COLOR TREND: The Power of Ultramarine Blue

In a recent BBC documentary entitled, “A History of Art in Three Colours” the British art historian, Dr James Fox explored how, in the hands of artists, the colors gold, blue and white have stirred our emotions, changed the way we behave and even altered the course of history. In the Middle Ages, the precious stone lapis lazuli arrived in Europe from the East and blue became the most exotic and mysterious of colors. This intense shade has continued to inspire artists throughout the centuries. Today, It’s a color-for-all-seasons which has great appeal for creatives from all fields of design.

Dr James Fox

Dr. Fox explained that in the Middle Ages, the precious blue stone, lapis lazuli, arrived in Italy from the Badakshan mines in Afghanistan. Thirteenth century recipes describe the best methods for extraction. The powdered lapis lazuli was mixed with pastille of pine resin, mastic, wax or linseed oil boiled together. The mass was soaked, then kneaded in lye until the blue color was extracted. The purest, deep blue was extracted in the first batch and sold for the highest price. This was the origin of the pigment known as Ultramarine. Ultramarine is famous for having been the most expensive pigment during the Renaissance, indeed It was more expensive than gold and also highly exotic because of its origin. Such was the value of the stone Lapis Lazuli. It was also used as a medieval cure for melancholy!


The Italian painter Cennini declared,

A color illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colors; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass…

Cennino d’Andrea Cennini (c. 1370 – c. 1440)

Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian

Hence, the pigment was most often reserved for the most revered of subjects, such as the robes of Christ and the Virgin (Douma) as well as to represent heaven itself, and extensively used by the Italian greats such as Giotto (Giotto di Bondone, 1266/7 – January 8, 1337). Later, in the late Renaissance-era, Titian broke the mould, using ultramarine for subjects other than the religious. For example in, Bacchus and Ariadne (1523–24) commissioned by Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, for the Camerino d’Alabastro – a private room in his palazzo in Ferrara decorated with paintings based on classical texts, titian used ultramarine ground down from Lapis Lazuli for the sky and for the robes of revelers. For him, the color symbolized the elements, and the joy of life. Over the years and then the centuries the value of blue in art diminished, until that is the French artist, Yves Klein (28 April 1928 – 6 June 1962) began using a version of ultramarine in the post WW2 years.

Blue Nude by Yves Klein

Not only was Klein a pioneer in the development of Performance Art, he is seen as an inspiration to and as a forerunner of Minimal Art, as well as Pop Art.  ‘Proposte Monochrome, Epoca Blu’ (Proposition Monochrome; Blue Epoch) at the Gallery Apollinaire, Milan, (January 1957), featured 11 identical blue canvases, using ultramarine pigment suspended in a synthetic resin ‘Rhodopas’. Discovered with the help of Edouard Adam, a Parisian paint dealer, the optical effect retained the brilliance of the pigment which, when suspended in linseed oil, tended to become dull. Klein later patented this recipe to maintain the “authenticity of the pure idea. This color was to become famous as International Klein Blue (IKB) and he used it exclusively and extensively until his death. There is a photograph of Klein leaping from a window (he was caught by friends waiting underneath removed from the photo!) and the look on his face is of pure joy. Perhaps he imagined he was flying or maybe just throwing himself into a pool of water of the intense bright blue color he created.

Yves Klein

Victoria Redshaw from leading trend forecasting company for interior design, Scarlet Opus, recommended Lapis Lazuli as a top ten color for 2012 stated,

If I had to point to 1 Blue that will work across a broad range of products and will also appeal to both Contemporary and Classic consumer design tastes, then Lapis Lazuli is IT!  This is a colour to be brave with…it needs to be applied as a solid block.  It’ll look equally stunning on large pieces - like a sofa, or small items - like a lamp.

Scarlet Opus’ Lapis Lazuli

Two legendary creatives associated with lapis lazuli are the artist, Frida Kahlo and the designer Yves Saint Laurent.
Both had homes painted in this intense shade of blue.

Frida Kahlo’s home in Mexico


YSL’s house in Morocco


Lapis Palette using Sophicolor
Image: BCBG Fall 2012 from

For More Images of Ultramarine and Lapis Lazuli go to Hall Five on Pinterest

Saturday, September 15, 2012 · Categories: Consumer Intelligence, Art and Photography, Trend Analysis, Color , Architecture and Design , Fashion, Runway, Home
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