Chasing Blue – PART 2



There is just too much to able to fit into one blog! Welcome to PART 2 of Chasing Blue. Here we take a trip with the regal status of Ultramarine, discover the dark history of Indigo and learn why the Irish should be never have gone green.


Lapis Lazuli in it’s natural state





The inhospitable mountains of northeast Afghanistan were the resource is at its richest

Ultramarine is a deep blue colour pigment which was originally made by grinding lapis lazuli into a powder. The process of extraction involved grinding the stone into a fine powder, infusing the deposits with melted wax, oils, and pine resin, and then kneading the product in a dilute lye solution. The name comes from the Latin ultramarinus, literally “beyond the sea”, because the pigment was imported into Europe from mines in Afghanistan by Italian traders during the 14th and 15th centuries.

It makes sense then that the earliest recorded application as a pigment seems to be in the 700- 900 AD cave paintings in Afghanistan temples, close to the the SareSang mine in Jum in an inaccessible region of Badakshan which is the source of the highest quality mineral.

This mine was visited by Marco Polo in 1271 in connection with the journey he made, and he stated that the mineral was used for the extraction of a blue pigment. The pigment also appears in Chinese paintings and Indian murals, dating from the 10th to the 12th centuries AD.

The Egyptians associated the colour of Lapis Lazuli with the night of the skies and the gold pyrite flecks that reminded them of the stars – an image of the heavens. They saw life in the deep blue colour of water and the divine in the immense blue of the sky and they continuously used Lapis Lazuli to portray it all. Artists represented the Nile, the most important river of Ancient Egypt in blue. Considered to have mystical powers as well as religious significance. It also reflected the high status of their rulers. Pharaohs favoured the exotic stone and judges wore emblems of Maat, the goddess of truth, made from it. Blue was also used as a background colour in the paintings portraying the royal graves in the Valley of the Kings. One of the oldest examples of the decorative uses of lapis lazuli is the coffin of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, dating from the 14th century BC. It was also found on the on a head dress buried in the Sumerian tomb of Queen Puabi, and Cleopatra had a reputation for using it for eyeshadow.



Why a Medieval Woman Had Lapis Lazuli Hidden in Her Teeth

Jaw dropping revelations of ancient ultramarine found in a skeleton uncovers the forgotten history of female scribes.

Read about here >


Taking it to Europe

Thanks to Marco Polo’s travels, natural Ultramarine eventually reached Europe via the principal port for trade with the East in Venice, Italy.

The Virgin in Prayer” (1640–50) by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato. Pic Credit: The National Gallery, London

Sourced from the distant lands of Afghanistan the Catholic Church harnessed the high demand for this colour and its scarcity to its advantage. During the 1300s the church took control of this colour, restricting its availability and increasing its price to be more valuable than gold in it’s time. Citizens of the city were banned from wearing the colour and in painting, strict rules were enforced deeming that only the ‘Holy Mother’ Mary, mother of Christ could be portrayed wearing the colour. And so Mary becomes the central figure in many of the Renaissance works at the time.

When a commission was undertaken, not only was the drawing to be approved by the patron, but they also controlled the expenses for the pigments to be purchased for the creation of the artwork.

Rebels of the Renaissance

Imagine the effort Giotto had to go through when he proposed to paint the entire ceiling of Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel (, the intense blue back in 1300 in his fresco. Presenting for the first ever, the heavens, the windows to enlightenment to be portrayed with this rich blue was revolutionary in its time. From here after the default to illustrate the heavens and the sky was almost always blue.

Panorama of the Scrovegni chapel by Giotto

Illuminated manuscripts using the brilliant blue colour 14th and 15th centuries reveal it’s value dedicated only for the enlightened.

Tales of frustrated artists unable to execute their artworks to their full potential avail. Even Michelangelo couldn’t afford the precious pigment. His unfinished painting ‘The Entombment’, was left incomplete as the result of his failure to procure the prized pigment. Rafael reserved ultramarine for his final coat, preferring for his base layers a common azurite (SEE PART 1).

