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Old 12-29-2004, 11:31 AM   #1
Karin Wells Karin Wells is offline
FT Pro, Mem SOG,'08 Cert Excellence PSA, '02 Schroeder Portrait Award Copley Soc, '99 1st Place PSA, '98 Sp Recognition Washington Soc Portrait Artists, '97 1st Prize ASOPA, '97 Best Prtfolio ASOPA
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Joined: Jun 2001
Location: Peterborough, NH
Posts: 1,114
The color blue

This is a portion of a fun article about the color blue. Because of its length, I have shamelessly cut out parts of it. Sorry.

I found this interesting especially because I seldom paint with any blue color as I use Ivory Black + White to simulate "blue" in my paintings. Using blue paint completely destroys my palette. Sometimes I glaze with blue if I need to intensify or correct another color. In fact I have two small tubes of ultramarine and prussian that I purchased when I began to paint years ago and they are hardly used.

Critic's Notebook: Pick a Culture: There's Always a Blue Period

December 24, 2004
By Holland Cotter
New York Times article

To the ancient Romans, blue was an ugly color, fit only for
barbarians. During the early Christian era, it was found
mostly in the drab tints of peasant clothing. Then in the
Middle Ages, it suddenly gained cachet. The cult of the
Virgin swept Europe, and blue, by then available in costly
dyes, was her assigned color. At the same time, it was
adopted by royalty and imbued with moral qualities: purity,
peace, fidelity and so on.

Deep blue, along with black, found favor in the anti-luxe
Protestant Reformation. And with that, a color that had
started at the bottom of the social ladder and then had
zoomed to the top settled in the bourgeois middle, where it
was popularized and politicized, first by association with
the military and then with republican sentiments in the
French Revolution.

The show picks up roughly there, with its early American
portraits. In one dated around 1768, a young Newport, R.I.,
matron wears her costly blue silk with a distinctly
unrevolutionary hauteur. In another, from 1797, a chap
named Jonathan Knight cuts a Romantic figure in an indigo
dress coat and yellow striped pants, an outfit identified
with the hero of Goethe's "Sorrows of Young Werther," a
kind of Kurt Cobain pop star with a terminal case of the

By the mid-19th century, blue, once the most exclusive of
colors, was common to every class. (The prototype for blue
jeans was designed in 1853.) A boy named Frederick Buxton
wears an all-blue suit in an 1830's watercolor portrait by
the itinerant couple Samuel and Ruth Shute, whose clients
were mainly New England textile workers. Whoever
commissioned the picture received something nice for the
money: the boy's suit has turned grayish with time, but his
big, candid eyes are as blue as the day they were painted.

The Color of Influence

Thanks to the invention of dry
cakes of premixed watercolor, the Shutes were able to take
their business on the road and cover a lot of ground. But
then, art and mobility had always gone hand in hand. And
that is the story told in "Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade
and Innovation," at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in

In the ninth century Iraq was the Islamic center for
ceramic production. Its potters, absorbing influences from
here and there, were particularly taken with blue-and-white
wares arriving via the Silk Road from China but had neither
the raw materials nor the technology to duplicate them
precisely. So they cooked up their own versions, using
cobalt blue, unavailable in China at the time, for

The results were so striking that the Chinese became avid
collectors of Islamic ceramics. These served as models for
15th-century Ming porcelain, blue-and-white wares that
virtually came to define Chinese-ness..

The Color of Humanity

Blue is heaven itself in "Off the Wall: New Perspectives on
Early Italian Art at the Gardner Museum" at the Isabella
Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Put together by Mario
Pereira, a doctoral candidate at Brown University, with the
Gardner curators Peggy Burchenal and Alan Chong, the show
is minute, with just three paintings, all from the museum's
collection: Giuliano da Rimini's "Virgin and Child
Enthroned With Saints" (1307), Giotto's "Presentation of
the Infant Jesus in the Temple" (1320) and Fra Angelico's
"Death and Assumption of the Virgin" (1432).

Recently conserved, they have been brought together in a
gallery the museum sets aside for temporary exhibitions.
And it is refreshing to re-encounter them outside the
densely hung salon-style rooms where they usually reside.
The Fra Angelico, in particular, benefits from being seen
with space around it and in glare-free lighting. This
modest-size altarpiece represents a certain Renaissance
ideal of a religious picture: iconically emphatic but
humanistically inflected, a note-perfect concert of blue
and gold.

Both colors had metaphoric meanings, as they do here in two
scenes meant to be perceived as sequential. Below, the
Virgin lies dead on her bier, surrounded by grieving
apostles and Jesus, who has descended from heaven and
tenderly holds her soul like a child in his arms. Above,
three days later, she rises through heaven to his welcoming

Gold here is celestial light, flat, unearthly, unreal. Blue
is more complicated. Soft and modulated in the Virgin's
gown, it suggests a palpable humanity she will never lose,
while the absorbent midnight blue of Jesus' robe at the top
of the picture speaks of infinite depth, outer space, world
without end.

The Color of Paradox

This chromatic symbolism, however persuasive, is not
universal, though it finds possible correspondences in a
splendid Yoruba beaded crown from the 19th or 20th century
that recently went on view at the Metropolitan Museum of
Art and has blue as a dominant color. Like the Iraqi
ceramics, it is to some extent cross-cultural: the tiny
beads that cover every inch of it are European imports,
probably manufactured in Czechoslovakia. But the marvelous
ensemble they form and the meaning of its colors are
distinctively African.

It includes human faces with staring eyes, and the
three-dimensional forms of beaded birds, which seem to
hover over the crown's surface. The birds, stylized
depictions of the paradise flycatcher, embody the female
spirits known as the Great Mothers, without whose power the
king cannot function. The staring faces are thought by some
scholars to represent the all-seeing ancestral rulers, and
their features are defined by broad areas of royal blue

The Yoruba spectrum of symbolic colors is defined by
dynamic extremes of white and red. Blue, closely aligned
with black, falls somewhere in between, where, as in Europe
before the Middle Ages, its meaning may be neutral,
mutable, negotiable and paradoxical.

Pursuing the matter further, the art historian Bolaji
Campbell, writing primarily about Yoruba shrines and
sculptures, associates blue with darkness and mystery,
qualities with positive connotations, being equated with
divine knowledge and profound wisdom. One thing is certain:
when a king wears the crown, he is transformed. He is no
longer an individual but the living embodiment of all the
rulers who have preceded him.

The Color of Salvation

Blue and black are also almost interchangeably positive in
Tibetan Buddhist art, though this is hardly evident, at
least at first glance, in a spectacular painting of the
deity Mahakala at the Newark Museum. Although Mahakala is
often referred to as "the great black one," in the Newark
painting his squat, wrestler's body is indigo blue. With
his snarling three-eyed face, coronet of skulls and aureole
of flames, he seems to radiate violence. And a color
emblematic of peace in other cultures seems to be demonic
Note: this article was sent to me by Kathryn Wakefield, manager of Raymond Olivere (SOG artist).
Karin Wells


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