The History and Meaning Behind the Color Blue in Art

Vincent van Gogh, "The Starry Night," 1889. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The first blue color was produced by ancient Egyptians in 2200 B.C. in an effort to create a permanent pigment that could be applied to a variety of surfaces. Since, the color has continued to evolve, and its association with calming, natural elements like the sky and clear water have solidified it as a universal favorite among artists, interior designers and other disciplines.

Over the course of art history, artists of all media have utilized the multitude of unique shades of blue as a means of expression. Pablo Picasso himself underwent a “blue period” where all his paintings were created in shades of blue and blue-green to create a subdued, melancholic atmosphere. With the latest blue pigment, YInMn, which was discovered less than a decade ago, the color blue continues to unveil its artistic properties, carrying a rich history and significance for both artists and audiences alike.

Blue Color Meaning

The scarcity of the blue mineral lapis lazuli drove the earliest adopters to seek new ways of producing blue through chemistry. Because it was a rare and expensive mineral to acquire up until the dawn of the Industrial Age, it’s often associated with royalty and divinity, which is partly why it is widely a favorite color today. Blue can have a variety of meanings and symbolize a diverse range of ideals depending upon a culture’s beliefs.

Largely, the color blue is considered beneficial to the mind and body. It is believed that it slows human metabolism, which produces a calming effect. Light blue is associated with health, healing, and tranquility while dark blue represents a more powerful, serious, but sometimes melancholic nature.

Blue Pigments Used in Art

Since the discovery of blue pigments by ancient Egyptians, different shades of the color blue continue to be produced by scientists and chemists around the world. Below is a brief overview of the rich history of each shade, and how artists capitalize on their emotive capabilities.

Egyptian Blue

The first stable blue colorant was created by ancient Egyptians using the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli. The mineral was valued by the culture and was used in conjunction with gold to adorn tombs of pharaohs. Supply, however, was scarce and this drove them to seek new methods of creating blues. This was realized by heating together a mixture of limestone, sand, and copper into calcium copper silicate at temperatures between 1,470 and 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit. The result was a richly saturated, royal turquoise color which we now know as Egyptian blue, or cuprorivaite.

Sphinx of Amenhotep III. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The color remained popular throughout the Roman Empire, with variants created by the Mesopotamians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. In 2006, scientist Giovanni Vietri discovered that Egyptian blue glows under fluorescent lights, indicating the pigment emits infrared radiation. This discovery allowed historians to identify the color on ancient artifacts in an easier and more effective manner.


Used from about 2500 B.C. to A.D. 1800, azurite is produced by weathering of copper ore deposits. This deep, clear pigment is often associated with the deep blue color of winter skies. Though the pigment bears a rich, pleasing color, azurite was rarely used in painting due to the availability of Egyptian blue, which was favored for its durability. An example of the use of azurite in art is the blue sky of Diego Velázquez’s The Surrender of Breda (1634).


Though Egyptians were fascinated with lapis lazuli, though they never discovered how to create pigments with the mineral. Not until the 6th century did the color blue emerge as a true pigment when it appeared in Buddhist paintings in Afghanistan. The pigment was eventually imported into Europe by Italian traders in the 14th and 15 centuries, where it was renamed “ultramarine.” In Latin, ultramarinus translates to “beyond the sea.” It soon became the most sought-after color in medieval Europe, with a price tag that rivaled that of gold.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “The Last Judgment,” 1536-1541. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Because it was so costly, the color was often reserved for royalty, and great artists of this era such as Michelangelo and Raphael were forced to use it sparingly. Art historians even believe that Michelangelo’s The Entombment (1500) was left unfinished because he could not afford to buy more ultramarine. The pigment remained expensive until a French chemist discovered a synthetic version in 1826; aptly named “French Ultramarine.”

Cobalt Blue

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Vue du Mourillon.” Sold for £305,000 via Sotheby’s (February 2016).

