Vivianite Blue – Ancient insights



Super excited to bring you this blog article created by Artist and NW Coast Native Pigment & Paint Technology Specialist, Melonie Ancheta. She found me by through the Colour Warriors blog. Proof that all this blogging works, I am privileged to bring you her expertise on an ancient blue called Vivianite. This amazing blue is a traditional pigment of the Northwest Coast Native people of North America. You’ll discover how significant this blue is in their culture and all its secrets. Happy reading.

Colouring the Ancestors Blue

The magic of blue: From left to right: Vivianite, Azurite, Laundry bluing/synthetic ultramarine blue, Ultramarine, Prussian Blue.

Over thousands of years, the Indigenous cultures of the Northwest Coast of North America developed a richly complex and sophisticated art form that expresses social hierarchies and mores, lineages, history, spirituality, cosmology, and worldviews. Yet, older than the conventions of formline design composition (approximately 2,000 years) is a colour palette that has endured (at least 4,000 years) the forces of external events and influences, almost total cultural devastation and now, a limitless array of modern colours.


The Ancient Palette

The four traditional NWC colors. Blue and green are not used together on an object. Black iron oxide, red iron oxide, vivianite, celadonite.

The traditional four colours shown above are black, red, blue and green (blue and green are not used together on an object making a three-colour palette), are a fundamental element of the classical system of representation of northern NW Coast art. Formline design is a three-field composition and requires a three-colour palette to help define each field and provide information (every design communicates something) about the content of the design as shown in the image below.


Yeil X’eenh (Raven Screen), ca. 1810, Seattle Art Museum, 79.98

By working backward through NWC art history and looking at how other early cultures used pigments (as long as 300,000 years ago), and colour, it becomes highly probable that this three-field system of composition resulted naturally from the three-color palette.

Why only four colours, though? The colour-making materials used by every culture around the world are formed from the geology of that area and specific to each environment. While there are many minerals from which colour can be obtained in the NW Coast region, the four most abundant and widespread are black iron oxide, red iron oxide, vivianite (blue) and celadonite (green). Among NWC Indigenous people, places have special meanings; a place is not just a patch of ground, it has a personality, a character, and is a living thing. When there is an event, or something else attached to a place, it becomes even more important and meaningful. Sites where pigments were obtained often had deep spiritual meanings, which in turn, added value and meaning to the pigments themselves, and to the colours they made. Deposits of vivianite were deeply connected to “place” and had powerful connections to NWC people’s beliefs and practices surrounding death, resurrection and the continuity of life. When trade pigments became available, they were considered spiritually impotent and were not used in the same ways as pigments obtained from local sources.

Of these four mineral pigments, the color blue gives us more information about the use of colour, and about why certain materials were used than any of the other colours. As part of NWC creative expression, the colour blue is transcendent and liminal; it represents something both utterly earthly, something supernatural and something in between. The Haida believed blue was a colour that allowed communication and movement between worlds. Because water is perceived as blue, containers of water were used for scrying, for changing weather, predicting the outcomes of warfare, and seeing into other times and places.

Detail Dukt’Tootl Gass Housepost, Whale House, Klukwan AK. ca 1830. Tlingit, Gaanaxteidi Clan. Photo: Barry Herem.

In the artwork, blue is a colour that does not just fill space, it communicates important information about the owner of the object and/or the importance of the object, and in many cases adds a layer of supernatural power. On three-dimensional objects such as masks, helmets and house posts, blue creates expression, giving nuance and subtleties to features; light plays across the blue, creating shadows and highlights that animate masks and house post faces (see above), and engage the viewer’s imagination. No other colour on the NWC palette can do this as effectively as blue.


According to NWC traditional colour hierarchy, blue is of singular importance and is reserved for objects that provide protection, and denote status, prestige, mystery, and liminality. The intrinsic value of the materials from which colours are made is as relevant to the function of an object, and as deeply rooted as the value of the colours themselves. Vivianite, by its very nature, corresponds to specific functions, adding additional value (non-monetary value), and bringing desirable characteristics and meaning to the artifacts on which it is used.

Shaman’s mask, used in ritual work. Kunstkamera, Russia.

It is important to understand that all NWC objects, first and foremost, performed a function. Every object had a purpose and the form of that object derived from its purpose. While carving created visual interest and could express something about function, it was color, and most importantly, blue, that communicated very important information to the viewer. We see this in the types of objects vivianite was used on, such as shaman’s regalia and accoutrement, the armor and helmets of warriors and on chiefly regalia. Vivianite was not used on mundane objects; it was reserved for use only by the elite, and those who required or used supernatural powers like warriors and shamans (see image above). When trade pigments became available, even with the new, easier to use blues, vivianite continued to be used on these important and powerful objects; apparently the new blues did not have the spiritual potency required for these types of objects.