Around the same time, Titian rebels against the church and its rules in his artwork  ‘Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro’ 1519–1526 and replaces the central figure with St Peter, swathed in blue.

Michelangelo’s unfinished painting ‘The Entombment ‘ of 1500


Around the same time, Titian rebels against the church and its rules in his artwork  ‘Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro’ 1519–1526 and replaces the central figure with St Peter, swathed in blue.

‘Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro’ by Titian

Dutch Masters do blue

Johannes Vermeer, used the exotic blue much more extensively than his 17th-century contemporaries while proceeding to put his family in debt.  He experimented with mixing the pigment, when many artists who used lapis lazuli would tentatively create a colour block for the sky, or enhance a small detail on some clothing. In his the 1665 “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” the turban is a luminous colour mixed with the ground semi-precious stone.

An existence as an artist meant that most European painters continued to depend on wealthy patrons to underwrite their use of ultramarine blue. Finding a reliable colour maker was difficult during these times. Less scrupulous craftsmen were known to swap ultramarine for smalt or indigo and pocket the difference.  Uncovering the swindle would would be the ruin of their livelihood as a colour maker.

‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’ 1665 by Vermeer


Finding a better option

In 1824, the Societé d’Encouragement offered a reward of six thousand francs to anyone who could develop a synthetic alternative to ultramarine. Two men came forward within several weeks of one another: Jean-Baptiste Guimet, a French chemist, and Christian Gmelin, a German professor from the University of Tübingen. The prize was fiercely contested. Gmelin claimed he had arrived at a solution a year earlier but had waited to publish his results. Guimet countered by declaring that he had conceived his formula two years prior but—like Gmelin—had opted not to publicise his findings.

The committee awarded the prize to Guimet, much to the displeasure of the German gentry, and the artificial blue became known as “French ultramarine.”

This new blue was cheaper and now more readily available to many painters. Made from a mix of clay, soda, charcoal, quartz and sulphur heated to produce a green Ultramarine substance which is then ground washed and re-heated to convert it to the blue pigment named French Ultramarine was chemically identical to the prohibitively expensive Ultramarine pigment it derives its name from.

Ultramarine pigment has also been termed “Gmelin’s blue”, “Guimet’s blue”, “New blue”, “Oriental blue” and “Permanent blue”.

J. M. W. Turner was the first accredited artist to use synthetic ultramarine in 1834.

Bridge of Sighs, Ducal Palace and Custom-House, Venice: Canaletti by Joseph Mallord William Turner

The light and landscape of Italy made a profound impression on Turner. This painting is in part homage to another artist, Canaletto, who can be seen at his easel in the corner. By the time ‘Bridge of Sighs’ was painted, Ultramarine had been synthesised and Cobalt Blue could be added to his palette.


Ultramarine still holds power in our modern times

In our modern days of a new millennium, Ultramarine still welds its power over the communities that live in the areas it is sourced. In 2016 the mining of natural ultramarine in the hills of Afghanistan was banned as it was uncovered that the money made from its production was fuelling the Taliban’s terrorist activities.


> Unlawful mining of lapis lazuli fuelling insurgency in Afghanistan: Global Witness (06 jun,2016)


The darker side to INDIGO 

While the ultramarine hue of blue was expensive to use in paintings, maintaining a rich blue for dying textiles was seen as a much cheaper affair. Unlike the rarity of lapis lazuli, the arrival of a new blue dye called “indigo” and considered a gold mine of opportunities to any plantation owner manufacturing the dye stuff. Its import ruled the European textile trade in the 16th century, and was the cause of many trade wars between Europe and America. The prosperity and growth of the indigo industry is still delivered with positivity and an admiration for natural dyes. But the cruel realities behind this colour are sure to leave a permanent stain.

