by Connie Oliva
Blue! There are more blues than there are words to name them. Blue is a mysterious color, hue of illness and nobility, the rarest color in nature. It is the color of the heavens and of the abyss, of smoke and distant hills, of veins seen through skin, and according to one famous magazine editor, a blue cover used on a magazine always guarantees increased newsstand sales . . . painters take note!
The symbolism of the color blue varies from culture to culture, and figures powerfully in art. It was a favorite of John Singer Sargeant’s palette, reached matchless depth of blue in Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park No. 79, rendered eerily emaciated the Bathers by Cezanne. The vivid and gem like blue of the eyes in Mondigliani’s portraits brought to life the otherwise static figures, particularly those of Jeanne Hebuterne. And blue became the color Pablo Picasso used for years during his blue period (1901-1904) when he was living in Parisian poverty and portrayed beggars, café habitués and poor working people sunk in lethargy, melancholy and despair, using a predominately blue palette to convey the hunger and cold his subjects felt. Asian artists have given specific and interesting symbolism to the various shades of blue in art, clothing, literature, in ritual and decoration.
The color blue was probably first used in Phoenicia, and made from sea whelks. Later on Egyptian blue was made by heating sand, soda, lime and copper sulfide to make a blue glass which was then crushed to form a powder and pigment. Cultures have given the color many connotations: to Egyptians it represented virtue, faith and truth; in Jerusalem, a blue hand painted on door gives protection, in Morocco, blue thwarts the power of evil, and despite what most people may believe, in Ireland, the color of St. Patrick’s day is not green . . . but blue. Blue is for boys, and is a male representational color in western society, but also the color of one of art’s great icons and subjects, the Virgin Mary.
For the artist, there are vegetable blues, blue from ashes, copper blues, blues from sea life and minerals . . . and on and on. And blue fades . . . faster than any other color. No other part of the palette is so susceptible to distortion by the effects of age as are blues and violets. And no other color can be as costly. It was always the most expensive pigment for painters and usually reserved to represent glory, supernatural beauty and perfection. Lapis lazuli is the raw material from which the precious ultramarine pigment was prepared, and the cost to European painters was such that contracts often contained additional money for the allotment of blue, so rare and costly was the color.
Surrounded by the sea, Hawaiian seascape and landscape artists use a lot of blues, but the color means more than the sea, symbolically, culturally and psychologically. It is the color of the extrovert, is used to quiet patients in hospitals, to soothe babies, and to represent the serene, the infinite. It is an essential color on the artist palette, near the bottom of the color spectrum, and a great instrument in conveying emotion.