BLUE may be seen most abundantly in the sky, on the water [the reflected sky], and with moonlight [also reflected]. We also find it in certain animals, minerals, and vegetables, but in a more fragmentary fashion, an accent among the prevailing browns, golds, and greens. Accordingly, blue carries strong associations with otherworldliness and with distance. Leonardo da Vinci noted that objects gain a bluish aspect as they recede to the horizon. Who has not regarded distant blue hills without a stab of longing?
Vishnu, the Hindu deity who preserves the world, is frequently depicted with blue-tinted skin to connote his deep relation to water, as is Krishna, his avatar. The Virgin Mary has come to be identified by blue robes; although her connection with the color is relatively recent, it follows the metaphoric logic of the hue.
In Book V of his Gallic Wars Julius Caesar mentions that the Britanni stained themselves blue in order to present a more horrifying aspect in battle. Caesar’s remark has lingered in the popular imagination — enough to find blue maquillage anachronistically smeared on Mel Gibson’s face in the mid-90s movie Braveheart — because it provides such an immediate image of “otherness”. Blue separates twice: It exoticizes the Britanni in the context of the metropole, highlighting their distance from the Roman norm. And it signals the combatants’ departure from the quotidian norms of their own milieu.
The discourse of the “natural” and the “unnatural” — and the near and the far — is deployed in both directions in the recent sci-fi Pocahontas flick Avatar, whose blue-complected noble savages index both the warriors and the preserving deities of ancient lore. [One hopes that the happy peasants in the sequel, Emoticon, will sport a cheerful yellow.]
One might reasonably expect that “blue blood”, a reference to the oxygen-depleted stuff in our veins, would allude to an exhausted aristocracy and effete blood lines, perhaps replenished through vampirism or the simple expedient of marriage to vital and wealthy commoners. Insufficient oxygen is, in fact, the danger faced by blue babies, and the source of the deadly power of hydrogen cyanide, used so ferociously in the Holocaust gas chambers that the walls were permanently tinged blue.
In this case, however, the expression comes from the Spanish phrase sangre azul. It describes a complexion sufficiently pale and transparent to reveal the tracery of veins beneath. This determination of nobility through skin color was motivated by the Catholic kings of Castile, who needed to distinguish themselves from their Moorish predecessors and establish their own patrilineage, unsullied by the miscegenation allowed under the previous regime. Here racial discrimination is tied not only to class, and the alleged purity of blood, but also to religion.
Blue roses do not occur in nature, although in mediaeval European folklore they were supposed to exist somewhere in the far east, if not in Persia, then in China. Thus the blue rose signifies the impossible quest, usually in the service of courtly, unrequited love [one possible origin story for "blue balls"]. Rudyard Kipling’s chivalric poem about roses is updated in Raymond Chandler’s screenplay for the 40s Hollywood noir film The Blue Dahlia, where the eponymous flower, artificially tinted, refers to a nightclub, primal setting for the story of a returning soldier confronting [and murdering?] an unfaithful wife.
In Andy Warhol’s late-60s porno parody, Blue Movie, the characters spend more time talking about the Vietnam War than they do engaged in the activities one is led to expect of them. Conversely, David Lynch’s mid-80s cult classic, Blue Velvet, translates retro film noir from the city to a Nancy-Drew-like small suburban town and steeps it in lurid sadomasochism.
Eros leads to Thanatos in Derek Jarman’s abstract 1993 film, Blue, released four months before he died, when he was already blind from complications related to AIDS. An unchanging field of blue illuminates the screen for the entire 79 minutes. In Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Trois Couleurs: Bleu, also from 1993, the color takes on a conceptual role derived from the French tricolor and the Revolutionary ideal of “liberty” [repurposed from the signature blue of French royalty]. The angelic Juliette Binoche plays a recently widowed composer coming to terms with her grief — and her unexpected, unwanted freedom.
While not very common in literature [falling far behind black, white, and red], the color has had a strong presence in American popular and folk music, from the relatively cheerful — “Blue Moon”, “Rhapsody in Blue”, “Blue Skies” [happy lyrics sung in a minor key] — to the melancholy — “Blue Umbrella”, “Mood Indigo” — almost always referencing the weather, and closely indexed to metaphors of lightness and darkness.
The blues developed in the 19th century among African-American communities in the Deep South. Drawn from a deep heritage of spirituals, work songs, and ballads, the genre formed the foundation for jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. The name comes from “the blue devils”, an expression for sadness and depression [a mood that can never have been too far from the surface in the experience of slavery or, subsequently, under the Jim Crow laws] and colors the “blue note”, a “bent” or “worried” tone played or sung slightly lower or flatter than its harmonic context, often setting the melody into a minor key across a progression of major chords.