Humble Beginnings

Sir Isaac Newton was the first to decide that the dark blue hue of ‘indigo’ was a colour in 1672. Inventor of the “colour spectrum” as we know it today, he believed that the rainbow should consist of seven distinct colours to match the seven days of the week, the seven known planets, and the seven notes in the musical scale. Newton championed indigo, along with orange, even though many other contemporary scientists believed the rainbow only had five colours.

Before this time, indigo was just a dye used to colour fabrics. Indigo is sourced from a range of plants, the best known of which is Indigofera tinctoria (“True” indigo), which has been used to dye textiles in India from before 2000BC. Originally the woad plant (Isatis tinctoria) was the main source of blue dye throughout Europe. Woad was replaced by true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) as trade routes opened up. Species of Indigofera were cultivated in East Asia, Egypt, India, and Peru in antiquity. The earliest direct evidence for the use of indigo dates to around 4000 BC and comes from Huaca Prieta, in contemporary Peru.  Pliny the Elder mentions India as the source of the dye after which it was named. It was imported from there in small quantities via the Silk Road. The Ancient Greek term for the dye was indico meaning “Indian dye” which, adopted to Latin as indicum and via Portuguese gave rise to the modern word indigo.

Woad is a yellow-flowered European plant of the cabbage family. It was formerly widely grown in Britain as a source of blue dye (Left). Indigofera tinctoria (Right).

Spanish explorers discovered an American species of indigo and began to cultivate the product in Guatemala. The English and French subsequently began to encourage indigo cultivation in their colonies in the West Indies.


Making ‘The Devil’s Dye’

Final cakes of Indigo dye

To make the inky blue the dye was extracted from the plant in various stages since the dye itself doesn’t exist in nature.

The harvested sheaves are left in water to ferment. Fermentation is accentuated by adding something like lime to the vat. This process produced a compound which must be separated to produce what is actually the colouring agent called ‘indicadent’. So the plant is removed from the solution and the remaining liquid is churned to mix it with air. The oxidised colour sinks to the bottom of the vat. The liquid is then drained or allowed to evaporate leaving the colour as a muddy residue. This sludge is heated to stop further fermentation and then collected,  dried and cut into cakes producing an easily stored and transported dye. About 50 kilos of plant material is necessary to produce a single kilo of the dye stuff.

One further step is necessary in order to turn the dried dyestuff into a useable dye. The powdered indigo has to b dissolved in an alkaline solution usually consisting primarily of urine (ideally, as early manuals specify, to be collected from boys who have not yet reached puberty. What ever the source, the more concentrated the urine, the richer the dye. The indigo then needs to be ‘encouraged’ to its reduction by rubbing it by hand as it sits in the liquid. In many accounts (of indigo production, and even in the following video) the human element of ‘agitation’ is altogether deleted from the descriptions.

In 1775 Dutch-born American Navigator and Naturalist, Bernard Romans (warned that the site of indigo production should always be ‘remote’ from any living area, on account of the disagreeable effluvia of the rotten weed, and the quantity of flies it draws. Clouds of insects make it impossible to keep any animals on an indigo plantation in any intolerable case…there is scarce possibility to live more than  quarter of a mile to the vats, since the stench of the work is horrid.”

In Florida it was slaves, as in the West Indies and in the other indigo producing colonies in North America that worked the plantations and production. In 1751 Georgia allows the importation and use of negroes to staff the plantations. In the past they avoided the influx of slaves in order to take advantage of the poor English.

At the time slavery was encouraged on economic grounds as well as ‘moral’ ones. Bernard Romans described slavery as a ‘kindness’ to the transplanted Africans as most of them had been captured by other Africans in war. “The trade in slaves keeps alive those who otherwise would be murdered, did not we induce their conquerers by our manufacture and money to show them mercy”. The manufacture for this ‘mercy’ was likely to be indigo dyed cloth and the money, profits made from the indigo trade.

African men, women and children were being ‘bought’ with colour. Romans commentates “New negroes from Africa will be in great demand. Charged off indigo, pound for pound of negro weighed naked.”

