Blue? Oh Yes … I LOVE Blue.


My first favorite paint color was Prussian Blue!

I have gotten older and painted with many other wonderful blue colors. I think that maybe, just maybe  Prussian Blue is still my favorite.

As a young kid, my box of 64 colors had several blues. There were light blues, bright clear blues, and a darker blue to be sure. Maybe that was navy blue … but I don’t remember anything like Prussian. Because I didn’t wear jeans much growing up, I didn’t know the beautiful intricacies of indigo (or woad) as a dyestuff. And early on, living under a Florida/Caribbean sky, anything close to Cerulean just did not register as a true “sky” blue at all. But by the time I was a teen, I had seen a bit more of the world and it’s variety of blues. The hues of summer night sky in the British Isles and the color of the Atlantic at rest and during foul, angry storms were in my head. I had lived beneath and experienced the searing blues of the dry air midday sky on the Great Plains; I had marveled as well at the hazy, smoky, just barely blue-grey sky of the southern most Appalachians.

So, by the time I became serious about painting, I had decided that Cerulean was OK, Manganese a little bit better, and those new Pthalos, well they were eye-catching but far too strident—almost unmanageable in a realistic painting.  I was drawn to Cobalt blue; immediately! I was even more excited by the very rich, deep violet-blue qualities of Ultramarine.

My attraction to that ancient color we identify as Ultramarine, traditionally made from lapis lazuli, has never wavered. The bright blue lapis stone, famous and highly valued since even before the Pharaohs ruled Egypt, has been used as a coloring agent and in jewelry. In fact, I wear a lapis lazuli stone on my ring finger every day. (Thanks Mary!)  Despite that, the paint color that lapis makes can vary quite a lot depending on the quality of the raw material and the paint maker’s craft.  So, for me as a painter,  the chemically derived version which is known as French Ultramarine, is much more consistent and preferable.

A fairly new watercolor sketch using Prussian Blue, Prussian Green, as well as Ultramarine Blue.

But, just before I went off to college, there was a new color on my palette—Prussian Blue!

 

 

 

It was divine!

Not a “pure” or boldly simple hue like Cobalt or Ultramarine – nor is Prussian as smoky as Indigo. But it is a rich and complex color, first available as a paint or dye when this synthetic pigment was created in the early 1700s. When I first came across Prussian Blue in the 1970’s, I was painting almost exclusively in oils. At first I thought of it as a sort of midnight blue.  The richness of  Prussian Blue oil paint felt mysterious and a bit hard to pin down.

Prussian Blue IS hard to pin down. You see, sometimes Prussian just looks like a dark blue … but most of the time it edges towards violet. This makes sense … it is listed as having a red slant in all the official color charts.  But under some conditions (in light tints or in very pale washes) I have observed that it can oddly hint at green too. You can see that subtle greenish qualities of the lighter tints of the hue in the color sample above.  Violet AND green in the same color? This was astounding to me as a young painter.

Prussian is beautiful alone but in combination with other blues it really sang to me, it made other blues seem richer and more harmonious. It also made wonderfully sophisticated light blue tints when mixed with titanium or zinc whites. And because it has a violet quality, as well as its ability to contain hints of green or grey, the colors it can make … especially the greens … that are really beautifully subtle to my eye.

Test strips of various brands Prussian Blue watercolor. (Source: Handprint.com)

Despite teaching color and design to hundred (OK, thousands) of students over the years … and espousing the idea that working with the cleanest, clearest, and purest pigments is the best way to learn about mixing color for a painter … I have a confession to make. When I am actually painting, I still love the slightly less than pure but very vibrant and deeply complex qualities of my Prussian Blue!  Recently I learned that, in the 19th C, chemists also created a green by omitting a step in the process of creating the blue. This chemical pigment was used to make a Prussian Green paint. (Later on most paint manufactures replaced it with a mixture of Prussian Blue and Cadmium or Chrome Yellow. Today, most paint companies use a Pthalo (yuck!) instead.

I have studied more and more about art and about color over the years; I have also become intrigued by Egyptian Blue and Mayan Blue … as well as Chinese or Han Blues. And what art geek could ignore International Klein Blue (IKB)! So, yes, I love blue, all blues. BUT … in terms of paint, I love a complex and “imperfect” color of paint … Prussian Blue!

PS … For those of us who simply love blue, there is a NEW blue pigment out there too! It looks a bit like Klein’s version of the synthetic Ultramarine. And Crayola is going to be the first to use it. I think Gamblin will soon follow. You can read about  THAT story at Hyperallergic.

Blue is GOOD!

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5 Responses to “Blue? Oh Yes … I LOVE Blue.”

  1. Daemion Lee Says:

    Interesting post! Just curious, why don’t you like pthalo blue? I have always been curious about the two colors (pthalo blue and prussian blue) because they are such similar colors, though of course pthalo has that sort of bright artificial hint to it that prussian doesn’t….

    • johnahancock Says:

      Daemion, Thanks for writing back!

      I actually like the Pthalos … as colors to use in design work. But If I a painting a landscape image … the pthalocyanine based colors are too strident to use easily in a painting. And in terms of mixing them, they overpower almost everything else on the palette with their intense tinting strength. Only the new Quinacridones, Anthraquinoids, or Dioxanine come even close in tinting strength. If you want to adjust a large area of mostly pthalo blue … it takes a lot of anything else to move it very far.

      As I said … by themselves they ARE beautiful.

  2. Priscilla Fowler Says:

    Love blue too – thanks for all the good info!

  3. Janis Says:

    John, These colorful explanations blue me away. Thanks!

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