Making the Blue
“For as long as there have been painters, there have been color men. For years it was thought that the true painter, a master painter, would gather his own pigments, the earths, ochres, insects, snails, plants, and potions that went into making color, and combine them in his studio. But the truth is, the ingredients for colors were often hard to find, difficult to prepare, and rare. To be a master, a painter needs to paint, not waste the light by searching for and preparing pigment. It was the color man who delivered the rainbow into the hands of the artist.
Mesopatamian pendant of Lapis Lazuli circa 2900 BC
Ultramarine, true blue, the Sacre Bleu, is made from crushed lapis lazuli, a gemstone, and for centuries, it was rarer and more valuable than gold. Lapis lazuli is found in one place in the world, the remote mountains of Afghanistan, a long, dangerous journey from Europe, where the churches and palaces were being decorated with the Blessed Virgin wearing a Sacred Blue gown.
It was the color men who sought out the lapis and pulled the color from the stone.
First they pounded the lapis with a bronze mortar and pestle, then that powder would be sifted until so fine the grains were not visible to the naked eye. The dull bluish-gray powder was then melted into a mixture of pine rosin, gum mastic, and beeswax. Over a period of three weeks, the putty would be massaged, washed with lye, strained, then dried, until all that was left was pure, powdered ultramarine, which a color man could sell as dry pigment, to be mixed by the artist with plaster for fresco, egg yolk for tempera, or linseed or poppy oil to use as oil paint.
There are other blues, blues from plants, indigo and woad, which fade with time, and inferior blues from minerals like copper and azurite, which can go black with time, but a true blue, a forever blue, ultramarine, was made in this exact way. Every color man knew the recipe, and every color man who traveled Europe from painter to painter with his wares could swear to his clients that this was the process he had used.”
From Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art by Christopher Moore