Jean Baptiste tranquil version Indigo making 1667


A postcard of a British-run indigo factory in India, where the low cost of labor kept the factories unmechanised in spite of the Industrial Revolution. Here we see a beating vat where the indigo was oxidised or ‘agitated’.

From the outside looking in, Indigo seemed to cultivate an ‘idealisation’ but the reality was very different to the images shown to the rest of the world. The slaves lived in squalor and were often malnourished, the work was taxing and unsafe. The most dangerous aspects of the production were encountered mainly from the production of the dye, not the plantation. Slaves were sometimes forced to stand in the pool of fermenting plant matter, agitating the mixture with their hands or own marching. They were exposed not only to the extreme heat from the both the sun and the fermenting material itself, but also the harmful fumes that were released. The vat was often referred to as ‘the Devils Tank’ and indigo itself had been called by many ‘the Devil’s Dye’.

Even when the indigo residue was at last removed from the vat, and set out to dry, the young negroes, often girls were employed to fan the flies out of the drying shed, as they are hurtful to indigo.

In the Caribbean and African colonies it was the enslaved Africans who made the dye, in central and South America it was the indigenous inhabitants, and later in India it was peasants who were abused and sometimes starved by wealthy British Planters who forced them to plant indigo instead of food.

Workers lives were shortened, and the often suffered from crippling physical ailments and severe sickness brought on by the work. Men often became impotent and women infertile. A soldier who had served under George Washington in the Revolution wrote about the affects of the indigo upon the lungs of labourers that they never lived over seven years.

The world demand for indigo during the 17th and 18th centuries and farms were booming in order to keep up with demand.

Much of the demand for this colour was not because of fashion conscious public of Europe but for the need  for a standardised and stable colour for military uniforms. The irony that Napoleon’s troops who failed to put down the slave uprisings (1791 to 1803) on Sandomargia, the western third of the island now split betweenHaiti and the Dominican Republic wore uniforms dyed with the the very indigo that had helped support the islands economy and whose cultivation had given rise to many of the intolerable conditions that provoked the report. With the loss of the French colony and a reliable supply of the dye, especially when British ships began regularly to intercept colonial imports intended for France.

Although the 18th century British Army wore red coats dyed with madder, the British Navy that ruled the waves officially dressed in blue.


The first synthetic indigo dye was made by German chemist Adolf von Baeyer in 1878 but synthesis of indigo those first tries was impractical. Experimenting continued and first commercially practical synthetic indigo was made in 1897. This discovery would later help win him a Nobel Prize. With this invention, the large scale indigo production came to an end.

Today indigo is still a colour that supplies the wealthy and the workers, mainly for blue jeans. With the advent of our love for ‘natural dyes’ our sentimentality seems to mark the ugly truths behind these ‘traditional’ forms of dying. The revelation is that nearly no one in the 18th century called the colour of the dye produced ‘Indigo’ . In England the called it ‘Navy Blue’.

It is disturbing that today so many of us have a love for this colour and are still blinded to its production. Even more amazing that we are still leaving out all the ‘unsavoury’ factors to the process. This video below is just one example of that….

Indigo Stepping Extraction

Why natural dyes are not always better

This disturbing video on Indigo production illustrates that this toxic production still exists.

WATCH THE VIDEO> Indigo Dye Extraction

The spiel says this…….

KMA exports is one of the Oldest and Largest manufacturer of Indigo Dye (Blue Gold) and Indigo leaves & powder (Hair dye). Its been three generations since we started this Indigo business. This traditional method results in producing the purest form of Indigo dye in an eco-friendly manner.

Note no mention of the rancid smell or toxicity to land or staff, they actually say it improves the land! Note the mass of flies swarming around the blue blocks! What’s more disturbing is that it was published on Aug 16, 2012!

Now that you know the real story to the hazards and conditions involved the clip takes on a whole new history.


Has much changed today?