Cobalt was originally discovered in the 8th and 9th centuries, where it was used to decorate ceramics and jewelry. In China, cobalt was the chosen pigment for the iconic blue and white porcelain patterns that emerged in the region. A purer version was discovered by French chemist, Louis Jacques Thénard in 1802, and not long after, commercial production began in France. Artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Vincent van Gogh utilized cobalt in many of their iconic works — including the instantly recognizable The Starry Night (1889).


Claude Monet, “Le Grand Canal.” Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Cerulean comes from the Latin word caeruleus, which means “dark blue” and is most likely derived from caelum, the Latin word for “sky.” The pigment was originally composed of cobalt magnesium stannate, or compounds of tin. In 1805, it was perfected by roasting cobalt and tin oxides, and was put on the market for artistic use in 1860, sold by art materials manufacturer Rowney and Company. Cerulean was used heavily by Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet, who combined the pigment with other bright blues like cobalt and synthetic ultramarine to create vibrant, colorful works. In 1999, cerulean was even named “color of the millennium” by Pantone.


Indigo is a blue dye, rather than a pigment, which comes from Indigofera tinctoria, a crop grown in abundance around the world. Because it could be grown in excess, it was an affordable option for dying textiles, and became a highly desired import throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, sparking tensions and trade wars between Europe and America. In 1880, a synthetic version of indigo replaced the natural version, and it is still used today to dye blue jeans.

Navy Blue

Navy is the darkest shade of blue, and there are many variations of the pigment. It was originally referred to as marine blue since it was the color for British Royal Navy uniforms and worn by officers and sailors from 1748. Since, modern navies have darkened their uniforms even further in an effort to reduce fading that happened quicker with a lighter navy color.

Prussian Blue

Prussian blue, also referred to as Berliner Blau, was accidentally discovered by German dye-maker Johann Jacob Diesbach in 1704. Diesbach intended on creating a new red hue, but his compound potash came in contact with animal blood. While he assumed this interaction would make the pigment more red, it instead created a surprising chemical reaction that produced a vibrant blue.

Pablo Picasso, “Portrait d’Angel Fernández de Soto,” 1903. Sold for £34,761,248 via Christie’s (June 2010).

Prussian blue was a pivotal shade of blue in art, used by Pablo Picasso throughout his “blue period” and in Japanese woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai‘s iconic work, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. However, it also became a radical success in the world of architecture after astronomer Sir John Herschel discovered it’s unique sensitivity to light in 1842. This sensitivity could be manipulated to produce multiple copies of a single drawing, and this image reproduction became used by architects to create what we know as “blueprints.”

Phthalocyanine Blue

Roy Lichtenstein, “Moonscape,” 1965. Screenprint on blue Rowlux. Sold for $8,000 via Swann Auction Galleries (November 2007).

This bright blue pigment was developed around the 1930s and has outstanding visual properties, which is why many artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Barnett Newman, and Roy Lichtenstein choose to include this pigment in their palettes. In Newman’s 1967 painting, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, the artist uses phthalo blue.

International Klein Blue

Yves Klein, Monochrome coffee table, c. 1970. Sold for €32,500 via Artcurial (March 2017).

International Klein Blue, a matte version of ultramarine, was developed by French artist Yves Klein. Between 1947 and 1957, he produced over 200 monochrome paintings, sculptures, and even used human models in works bearing the deep hue. He eventually patented his signature pigment in 1960 under the name IKB.


The most recently uncovered blue pigment was discovered accidentally by Professor Mas Subramanian and his graduate student Andrew E. Smith at Oregon State University in 2009. While researching materials used for manufacturing electronics, the two noticed that one of the samples turned blue when heated. The color was aptly named YInMn based on its chemical makeup of yttrium, indium, and manganese. In 2016, it was released for commercial use, proving to be a durable, safe, and easy-to-produce blue.

The color blue, with all its variations and hues, continues to be one of the most favored shades on the color wheel. From its use in ancient civilizations to modern day discoveries, the evolution of the pigment has enticed artists from the likes of Yves Klein, who patented his own blue pigment, to Pablo Picasso, whose “blue period” spanned more than three years. As contemporary artists continue to reimagine uses of the color, we continue to add to a rich history of vibrant blues that already exist.

Sources: My Modern Met | Lifewire | The New York Times