Ultramarine is one of the oldest of the artists' pigments still in use today. It is a brilliant blue solid with a slight red tinge and it has been used in paints for at least fifteen hundred years, although it was used as a colorant for a much longer time than that. For nearly 3000 years it was prepared from the natural gemstone lapis lazuli which is essentially a form of limestone containing a blue mineral named lazurite.

Crystalline samples of natural lapis lazuli

Early Days

 One of the oldest examples of the decorative uses of lapis lazuli
is the coffin of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, dating from the 14th century BC.

The earliest recorded application as a pigment seems, however, to be in the 700-900 AD cave paintings in Afghanistan temples, close to the the Sar-e-Sang mine in Jum in an inaccessible region of Badakshan which is the source of the highest quality mineral. The mine was visited by Marco Polo in 1271 in connection with the journey he made, and he stated that the mineral was used for the extraction of a blue pigment. The pigment also appears in Chinese paintings and Indian murals, dating from the 10th to the 12th centuries AD, but Natural Ultramarine did not reach Europe until a little later, probably imported by way of Venice, the principal port for trade with the East. There is much evidence that it was being widely used in the west in the 14th and 15th centuries for illuminated manuscripts in which its brilliant blue complements the red of vermillion (a sulphide of mercury) and gold leaf.

European Usage

The National Gallery in London has a number of paintings also from this period where natural ultramarine has been used for eye-catching blue areas. Impressive
examples are Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne (right), painted in 1523, and The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (left), painted by Cima da Conegliano in about 1502. In both of these some of the ultramarine is mixed with lead white (basic lead carbonate : 2PbCO3.Pb(OH)2) to speed up the drying process and hence to prevent cracking of the surface.

(Photographs by courtesy of the National Gallery, London)

Because there is no abundant source of lapis lazuli in Europe, the mineral had to be imported into Western countries, and when it arrived there, 50 separate stages were necessary to separate from it a 10% yield of the pigment. Natural ultramarine therefore became the most expensive of artists' colorants with a price sometimes exceeding that of gold. It was, therefore, used very sparingly and the highest quality ultramarine was often reserved for painting the robes of Mary and the infant Christ in religious images.

An account of the traditional methods of separating natural ultramarine from lapis lazuli is given on the Kremer Pigments website where 1 kg of the mineral is quoted as producing 30 g of pigment. The website also gives present-day prices for natural ultramarine, traditionally separated, the highest grade of which costs about £280 per ounce! Dr Georg Kremer has written this description of the extraction of ultramarine from lapis lazuli:

"The principle of the method was that the ground mineral was incorporated into a mixture of melted wax, resins and oils. The molten mass was wrapped around a cloth and kneaded under a dilute solution of lye (a solution of potassium carbonate prepared by extracting wood ashes with water). Our best quality lapis lazuli (Fra Angelico blue) is still made by this lavish procedure. Blue particles of lazurite are washed out by this process and collect by settling at the bottom of the vessel. Most of the colourless crystalline material and other impurities remain behind in the doughy mass. It is usually carried out in at least three separate extractions, offering several grades of diminishing quality. The largest and deepest-coloured particles emerge in the first extraction while the last extraction contains a high proportion of colourless material with only a few small blue particles. This product is known as ultramarine ash. It has a high degree of transpareny and was valued as a blue glazing pigment."

Although replaced for some time by the less expensive copper carbonate mineral azurite, natural ultramarine was back in favour in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with, in many cases, the patron of an artist buying the pigment separately for any picture he had commissioned. As a consequence azurite was often used for "underpainting" the ultramarine so that the amount of the latter necessary to produce the brilliant blue colour was reduced.

One artist who insisted on using natural ultramarine was the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Two notable examples of his paintings in which his use of the pigment clearly shows are Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, painted in 1662-1663 and now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, painted in 1664-1665 and now lodged in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:

A fine example of natural ultramarine can be seen in the satin gown of Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (left), although it is now far less brilliant today due to the ageing of the varnish.

In Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (right), it was clearly used to colour the folded blue drapery on the table and the skirt of the dress, being applied as a conventional paint.

However, Vermeer had other, less obvious, uses for the precious pigment.

Natural ultramarine can be found in almost all Vermeer's paintings. Not only is it to be found in blue-coloured objects, but traces can also be detected in shaded areas of white draperies, black marble tiles, green foliage, white-washed walls, shadows, and even the warm oranges and browns of wood and clothing. Vermeer realised early in his career that adding natural ultramarine to shades of grey gave them the characteristic brightness of intense daylight. He used the pigment throughout his life to create bright white light by mixing ultramarine with lead white to cover effectively the warm brown of the canvas on which a picture was being painted. In doing this the pigment was acting like the Laundry Blue for which synthetic ultramarine was to be used two hundred years later. The blue light reflected by the ultramarine mixed with the yellow light reflected by the canvas to give white light, effectively relected by the relevant areas of the painting. The same principle was applied in Vermeer's pictures to some of the warm orange and brown tones which are "cooled down" and given an "illuminated" appearance by the presence of the blue pigment.

More Recent Times

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the pigment was still very costly but artists had found no attractive alternative blue for their palettes. Chemists were, therefore, starting to think of preparing a synthetic form of ultramarine.


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