You don’t have to go far to see that we are still leaving out the ‘real cost’ of indigo. All in the search of natural and organic, I found this blurb on the blog

A perfect example of naturally dyeing is Naked & Famous’ Organic Vegan Selvedge denim. The jeans are a 12 oz Japanese Selvedge Denim made from unbleached organic cotton and dyed using natural indigo. Not only is the pigment removed from the Indigofera plant using traditional methods, but the plant residue is then used as fertiliser, while the water from the process is reused to irrigate local crops. Companies like Canada’s Naked & Famous should be applauded and supported for their willingness to place accountability before profits.

Go to the Naked & Famous’ Organic Vegan Selvedge denim website  and you see an except showing traditional ‘agitation’. Not so ‘friendly’ once you know what that involves!

Using science to better synthesize

Scientists are working on a better option. While the vast majority of jeans are dyed with synthetically produced indigo today. Synthesising indigo dye requires a number of toxic chemicals, including formaldehyde, as does the dying process itself. This creates an enormous amount of pollution; in some parts of the world, rivers near denim mills run blue, contaminating and killing fish and affecting the health of workers and residents. With more than 40,000 tons of indigo produced each year, this is a significant problem.

John Dueber, a professor of bioengineering and his team wanted to create an indigo that requires fewer chemicals to synthesise, and doesn’t need to have as many chemicals added to it during the dying process. “In order to do that, we took inspiration from how plants actually naturally synthesize indigo,” Dueber says.

The team engineered a strain of E. coli bacteria to be a chemical factory for producing an indigo precursor. The precursor is stable and can be stored until needed. Unlike traditional synthetic indigo, which requires chemical treatment to reduce and solubilise the indigo so it can crystalize in the cotton fibre, the E. coli-produced precursor only needs the addition of an enzyme. The final result is “identical” to traditional synthetic indigo dying, Dueber says.

There are two main challenges that must be overcome before bacteria-produced indigo is ready for the mass market. The first challenge is that indigo dying is most efficient at a high pH – most denim mills use a pH of around 10.5. But the enzyme used in Dueber’s team’s process only works to a pH of 8. So the team is working on manipulating the enzyme to function at a higher pH. The second challenge is scaling up.

Peter Hauser, a retired professor of textile engineering at North Carolina State University who studied indigo, agrees, but says technologies like Dueber’s can’t fix the whole problem. He claims a large amount of the pollution in denim manufacture is caused by rinsing the denim after it’s dyed and abrading it to get the desired worn-in look. Denim dyed with bacteria-produced indigo would still produce dirty wastewater by being washed.

Another solution would be dying jeans without using indigo at all. Most dyes actually penetrate fabric, but indigo only sticks to the surface of the thread, which is why so much of it rinses off into the water. This is why the worn parts of jeans begin to show white. While other dyes could make denim blue, they wouldn’t wear out in this same characteristic and sought-after way. “Indigo is actually a terrible dye,” Hauser says. “But because of that property, it fades and washes off, and that’s why people like it.”


Europe catches ‘Blue Fever’ with PRUSSIAN BLUE

Darker than cobalt and richer than indigo, Prussian blue is often called the first modern pigment. Prussian blue is a high chroma (high-intensity) pigments. This deep velvety colour is impossible to show on a screen because of its high chroma. Screens emit too much light to properly showcase the texture and depth of Prussian blue. The microcrystalline blue powder that forms the base of this colour has been around since 1705. Its invention was a bi-product of experiment.

Searching for Immortality

Eighteenth century, German alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel had become captivated by the proto-science of alchemy, but like so many in the profession, had failed to convert base metals into gold. He instead settled on the apparently easier task of inventing an elixir of immortality. In his search for an elixr, Dippel’s created a noxious oil, a compound so toxic that two centuries later it would be deployed as a chemical weapon in World War II.

To cut costs in his Berlin laboratory, Dippel shared his lab with Swiss pigment maker Johann Jacob Diesbach. A fellow scientist Diesbach concentrated on the lucrative business of producing colours.

One evening in 1705, when Diesbach was preparing a batch of crushed insects, iron sulphate and potash in a reliable recipe for a deep red pigment, he accidentally used one of Dippel’s implements infected by the noxious oil.