Blue Babe, the 36,000 year-old mummified bison. Named ‘blue’ from the mineral vivianite that formed on the skin when the body reacted with the minerals in the silt during its long burial. See the full article >

To understand why NWC people believed vivianite had supernatural power, we need to understand how, and where vivianite forms. As an authigenic mineral, vivianite is found where it forms, and because it only needs some iron and decomposing organic matter, vivianite is constantly in the process of forming. Large deposits of vivianite form on the bottoms of bogs, ponds and lakes, on the on the skin of people and animals, all types of calciferous materials including bones, ivory and shells,  in wood (as below), and even human and animal remains.

Vivianite in clam shell, fossilized mammoth tusk, wood.

This association with death and decomposition is one of the characteristics that made it desirable as a spiritually potent material. Another characteristic that made it attractive is its transformational behaviour: Vivianite starts out white but, as soon as it is exposed to light it begins turning blue.

Top left: Fresh white vivianite. Top right: After an hour. Above: After 2 hours and ground for pigment.

Eventually, if exposed to light long enough, the elemental structure begins to alter and it will turn black. It will also darken to black if it is mixed with a lipid-based binder, or if it comes into contact with any kind of waxes, fats or oils, even the oils from our hands.

Tsimshian Beaver Clan Hat. Location unknown. The dark patches show where oils from hands has darkened the vivianite.

NWC people knew about vivianite’s unique characteristics and behaviors; this contributed to the intrinsic value of vivianite as a material, and added another layer of cachet to the social value and esteem of the object. As a material, the conditions in which vivianite forms and its subsequent behaviors make it a material that in its own right has value, for instance, when compared to the materials that make black. This is not to say black does not have significance, but rather to stress that blue plays a very distinct role in NW Coast Indigenous cultures and art, while black is used in a more generic way. In this, blue, and vivianite specifically, go beyond the formline foundation of black and red, and beyond the function of the object to communicate things like the owners status, what type of object it is, the type of ceremony it is used for and other sub rosa information.

The addition of blue paint on NWC objects is similar to the use of ultramarine blue in Medieval European paintings: it shows the world the owner is wealthy enough (materialistically and socially rather than monetarily) and of high enough status to be allowed to use vivianite, both as ornamentation and as numinous protection. Vivianite’s perceived spiritual power, again like Ultramarine Blue, relegated its use only to the types of objects used for ceremonial and ritual work.

NWC Indigenous people used vivianite into the early 1900’s, long after other blue pigments arrived on the NW Coast. There are many objects with Prussian Blue, or a synthetic Ultramarine paint that came in the form of laundry bluing, a little cake that when added to dingy white clothes, brightened the whites by bluing them. However, it is notable that, while new blues were adapted into use, vivianite continued to be used on shamanic paraphernalia and other spiritually potent objects.

Cake of laundry bluing; synthetic ultramarine.

The study of colour use, pigments and paint technology offers entire new fields of study in relation to the development and evolution of cultures. It gives us new descriptive and interpretive information about daily life, sociopolitical standards, cultural practices, worldviews, and cosmologies of, not just NWC Indigenous people, but to every culture. The roles played within a culture by the colors and materials on artifacts can be revealed more comprehensively when we identify and understand the significance of specific materials. By learning the significance of colours and the materials that made them, we are given new insights into the complex critical thinking and technical skills of individual artists, as well as the cultures in which they lived. It allows us to look back, learn from earlier knowledge and practices, and apply them today and in the future.

It is essential to the preservation of ethnographic objects as future learning and teaching materials that we understand the materials from which ethnographic objects are made. Identifying specific pigments can provide valuable information relating to provenance and authorship of artifacts and helps us identify sibling artifacts. It also helps us better conserve and store artifacts according to the materials from which they are made. For societies like these on the NW Coast, whose material culture was removed and banned and their cultural heritage almost wiped out, it is imperative for the restoration of their traditions and oral histories, and their continuity and evolution to preserve these objects as resources for understanding their past and informing their future.



Don’t miss the ‘Pigments Revealed’ Symposium in 2021

The ‘Pigments Revealed’ Symposium will be an international, cross-disciplinary symposium for people who work with natural pigments (no synthetics, industrials or dyes).

The event will be held in Lynden, Washington, June 16-19, 2021. 

Enquire here for more info >



Melonie Ancheta is a specialist in ancient colour. Check out more info about her art and expertise here: 

Native Paint Revealed
NW Coast Native Pigment & Paint Technology Specialist

Copper Woman Studio

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea; sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, sometimes it’s only me.



Check out my other blogs on the History of Blue.







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
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