While the jazz of the 50s retained improvisational techniques, blues harmonic progressions, and the blue note, the blues’s expression of raw physical longing — for justice, a better world, the next world — becomes more muted, giving way to an intellectual cool in, for example, the album “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis, or John Coltrane’s “Blue Train”.
These few examples illustrate how the concept of blueness moves from symbolic associations derived from landscape and the weather toward identification with emotional states [together with those "other" parts of life: sexuality and death] and on to representations of the cerebral and emotionally distant, or controlled.
In this last association, blue begins to take on a role similar to GREY, lending gravity to expressions of civic responsibility. Hence police uniforms, cars, and, of course, their flashing lights are commonly blue. As are markings for parking spaces reserved for the handicapped, and traffic signs for hospitals, airports, and emergency evacuation routes. The blue line of the “T”, Boston’s transit system, is aptly named: It runs from Government Center, to the aquarium, under the harbor, to the airport. [The red line runs to Harvard, and the green line to the leafy suburbs.]
Blue shares notions of calmness and balance with grey. Like grey, the symbolic and emotional content of blue is strongly tied to the value scale; light blue carries an altogether different set of metaphors and feelings than does dark blue. But grey negotiates the axis of value, from black to white, and travels across an infinite number of vectors between complementary hues. Accordingly, grey belongs to the center and can ally with no one partner.
When taken as a hue, however, not a tone or tint, blue is frequently paired with red to designate opposing conditions among similar things, such as hot or cold water pipes, or arteries and veins in diagrams of the circulatory system of the body. The alliance aims for a temporary parity; in symbolic terms, though, the power relation is only nominally equal. By virtue of an association with hot fresh blood, we will always consider red more vital, stronger, more exciting, closer to life. Blue merely serves as red’s consort, the Significant Other.
For most of us it seems natural to connect blue with coolness, but this doesn’t completely align with physics. While we associate red with heat and fire, a blue flame is much hotter than a red one. The wavelengths of light we define as blue are much shorter and of higher energy than those we define as red. They are, in fact, at opposite limits of the visible spectrum of light.
Nonetheless, one frequently finds reference to warm and cool color palettes. And we tend to experience them that way, despite the fact that black objects tend to absorb the most light, and therefore have the greatest tendency to grow warm in the sun, while white objects reflect the most light and would therefore be the coolest. The temperature of hues, then, is culturally constructed — albeit poetically — a matter of convention posing as intuition.
Blue enjoys primary status in most contemporary color systems. That is, it operates as one of the three or four elementary colors from which all others within the system may be derived: pigments and dyes [red, yellow, blue], retinal sensations [red/green, blue/yellow], light [red, green, blue], and printers inks and toners [cyan, magenta, yellow, black -- with cyan an avatar of blue].
One would be tempted to assume that blue has always carried this role. Late in the first century, however, Pliny the Elder writes in his Natural History that the great Greek painters of yore made do with just four pigments: black, white, red, and yellow ochre.
How, one might rightly ask, did they make blue? Over the years some have surmised that the text has been corrupted; one of the other colors mentioned was really blue. The theory has two problems: First, which of the other colors would be the imposter? Second, Pliny names specific pigments, together with their sources, which doesn’t allow much room for ambiguity.
Others have posited that the ancients achieved a bluish effect by glazing white over a base coat of black. Depending upon the particular white and black pigments employed, the technique can render a delicate bluish white or grey. This is, in fact, part of how the sky presents as blue: translucent white atmosphere in front of deep black space. And the same principle applies in miniature to the irises of blue eyes. But the resulting paint color would hardly be strong or versatile enough to satisfy most applications, much less combine with yellow ochre to make a decent green.
Still others have claimed that the ancient Greeks just couldn’t see blue, bolstering the argument with the observation that it is not mentioned in Homer, who famously refers to the “wine-dark sea”. Poetic license aside, it is hard to credit that people in a land immersed in sky and sea could not register the predominating hue. But it is entirely possible that they would have found the ordinary presence of blue unremarkable, reserving comment for exceptional conditions. [Actually, they did have at least one word, kyanos, used to describe dark blue ceramics and tile. And from kyanos we take our word cyan, which currently refers to a pellucid greenish blue.]
Pliny could simply have been exaggerating a bit to support his larger argument about the cultural and political dangers of luxury, contrasting an austere quartet of pigments with the panoply of materials imported at great expense from the decadent, exotic east. In any case, the set of primaries he describes indicates a very different mode of organizing and interpreting color than ours, one more concerned with darkness and lightness, dullness and brightness, than with any particular hue as we currently understand it.