The following morning the pair expected to find a deep red, as a result, but instead saw a deep rich  blue. They understood the value of the substance they had created. The recipe for Egyptian blue used by the Romans had been lost to history some time in the middle ages. Its substitute, lapis lazuli (used to make Ultramarine), consisting of crushed Afghan gemstones, sold at astronomical rates. They knew the discovery of a stable blue colour was literally more valuable than gold. The bonus was that this pigment could also be blended to produce entirely new colours, a process that the costly lapis lazuli did not allow.


Johann Conrad Dippel was born in 1673 in the actual “Castle Frankenstein” in Germany.  He believed the souls of the living could be funnelled from one corpse to another. His character and his search for immortality is rumoured to be the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein.

Blue Fever

The discovery sparked “blue fever” in Europe. Dippel, was suddenly forced to flee legal action in Berlin for his controversial theological positions, and so he failed to commercialise the newly named “Prussian blue”. This dazzling invention was a secret too big to keep. Within a few short years, the recipe had gone into factory production. It was used extensively in painting, wallpaper, flags, postage stamps, and became the official uniform colour of the Prussian Army.

A twopence stamp from Mauritius 1847. Now one of the rarest and most valuable stamps in the world (Left). Military Uniforms of the Prussian Army.

People seemed drunk on the stuff. Indeed, they were actually drinking it. By mid century, the British East India Company was dyeing Chinese tea Prussian blue to increase its exotic appeal back in Europe. For every 100  pounds of coloured tea consumed in England and America the consumer actually drinks more than half a pound of Prussian blue and Gypsum!

The Entombment of Christ by Pieter van der Werff 1709

‘The Entombment of Christ’ by Pieter van der Werff of  1709 is the oldest known painting where Prussian blue was used. Around 1710, painters at the Prussian court were already using the pigment. At the same time, Prussian blue arrived in Paris, Antoine Watteau and later his successors Nicolas Lancret and Jean-Baptiste Pater were using it in their paintings.

In 1752, French chemist Pierre J. Macquer made the important step of showing Prussian blue could be reduced to a salt of iron and a new acid, which could be used to reconstitute the dye. The new acid, hydrogen cyanide, first isolated from Prussian blue in pure form and characterised in 1782 by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele. It was eventually given the name Blausäure (“blue acid”) because of its derivation from Prussian blue, and in English became known popularly as Prussic acid. Cyanide, a colourless anion that forms in the process of making Prussian blue, derives its name from the Greek word for dark blue.

From the beginning of the 18th century, Prussian blue was the predominant uniform coat colour worn by the infantry and artillery regiments of the Prussian Army. As Dunkelblau (dark blue), this shade achieved a symbolic importance and continued to be worn by German soldiers for ceremonial and off-duty occasions until the outbreak of World War I, when it was superseded by greenish-grey field grey.


Prussian blue arrives in Asia

While Prussian blue was a European innovation we associate this deep dark blue with the exotic Asian arts, Chinese porcelain and Japanese woodblock prints.

Prussian blue arrived in Asia In the early 1800s when a Guangzhou entrepreneur deciphered the recipe and began manufacturing the pigment in China at a much lower cost. Despite Japan’s strict ban on all imports and exports, the colour found its way to the printmaking industry in Osaka, Japan where it was trafficked as “bero”, a derivation from the Dutch “Berlyns blaauw” (“Berlin blue”). Its vivid hue, tonal range and foreignness saw it explode in popularity just as it had in Europe.

“The great wave off Kanagawa” (1832) by Hokusai

Hokusai was one of the first Japanese printmakers to boldly embrace the colour, a decision that would have major implications in the world of art. Using it extensively in his series Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji (1830), of which the Great Wave was the first. The pigment lent itself to expressing both depth in water and distance, crucial atmospheric qualities to render land and seascapes.

