archaeology (Museo Arqueológico Nacional).

Egyptian Blue-painted pot, 18th Dynasty (British Museum)

You may have mistakenly thought that the next blue colour was more recent.  That colour blue is Royal Blue.  Blue textile dye in the New Modern era of that time was made from woad which is a flowering plant native to the Mediterranean.  During the Middle Ages, the cultivation of woad in England, France, and Germany helped many towns and regions become extraordinarily wealthy.  The dye was expensive to produce and not reliably available.  It was used by the wealthy and soon became associated with nobility. The working class wore brown and green while the royalty wore blue. The painting in the picture below is referred to as a 15th century illumination.  It shows the French Kings Charlemagne and Louis wearing rich robes of ermine fur, blue silk, and gold embroidery. Louis XII kneels on a blue silk cushion and even his sword is blue!

Manuscript leaf of Louis XII of France Kneeling in Prayer, Jean Bourdichon, French, 1498/1499 (The J. Paul Getty Museum, LA)

And now we progress into yet more recent time and the next colour blue is known as Virginal blue.

Blue remained an expensive textile dye but it was also extremely expensive for the artists and painters of the age. It was therefore, reserved for only the most important subjects, usually only those who could afford to pay top prices.

In the Renaissance, no one was more important than the Virgin Mary.She was almost always painted wearing blue, the colour became synonymous with purity, humility, and the divine.  This has continued through the ages, you only need look at photographs of Mother Theresa.  Look at the colour of her garments.

“Virgin and Child with Female Saints” 1500, Belgium (The Morgan Library and Museum)

This is just one example of the Virgin Mary in Blue. There are dozens of examples in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and Museo Nacional Del Prado both in Madrid, Spain. Many other examples can be admired in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia.

Still during the Renaissance, painters had to grind up the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli in order to make the next colour blue, ultramarine.  This became the bling of that time.  It is the deep blue pigment which became the hallmark of many Renaissance paintings. The name comes from the Latin ultramarinus, meaning “beyond the sea”, because the stones were imported from mines in Afghanistan by Italian traders in the 14th and 15th century. Ultramarine was so expensive that some paintings were never finished because the painter couldn’t afford to buy more pigment. Even Michelangelo couldn’t afford it and Raphael used it only for a top coat.

But Tiziano Vecelli or Tiaziano Cecellio, known in English as Titian, a famous Italian painter. He was a member of the well-known 16th century Venetian school of painters. He was famous for his lavish use of ultramarine, as seen in this painting of Bacchus and Ariadne with its vast expanse of blue sky.

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), “Bacchus and Ariadne,” 1520-3 (The National Gallery, London)

But let’s take a step back in time to the time around the 9th century when Chinese blue and white porcelain had become highly prized. In the 14th century, China began to mass produce very fine, translucent white and blue porcelain in the town of Jingdezhen.

This “blue and white ware”, as it was known, used cobalt brought through trade routes from Persia.  Cobalt was twice as expensive as gold.  Once made, the porcelain was then sold back to the Middle East. Many of these beautiful pieces mix Chinese porcelain techniques with Islamic motifs.

Chinese ceramic dish, 14th century (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Now, surprise, surprise!  What is different today?  As far back in time, if others made something to be envied, someone would try to make a copy or as we might even say today, a counterfeit object.  The Europeans tried unsuccessfully to copy Chinese porcelain for hundreds of years. Indeed, China and porcelain were so intertwined, that porcelain was often simply called ‘china.’ We often still call porcelain “china”.  Even, Mrs Bouquet (Bucket) of keeping up appearances used to refer to her Royal Doulton porcelain as her best “china”.  When the secrets were eventually leaked in the early 18th century, manufacturers sprang up all over Europe attempting to make local equivalents.

And then one fine day, in 1759, Josiah Wedgwood set up his English firm where he perfected a new technique called ‘jasperware’. It took him 3,000 attempts to get the right shade of ‘Portland Blue’ for his first piece, which was inspired by the Roman-era “Portland Vase” on view in the British Museum.

“The Pegasus Vase,” produced in the factory of Wedgewood, 1786 (British Museum)


As we have learnt so far, blue was expensive to use for paintings and porcelain, but it was much cheaper to use for clothing.  In time, blue fabric became commonplace for men’s and women’s clothing in Europe among all social classes. When a new blue dye called ‘indigo’ arrived on the scene, the European textile trade in the 16th century was rocked to the core.  It was imported from Asia and was more concentrated and produced a richer, more stable blue. Fearing for the national textile economy, the French, German, and British governments tried to block the import of indigo in the 16th and 17th centuries. Their attempts to blockade the importation of indigo was in vain and it eventually replaced woad, destroying several industrial centres in the process.

Plain weave, indigo dyed cotton textile, 19th century (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)

We are all familiar with blue denim jeans, but where did they begin?

Jean fabric was first produced in Genoa, Italy in the 17th century. Here we go again with copying!

The French city of Nimes copied the technique within a short time after (‘de Nimes’…aka ‘denim’). The cotton twill fabric was dyed using indigo, was sturdy and washable, making it perfect for workers.  Levi Strauss kicked the fabric up a notch when he patented the use of metal rivets to reinforce the seams on denim pants in 1873. And the rest is history…

Bill Epridge,”Woodstock,” 1969 (LIFE Photo Collection)

I have been known within our family as having always left my favourite morsels of food for last.  On this subject, I refuse to make an exception.  Now for the purest blue of all!

Between 1947 and 1957, the French artist Yves Klein perfected what he considered the purest blue of all. He registered International Klein Blue (IKB) as a trademark and the deep ultramarine became his signature. He painted over 200 canvases with the colour, as many sculptures, and even painted models in IKB so they could “print” their bodies onto canvas. Klein considered his blue “extra-dimensional,” meaning that it would take the viewer outside the canvas itself. How is that for amazing?

Yves Klein, “Portrait Relief of Claude Pascal,” 1962 (Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin)

Nowadays, blue textile dyes and pigments are mainly synthetic, but the colour still has that same powerful symbolism as it did when it was a rare and costly shade.  Flags, sports teams, and uniforms often use blue to symbolize unity and power. But the colour is also ambiguous: “to feel blue” denotes sadness, while “blue skies” are equated with optimism and happiness. What does blue mean to you?

Now let’s get back to the business of lighting.

Think about the humble LED that has become the light source and which in time will be the only light source until a new technology is evolved.

We should thank Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura for developing the first blue LEDs in the early 1990s.  LEDs have matured to such an extent now, that there is scarcely an application where LED cannot be used. LED Sport field lighting is the type of choice now throughout the world.  Anyway, why use old conventional light sources and luminaires when they will disappear in the future?

LED blue light is now used to help in the treatment of dementia, Parkinson’s and many other ailments.  LED blue light is also used to counter jet-lag and LED glasses with blue light are used for athletes before major events to ensure that they peak on the day at the right time.  Records are set in the late afternoon and evening. It is thanks to LED that we can now provide human centric lighting for applications.

As we move into the future and as we embrace LED and the IoT in this Fourth Industrial Revolution, one of disruptive technology, LED is at the forefront in the lighting arena.



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