The Accidental Color That Changed The Course Of Art

True blue, royal blue, ultramarine: During the Renaissance, these were all names for the most prized of all pigments, lazurite, derived from the semiprecious mineral lapis lazuli. Mined and processed since the sixth century almost exclusively in Afghanistan, and imported to European markets through Venice, it was worth more than five times its weight in gold. It was used sparingly, often reserved for the richest patrons by the most prosperous artists.

Look at this sumptuous still life, for example, painted in mid-17th-century Paris by Paul Liegeois, which features his signature royal blue drapery. He achieved the effect with thin glazes of ultramarine oil paint applied over a layer that was highlighted with white lead. When light penetrates the thin blue glaze, the white reflects it back, intensifying a deep blue hue.

We often take for granted the dazzling range of colors in old oil paintings as we stroll through an art museum. Early Renaissance panels are full of jewel-like shades. Mannerists like Bronzino used shocking, acidic color combinations as they stretched the limits of naturalistic representation. Grand Baroque era artists, like Caravaggio, set vivid hues against dramatic dark shadows. In truth, these colors were hard-won. Time-tested, layer-by-layer techniques were required to ensure that a limited range of natural colors would maximize their visual impact. Creating a colorful oil painting was not yet the spontaneous act we envision the likes of Monet performing as he captured fleeting light and color effects.

That spontaneity required two remarkable advancements—a scientific understanding of the laws of light and color, and a new palette of colors that could be used to exploit these laws. As luck would have it, both happened around the year 1704. Sir Isaac Newton published his revolutionary text Opticks, and a German chemist discovered a vivid new blue pigment with amazing properties.

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