Hokusai and his contemporary Hiroshige became renowned for their depictions of pure landscape form. But although extremely popular in mainstream society, these woodblock prints were seen as vulgar by the Japanese literati and beneath consideration for artistic merit. Hiroshige also used Prussian blue extensively in his landscape prints, such as his Full Moon at Tsukuda. It is suggested that the new colouring became so popular that it may have been the major factor in establishing pure landscape as a new genre of ukiyo-e print.

Full Moon at Tsukuda, from Sixty Nine Stations of the Kisokaido by Utagawa Hiroshige.

When Japan’s isolationist policies finally ended under threat of war from the US Navy in 1853, the prints were used as wrapping paper for more worthy trade trinkets. Following Paris’s International Exposition of 1867, their value dramatically shifted.

A showcase at the inaugural Japanese Pavilion elevated the artistic status of woodblock prints and a craze for their collection quickly followed. Among the most prized were the striking blue landscapes, particularly by Hokusai and Hiroshige, that led European artists to incorrectly deem the colour as idiosyncratically Japanese.

European artists were caught up in the “Japonism” craze. Believing this blue was emblematic of Japanese art. Painters like Monet and Van Gogh began to use the new Prussian blue paint. They even started calling the colour “Hiroshige blue.” It is believed that Van Gogh painted Starry Night, a direct response to Hokusai’s work.

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh 1889

Bad Associations

As explained previously in the Indigo story ‘Prussian Blue’ did have close connotations to the Prussian Army, the horrors of the Indigo Plantations and the German Nazis. The negative associations cautioned some manufacturer’s to  alter or remove the name. In 1958, Crayola changed the name of their blue crayon from Prussian Blue to Midnight Blue (which is a litle lighter). The international colour system, Pantone does not have a Prussian blue in= their swatch box at all.

Where Prussian Blue stars today

A cheap, easily made, nontoxic, and intensely coloured pigment, Prussian blue has attracted many applications. Soon after its invention and was almost immediately widely used in oil, watercolour, and dyeing. About 12,000 tonnes of Prussian blue are produced annually for use in black and bluish inks. A number of other pigments also contain the material. Engineer’s blue and the pigment formed on cyanotype, giving them their common name blueprints. The colour is also the basis for laundry bluing.

In medicine Prussian blue’s ability to incorporate monovalent metallic cations (Me+) makes it useful as a sequestering agent for certain toxic heavy metals. Pharmaceutical-grade Prussian blue in particular is used for people who have ingested thallium or radioactive caesium. It is used by pathologists as a stain used to detect the presence of iron in biopsy specimens, such as in bone marrow samples.

Engineer’s blue, Prussian blue is used in an oily base, as the traditional material used for spotting metal surfaces such as surface plates and bearings for hand scraping. A thin layer of nondrying paste is applied to a reference surface and transfers to the high spots of the workpiece. The toolmaker then scrapes, stones, or otherwise removes the marked high spots.

Laundry Blue


VIDEO > Why are there no blue roses? …and five other questions about colour

A great little explanation on the power of nature’s chemistry and how roses keep themselves rosy!


Before the Irish went Green

Every St. Patrick’s Day, we bring out the green. We link green shamrocks, green beer and green leprechauns to what we call Emerald Isle, Ireland. So when did we start getting it so wrong? Perhaps we can blame the old Irish language that actually used the same word to describe blue and green, but it was the colour blue that was identified Ireland long before it turned green.

The earliest depictions of St. Patrick illustrate him clothed in blue garments, not green. When George III created a new order of chivalry for the Kingdom of Ireland, the Order of St. Patrick, the official colour was a sky blue, known as “St. Patrick’s Blue.”

The earliest known image of Saint Patrick. 13th century shows him in a blue cossack meeting the High King of Ireland. Credit Huntington Library, San Marino, CA (Left). 13th Century illustration showing St Patrick dressed in blue resting on a rock from the Book ‘Lives of the Saints’ Credit British Library (Right).

