A short history of Ultramarine

A short history of Ultramarine

That deep and delicious blue that’s so loved the world over is Ultramarine and it has a fascinating history. This intense, midnight blue is created by grinding a luminous blue mineral called Lapis Lazuli, mined primarily from the Sar-e-Sang mines of Afghanistan, and was at one time more valuable than gold. Marco Polo visited these mines in 1271 and wrote about ‘high mountains, out of which the best and finest blue is mined.’

Loaded onto boats in Syria and shipped to Venice, the earliest known use of the pigment in Europe was in San Saba, a church in Rome dating from first half of the eighth century. Venetians being the first in the European supply chain could command a lower price; this is evident in the many works by local artists such as Titian who used swathes of ultramarine in the 1520 Bacchus and Ariadne.

Ultramarine is a true blue and extraordinarily long lasting. Taken from the Latin words ‘ultra’ (beyond) and ‘mare’ (sea) it describes a rare colour with depth. Lapis Lazuli means ‘the blue stone’ in Latin, is now also mined in China and Chile.

In Renaissance Europe, lapis lazuli was immensely expensive thanks to its rarity and the time-intensive process of grinding the mineral into paint. The popularity of this colour co-incided with the Renaissance’s increasing preoccupation with the Virgin Mary, depicting the Madonna in a blue cloak or gown as a sign of her divinity.

Vermeer and the Pre-Raphaelites

The turban of the Girl With a Pearl Earring was painted in 1665 with Ultramarine and Lead White. A glaze of pure Ultramarine by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer who used the pigment extensively.

We can also track its use from the many contracts drawn up between artists and their patrons, many who kept a close eye on spending by controlling how much the artist used! A document from 1459 suggests that while Sano di Pietro was working on a gateway fresco in Siena, the town authorities kept hold of his supplies of gold and ultramarine so that he didn’t use it too liberally. The patron of Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones was horrified when they spilt a potful of ultramarine whilst painting a mural in the Oxford Union in 1857.

French Ultramarine

Meanwhile a synthetic alternative was being invented in France. A prize of 6000 francs was awarded to Monsieur Guimet for his new formula, forever known as ‘French Ultramarine’. In comparison, the original pigment cost 8 guineas per ounce, while it’s synthetic counterpart cost between 1 and 25 shillings per pound.

Yves Klein

Many artists thought it lacked depth and consequently the artist Yves Klein patented Klein Blue in 1960 and used it to create his famous ‘IKB series’. He was passionate about the raw powdered ultramarine and worked with a chemist for over a year to develop a special resin medium that added even more intensity than the paint!

Klein went one step further, experimenting with a variety of different implements from sponges to rollers and then eventually his ‘human paintbrushes’. Deliciously provocative, he invited nude female models to coat themselves in blue paint, then imprint their bodies onto canvas. The resulting artworks are known as ‘Anthropometries’ and are on display in the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

I love the idea that Klein served cocktails of Cointreau, gin and methylene blue at the private view of his 1958 exhibition at Galerie Iris Clert in Paris, such was his obsession with the colour blue! This genius died at the age of 34.

Buying Ultramarine Paints from Pegasus Art

Artist Oil Paints

Cranfield Artist oil paints https://www.pegasusart.co.uk/cranfield-artists-oil-colours-40ml-professional-range.ir £5.40      40ml

Michael Harding oil paints https://www.pegasusart.co.uk/michael-harding-oil-paints-40ml-tubes.ir   £6.99    40ml

Rembrandt oil paints https://www.pegasusart.co.uk/rembrandt-oil-paints-the-professional-choice-120-colours-40ml.ir   £7.99    40ml

Old Holland https://www.pegasusart.co.uk/old-holland-oil-paint-classic-paint-colours-40mls-164-artist-colours.ir £8.25    40ml

Williamsburg https://www.pegasusart.co.uk/williamsburg-oil-handmade-oil-paints-37ml-x-121-colours.ir   £10.98    37ml

Acrylic Paint

Golden Heavy Body acrylic https://www.pegasusart.co.uk/golden-heavy-body-acrylic-colours-60ml-tubes.ir  £8.60   60ml

Schmincke Primacryl acrylic https://www.pegasusart.co.uk/schmincke-primacryl-finest-artists-acrylic-60ml.ir £8.12    60ml

Watercolour Paint

Winsor & Newton https://www.pegasusart.co.uk/winsor-newton-watercolours-individual-colours-in-5ml-tubes.ir French Ultramarine £7.80   5ml

Schmincke Horadam https://www.pegasusart.co.uk/schmincke-horadam-watercolour-now-140-colours-5ml-tubes.ir  £5.85    5ml

Daniel Smith watercolours https://www.pegasusart.co.uk/daniel-smith-watercolours-5ml-tubes.ir  £6.25    5ml


Schmincke Horadam Gouache https://www.pegasusart.co.uk/schmincke-horadam-gouache-paint-15ml-tubes.ir £7.15   15ml

Winsor & Newton Designer Gouache https://www.pegasusart.co.uk/winsor-newton-designer-gouache-14ml-tube.ir £5.80   14ml

Dry Pigment

Sennelier Ultramarine Deep       £15.25    60g 

Sennelier Ultramarine Light       £15.25    60g


Paint Sets

Cranfield Artist Colours Set £45.75

Old Holland Classic Oil Colours Set £49.00


Williamsburg Oils Set £109


Cotman Watercolours Set £79.99


Derwent Inktense Studio Set £45.00