We can detect traces of this line of thought in the color terms of various languages: Some tongues distinguish between light and dark only [or wet/dry, ripe/not-ripe], while others use descriptors for light, dark, and “red” [very likely a much broader category than our hue], with no linguistic representation for blue. Sometimes the word for blue evolves from the one for white. Or from black. Other times blue and green are lumped together [though more often green shares a term with yellow]. Russian, on the other hand, has color terms for two kinds of blue: regular and light — the blue version of pink.
Flavius, a family name in ancient Rome, is generally translated as “golden” or “blond”. But in the middle ages flavus was a color term for blue objects as well as yellow ones. Evidently, the ability to describe something as “bright” or “shining” was more important than marking a particular hue.
Caesar uses the word vitrum, which translates roughly as glass, to describe the Britanni’s blue paint. Although many scholars believe the stuff was an extract of woad, a native plant containing the same chemical dyes as indigo, Caesar may have been thinking of a pigment like those derived from Egyptian faience, a technique of vitrification brought to a high level in Egypt, but common throughout much of the ancient world, including what is now Scotland. This proto-faience was frequently colored with copper, rendering a turquoise hue, which could not only be used to make beads, or glaze other materials, but also ground up into pigment for paints.
Vegetable or mineral, the effect would have been quite different: Copper produces greenish blues [and bluish greens], whereas woad and indigo give deeper, more purplish hues. The principle difficulty with vegetable dyes is their lack of permanence; they tend to fade quickly. Further, to use them in paint one must create a pigment by dying an inert powder of something else, a “lake”, before suspending it in the binding medium.
Historically the most effective way to make a brilliant and permanent blue paint was very costly: It involved grinding up lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone from the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan, where they have been mining it for more than 6,000 years. The grinding process requires an alchemist’s art; the particles have to be exactly the right size for the maximum brilliance; done improperly one can be left with a dull grey. Given the distant source of the lapis stones, the color has come to be known as ultramarine blue — “beyond the seas”.
Used almost exclusively to depict the robes of the Virgin Mary in manuscript illumination and panel paintings in the 14th and 15th centuries, by the late-16th century it had become prohibitively expensive. Processes to synthesize the pigment were not discovered and refined until the mid-19th century. Brighter than traditional ultramarine, because the particles are more uniform, the synthetic color, however, is not as permanent.
Cobalt blue, similar in hue but less vibrant than ultramarine, has been in use since the middle ages, when it involved grinding cobalt blue glass into pigment. It was manufactured as a proper pigment — just the metal, no glass — in the early 19th century. Phthalocyanine blue is a very stable colorant developed into a pigment in the 1930s from phthalocyanine dyes; it has a greenish cast, though not as much as copper-based pigments.
In artist colors and paints, as opposed to house paint, blues are still expensive compared to umbers, ochres, and oxides. But the cost of the synthetic versions of these colors is negligible compared to what they were before the rapid advances in chemistry at the beginning of the 19th century and into the 20th [often the byproducts of warfare-related research]. Ultramarine blue was so precious in the Renaissance and after that it was frequently specified in the contract between artist and commissioning patron, exactly what quantity, and from what supplier.
The mid-century French conceptual artist Yves Klein, known for his monochrome paintings, found that viewers nonetheless imparted narrative content to his pictures, and reduced his palette to just one shade of blue. Noticing that dry pigments lost much of their intensity when converted to paint, Klein collaborated with chemists to develop International Klein Blue, which he patented in 1958. The technical advance was not so much in the pigments, mostly ultramarine, as on the binding medium, a clear synthetic resin. As a result, his aesthetic project shifted the work of the artist from making a painting to making the paint.
Félix González-Torres, a Cuban artist working in New York in the late 80s and early 90s, re-used minimalism as a “second language”, with elegantly ephemeral installations that slipped emotional content back into the purportedly empty frame. His signature blue was the ready-made light blue of photocopy paper, deployed in deceptively simple configurations, like stacks, with titles that evoke a sense of deep longing….
Question for discussion: Why are the following buildings blue: Pacific Design Center’s “Blue Whale”, West Hollywood, Cesar Pelli, 1975. Kunsthaus, Graz, Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, 2003. Selfridges, Birmingham, Future Systems, 2003. Forum Building, Barcelona, Herzog & de Meuron, 2004. Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis, Jean Nouvel, 2006. Extra credit: IKEA showrooms, everywhere.
[ blue, color, Félix González-Torres, Herzog & de Meuron, issue_7, mark cottle, volume_1, Yves Klein ]