The significance of blue dates back to early Irish mythology when the sovereignty of Ireland, Flaitheas Éireann, was often represented by a woman dressed in a blue robe. According to legend, the depiction was based on the 10th-century queen named Gormfhlaith, a portmanteau of the ancient Irish words for blue (gorm) and sovereign (flaith).

When Henry VIII assumed the throne, after more than 300 years of English rule over Ireland, he took steps to strengthen his hold on the isle, declaring himself King of Ireland in 1541, making it a part of the England and giving it its own coat of arms. This was the first official instance of connecting the colour blue with Ireland, using a golden harp on a blue background; the same s

ymbol can be seen today on the Constitution of Ireland and the Presidential flag.

With this interference by the Tudor King’s through to the 18th century with George III’s creation of the Order of St. Patrick, the blue as a colour associated with Ireland became tainted. From the late 18th to the 20th century, as the divide between the Irish population and the British crown deepened, the colour green and St. Patrick’s shamrock became a symbol of identity and rebellion for the Irish.

The Order quickly disintegrated after the establishment of the Irish Free State. Technically, the Order is still in existence today but without any remaining Knights. Its only two remaining members are the head, Queen Elizabeth II, and one officer, the Ulster King of Arms. The seats of the Order are now filled by members of Ireland’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral Choir, still wearing robes of St. Patrick’s blue.

In the 16th century when Henry the VIII claimed to be king of Ireland in the 16th century, his flag would have been blue. This explains the blue flag with a harp associated with the Irish President.

The Order of St. Patrick, was represented by a light blue during the 18th century.

era order of knights, perhaps to create a shade of blue for the Irish that was different from the royal blue associated with the English, says Timothy McMahon, Vice President of the American Conference for Irish Studies.

McMahon argues the earliest use of green for nationalistic reasons was seen during the violent Great Irish Rebellion of 1641, in which displaced Catholic landowners and bishops rebelled against the authority of the English crown, which had established a large plantation in the north of Ireland under King James I in the early 17th century. Military commander Owen Roe O’Neill helped lead the rebellion, and used a green flag with a harp to represent the Confederation of Kilkenny, a group that sought to govern Ireland and kick out the Protestants who had taken control of that land in the north of Ireland. (They were ultimately defeated by Oliver Cromwell.)

The colour green cropped up again during an effort in the 1790s to bring nonsectarian, republican ideas to Ireland, inspired by the American revolution and the French revolution. The main society that promoted this idea, the Society of United Irishmen, wore green, especially an Irish version of the “liberty caps” worn during the French Revolution. One police report described their uniform as comprised of a dark green shirt cloth coat, green and white striped trousers, and a felt hat turned up on one side with a green emblematic cockade.

Though the rest of the uniform eventually faded from popular wear, the importance of the colour green spread, thanks in part to the poems and ballads written during this time, most famously “The Wearing of the Green.”

“You start to see different traditions building up around colours — the Protestant tradition is orange, the nationalist tradition associated with the Catholics is green,” McMahon adds.

The origins of the wearing of green clothing in the U.S. on St. Patrick’s Day and for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in general date back to the 19th century, when waves of Irish immigrants came to America looking for better job opportunities, especially after the Great Famine of the 1840s-50s, and began wearing green and carrying Irish flags along with American flags as a point of pride for their home country.

Members of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral School Choir launch their new outreach programme. Photo: Frank McGrath



Discover the goblins in Cobalt blue, the cyan in Cerulean and Klein Blue’s search for infinity.

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This blog focuses on one of my great passions … colour. I will bring you tall tales and tidbits about the origins and uses of  colour and how it impacts our world. Colour has held many great powers throughout the ages. It plays many a leading role throughout history. It has been a killer, a saviour and a revolution maker. I thank the pioneers of colour who continue to pursue inventive ways for how colour can improve our lives. It is because of them that we can all be Colour Warriors and stay bright beyond beige. Thanks for joining me on the amazing adventures of colour!

Colour Warriors is a monthly blog, written and produced by Visual Artist and Arts Educator, Kristine Ballard on
© Kristine Ballard 2019