By Fiona Ellis
Blue, it seems, is a study in contrasts, visually, historically, metaphorically, and in its cultural associations.
It can range from a subtle, barely-there tint of powder blue to the deep depths of shades of navy or midnight.
Even though we are surrounded by what we would call blue skies and oceans, most ancient cultures didn’t have a word to describe the color and described the sky by other means, such as how many clouds were present.
Azure blue skies, enjoyed on a sunny day, are uplifting and make us think of being carefree. Bluebirds, commonly considered harbingers of joy, were referenced in the World War II-era song “The White Cliffs of Dover” as a promise of good times to come. But on the other hand we also describe being down in the dumps as feeling blue.
Blue’s association with nobility (blue blood) and stature is in direct opposition to the notion of manual labourers being labeled as blue-collar workers.
So how do we come by all these seemingly opposing references?
In early primitive civilizations berries such as blueberries and elderberries were used to stain cloth blue. Indigo and woad, however, were (and are) more reliable sources for vegetable dyes. Therefore, these were eventually more widely adopted as a colorant for both cloth and for use in rituals. Chemically both of these plant extracts are the same (the color comes from the leaves) but the dye material is in a much lower concentration from the woad plant, resulting in a duller blue. The plants are native to different climates and therefore, became much more extensively used in certain parts of Europe (Germany and Britain, primarily) than others. This in turn gave rise to some cultures’ abhorrence for the color either because they linked the use of it to their enemies or because it was a dingy shade worn mostly by the lower classes. There was no exclusiveness to the color as woad and indigo dyes were inexpensive to produce and easy to obtain. These negative responses can be dated back as far as early Roman times.
But just as blue obtained from indigo or woad was despised in some parts of the world, in others it was revered. This includes the nomadic Tuareg people of North Africa. The men from this culture wear head coverings dyed with indigo that stains their faces, giving rise to their nickname: “the blue men.” In Japan, the indigo dyeing process, known as ai iro, dates back to the 10th century and indigo dyed garments were worn by the samurai.
What’s In a Name?
One of the reasons that ancient languages had no word to describe blue may be that, with one notable exception, blue other than that derived from indigo was seldom used. Naturally occurring blue mineral pigments are rare and as such are not found in prehistoric cave paintings and didn’t figure prominently in ceremonial rituals. The exception is ancient Egypt, where a color called Egyptian blue, considered to be the very first manufactured pigment, was used. The Egyptians created it by mixing together glass and copper, grinding the combination into fine particles, and applying heat. The result was a blue pigment that was used in tomb paintings and funeral rituals.
The quest for blue pigments required great effort, ingenuity, or great wealth.
There were only two know forms of naturally occurring (mineral) blue pigment; azurite, a sister stone to malachite obtained as a by-product of copper mining, and lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone. The latter became known as ultramarine, not because it was the color of the ocean, but because it came from “beyond the seas.” Lapis lazuli was mined in Northern Afghanistan and then shipped via the Silk Road to Venice, where it was then distributed throughout Europe.
To expand the choice of blues available to them medieval artists developed complex ways of making copper-based pigments and also developed the use of Cobalt Blue, which they used for stained glass windows. This association with the church appealed to the aristocracy, who began to favor blue for their clothing.
The elevation of blue was further cemented by the trend for reserving the highly prized ultramarine for depictions of important figures such as the Virgin Mary in paintings during the Renaissance period. This gave rise to blue being the color of choice for girls clothing—pink, viewed then as a lighter version of the strong, active red, was for boys. (This notion was reversed by modern marketing practices that began in the 1940s.) But reverence for blue isn’t limited to Christian iconography, depictions of Krishna in Hindu art are always blue and in many cultures it is perceived as capable of warding off evil spirits.
Prussian blue, a dark shade, was the first blue pigment to be synthesized and was discovered in the early 18th century. It would be quite some time before other synthetic blue dyes were created.
Scientists began to look in earnest for ways to synthesize (and thus replace) natural pigments in the 19th century. In 1824, a French industry organization offered a reward of 6,000 francs to anyone who could create a chemical version of the prized shade of ultramarine. Money being a great motivator, two chemists simultaneously came up with the same recipe in 1828.
Cerulean blue—its name derived from the Latin caerulum, which means heaven or sky—was introduced in 1850. Indigo dye was synthesized in the 1860s, and by the 1890s was being produced on a large scale, leading to a huge contraction in demand for its natural counterpart. The advent of synthetic indigo occurred around the same time as the founding of the Levi Strauss Company in San Francisco in 1853, making the cost-effective production of the increasingly popular denim blue jean possible. The widespread adoption of denim for overalls and other workwear between mid-19th and early 20th centuries firmly planted the idea of blue as the color of laborers, giving rise to the term “blue collar.”
In 1854 Tiffany & Co used its now-signature robin’s egg blue for the very first time for its catalog, dubbing it the “blue book.” This gives a hint to how long the idea of using a specific color for branding has been around. Marketing experts have long known that color can influence how consumers perceive a product and much research is done to identify how people respond to specific colors. Blue tops the list of consumer favorites. Ask a focus group what they associate with the color and the answers are almost always positive: harmony, loyalty, dependability, tranquility, or even high energy.
The moods evoked by blue are mostly dependant on the shade or intensity. Pale tints are described as calm, quiet, patient, peaceful, cool, and clean. Add a little more oomph and the mood shifts to feelings of faithfulness, dependability, contentment, tranquilly, reassurance and serenity. Periwinkle or more purple versions of blue are described as being genial, lively, sprightly, convivial or cordial. Deeper blues move us to think of credibility or authority; and is the shade of blue that comes to mind when something or someone is described as being “true blue,” meaning faithful or loyal. Considered to be basic, conservative, professional, classic or traditional, these blues are a popular choice for uniforms. Electric blues are described as energetic, brisk, vibrant, high-spirited or even exhilarating. For these reasons they are often present on flags or used for outfitting sports teams.
The negative associations for blue are aloof, distant, and, of course, melancholy. Think of the musical style known as the blues, with its songs of longing and loss. Picasso’s famed blue period added even more weight to the idea that blue is synonymous with melancholy. It’s unclear how this notion began but there are references to dyers who worked with indigo suffering from depression-like symptoms possibly due to illnesses brought about by the toxic chemicals to which they were exposed.
Blue is ever present in our language. Blue chip companies are considered to have good reputations, for both quality of their products and resiliency of their business. The term comes from poker where blue chips have the highest value. Blue ribbon is now a term referring to experts in a given field but was originally the honor bestowed on the fastest trans-Atlantic crossings during the steam era. Architectural drawings were once produced by means of a light-sensitive method of transferring images to paper, giving rise to the term blueprint, which has, over time, come to mean the plan for any endeavor. We of course live on the “blue planet”. As David Bowie so soulfully sang, “Planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do…”
Fiona Ellis is the author of Inspired Cable Knits, Knitspiration Journal, and Inspired Fair Isle Knits. She is an online instructor at Craftsy and you can find out what she is currently working on at www.fionaellisonline.com.