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Pinch of Pigment: Blue is a Girl's Colour

Pinch of Pigment: Blue is a Girl's Colour

The Virgin in Prayer, 1640-50, by Sassoferrato. National Gallery, UK

When I write these Pinch of Pigment posts, alternate, catchier titles come to mind. This one could be called "The Richness of Ultramarine" or "The Economics of Symbols".

Ultramarine Blue is one of the most important pigments in Western fine art history. And it is because at one time, it was more expensive per ounce than gold.1

Ultramarine blue owes its name to its passage from Afghanistan to Venice, Italy, and it means "over the sea". It's ground from- get this - lapis lazuli gemstones. Chemically speaking, it is a complex polysulfide of sodium alumino silicate, which is somewhat fugitive over time (that means it fades).2 Naturally, it tends to be a bit more of a reddish blue than greenish, and it was not replaced with a cheaper synthetic until 1826. Unlike many fine art paints, the synthetic form is not called "Ultramarine Blue Hue" to denote the imitation colour, but is instead called French Ultramarine.

The Lantern Bearers, by Maxfield Parrish, 1908.

In Renaissance Europe, creating a new painting often involved an artist, a patron and a church. If the patron was someone from the newly risen middle classes, they would want to show off their new found wealth by commissioning a work for a local church, to get in good standing and in some cases, to be immortalized by appearing as penitents painted as small figures in a corner of the painting. To show that they were pious (and had gobs of cash) they would give the artist funds for materials, including a certain amount of gold and ultramarine.

So. You are a painter in the Renaissance, and you have this really expensive pigment sitting there. The painting is for the church, so more than likely it will either be a birth of Christ scene, or a Christ ascending, being suspended on or descending the Cross scene. You ought to use the expensive paint on the most important figure: Jesus Christ. But in birth and Crucifixion scenes, Christ is typically semi-nude. Not a lot of opportunities for a brilliant blue.

So, the ultramarine blue goes to the next most important figure: the Virgin Mary.

(It does make me wonder, what would art history have looked like if the most expensive pigment were a brilliant red: would we have Virgins in red robes, or would Crucifixion scenes be even more bloody?)

This economic point held true for centuries, and so did the Madonna's portrayal in blue. Blue was symbolically imbued with the Virgin Mary's traits: feminine, pure and powerful.

So why isn't blue a "girl's colour" any more? Cheaper blues and more experimentation in fine art painting are only a tiny part of the answer: the waning power of the church, and the rise of middle class fashions still held blue for girls, pink and red for boys until the 1940's. As happens, trends swung another way and there was a reversal through marketing. The Baby Boomer generation were kids growing up with colour televisions and the reversal cemented into place.3

So the dominant trend today is only a recent one. And it could reverse again and bright, strong, ultramarine blues could be associated with feminine identities sooner than we think.

Popular geek culture in toys, comics, games and movies are hopefully seeing the delicate-and-pink trope being washed away, leaving new associations for the colour blue for the next generation.

Arcee from Transformers Prime, Captain Marvel from Marvel Comics, and Ash from Mass Effect 3 all sporting dark blue: is a cultural shift happening back to blue? Arcee was originally pink and white in Gen 1 Transformers cartoons and is two-toned blue in Transformers Prime; Ashley went from from sporting pink and white in Mass Effect 1 to blue and black in Mass Effect 3.


  1. The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Language of Italian Art, Richard Stemp, 2006. p4

  2. Ultramarine: A 185-Year Old Secret, Alex Reis, The Chemical Blog, 2013.

  3. When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink? Jean Maglaty, Smithsonian.com, 2011.

  4. Top image The Virgin in Prayer, 1640-50, by Sassoferrato. National Gallery, UK.

  5. Bottom images, L-R: The Autobot Arcee from Transformers Prime © Hasbro; Captain Marvel painted by Dexter Soy © Marvel Comics; Ashley from Mass Effect 3 © Bioware, screen cap by John Tesh.

This post originally appeared on Symbiartic at Scientific American on August 3rd, 2014. It has been lightly edited.

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