American artist Georgia O’Keeffe spoke of ‘the blue that will always be there, as it is now, after all man's destruction is finished’. Certainly, the history of the colour blue is complex and inseparable from the history of mankind.
In the Ancient World, blue came from crushed lapis lazuli, mined in Afghanistan and exported across the globe. Because it was incredibly expensive, lapis lazuli was often used to adorn jewellery, as a way of publicising the wearer’s wealth. To create a cheaper alternative, the Ancient Egyptians developed the world’s first artificial pigment called Egyptian blue, which was reserved for funereal art and to colour the material used to wrap mummies, due to a popular belief that blue would ward off evil. The belief remains widespread today, with nazar charms (depicting the evil eye) often being made from blue glass.
Having become associated with protection, the colour became synonymous with royalty and affluence in the Thirteenth Century, thanks in part to King Louis IX of France, who regularly dressed in blue – a habit promptly copied by his nobles. It was under Louis’ reign that the royal crest became an azure shield with golden fleur-de-lis.
The Renaissance saw another evolution in the symbolism of blue. Scientific developments made it possible to purify lapis lazuli to create ultramarine, a pigment so expensive that Italian artists reserved its use for painting the robes of the Virgin Mary. As a result, blue developed an association with holiness, humility and virtue. Far from the pomp and luxury of King Louis IX’s court, this new blue became a signifier of Christian meekness.
As colour production grew steadily cheaper, the popular use of blue for stained glass windows and the wall tiles of mosques strengthened a traditional connection between the colour and sacred practice. Yet when blue dyes became synthetic and truly affordable for everyone, the colour’s meaning changed again, as blue started to be used for military and school uniforms, and for workman’s jeans.
Georgia O’Keeffe may have been on to something when she spoke of the enduring quality of blue, but her claim that it ‘will always be there, as it is now’ overlooks continuous transformations in the manufacture, application and significance of this compelling colour.
‘Blue’ does not signify a unitary idea but a vast array of hues and tones, a virtue which artists have recognised and celebrated for centuries. In painting, blue can depict anything from the sea and sky to the pallor of skin and the violet hue of a shadow. Here at Buy Art | Buy Now, we wanted to recognise this diversity with a new selection. Its title, Blue Notes, refers to a technique in jazz where notes are unusually pitched to evoke heightened emotion. Similarly, in each work from our Blue Notes selection, the artist has chosen variants of blue to accent a particular feature or feeling in their composition.
“Blue is a really important colour in my work, particularly ultramarine & cerulean”, says featured artist, Sarah Jane Moon. “It has many positive associations for me, and makes vivid my upbringing in New Zealand, where vast summer skies met large rivers, lakes and oceans. I think it's a very spiritual and profound colour which also retains its mystery.”
Where Sarah Jane employs rich blue tones to depict ruched fabric, conferring a sense of warmth and tactile opulence, Debbie Ayles uses blue to affect a calming harmonisation in her art. “Paintings never begin blue”, she says; “I tumble through reds, oranges, yellows and greens, and then finally I introduce blues to pull everything together. Somehow the composition becomes calmer and more restful, ready for the architectural image I overlay.”
Blue Notes features countless shades of blue across many mediums, from navy, azure, cerulean, aquamarine and teal to turquoise, cornflower, cyan, indigo, sapphire and cobalt. The subject-matter is as diverse, with the crucifixion, the female nude, architecture, maritime, still life, and abstract art all represented. This rich spectrum is designed to echo the enduring and ever-changing legacy of Blue Notes, in both art and life.