True blue

Novalis

Novalis

A finely written piece, again from The Paris Review, from a young Rochester novelist on how costly ultramarine paint once was. It’s fascinating how an artist using cheaper substitutes would be taking terrible career risks. Now it’s one of the less expensive paints, something I use constantly but mostly to mix with raw umber to get an equivalent for very dark grays and a substitute for black. There are some inspiring paeans to ultramarine here, though the great poet of blueness is missing: the German scientist, Novalis and his “blue flower,” the symbol of German Romanticism. Yet for me, ultramarine isn’t “true blue.” It’s a blue that leans toward purple, and you’ll find it far more often in nature than a purely neutral blue, which I’ve found nearly impossible to locate out in the world. In our garden, I’ve seen what I considered a pure blue only once in a delphinium that survived our winters only a couple years and was impossible to find again. There was almost no trace of green or red in its blue flowers. Blue has no more appeal for me as a color than anything else in the spectrum, yet it was amazing to see blue, and just blue, itself out there in the yard, rather than some commonplace blue tinted toward of violet or purple, as ultramarine is. From the essay:

Michelangelo couldn’t afford ultramarine. His painting The Entombment, the story goes, was left unfinished as the result of his failure to procure the prized pigment. Rafael reserved ultramarine for his final coat, preferring for his base layers a common azurite; Vermeer was less parsimonious in his application and proceeded to mire his family in debt. Derived from the lapis lazuli stone, the pigment was considered more precious than gold. For centuries, the lone source of ultramarine was an arid strip of mountains in northern Afghanistan. The process of extraction involved grinding the stone into a fine powder, infusing the deposits with melted wax, oils, and pine resin, and then kneading the product in a dilute lye solution. European painters depended on wealthy patrons to underwrite their purchase. Less scrupulous craftsmen were known to swap ultramarine for smalt or indigo and pocket the difference; if they were caught, the swindle left their reputation in ruin.

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