Colour Chronicles: Staying true to blue

In the first of a series of explorations in colour, interior expert Michelle Ogundehin talks of the shade that evokes the feeling of calmness and trust and also of woe and suppression.

by Michelle Ogundehin Published on : Sep 07, 2020

Blue is routinely recalled as the world’s most popular colour. No doubt this is because it instantly conjures idyllic visions of cloudless summer skies and warm calm seas, conferring feelings of tranquillity and inner peace. As a result, many corporate logos and uniforms, professional to scholarly, tend to be rendered in crisply inoffensive mid-blues in order to prompt thoughts of dependability and promote loyalty in the ranks. Likewise, blue is included in 53 per cent of the world’s flags. Consider too popular idioms like ‘blue sky thinking’ meaning to think imaginatively and without constriction; to have ‘blue blood’ infers someone of aristocratic heritage; and ‘a bolt from the blue’ can certainly mean bad news but also a burst of inspiration. Then again blue movies tend to denote pornography, and blue was the colour of choice for a certain, shall we say invigorating, little pill for men. And how about the ‘blue fit’ connotations of explosive anger?

What too of its moody symbolism? If we want laconic soundtracks par excellence, think no further than one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, the quadruple platinum selling Kind of Blue recorded by Miles Davies in 1959. Or indeed the Blues itself, the very manifestation of strife and melancholia in musical form! Or the phrase, ‘to have the blues’, itself assumed to originate from the 17th century English expression “the blue devils”, which described the fevered hallucinations experienced by an alcoholic of the age in the midst of cold turkey. In fact, by the 1800s, to be ‘blue’ was slang for drunk, as is ‘blau sein’ today, in colloquial German.

But pivot again and the Greeks believe that blue wards off the ‘evil eye’, in India it is divinely associated with Krishna, and in Catholic churches it is the default clothing colour for the Virgin Mary. Yet, in Korea, dark blue is the colour of mourning. And, present food on a blue plate and your appetite will wane, as blue suppresses the metabolism. So, can it be that blue, widely acknowledged as such a popular colour, is also intrinsically symbolic of woe, extreme inebriation, death, suppression and divine protection?

Indigo mood board inspiration - a shade representative of intelligence and dignity | A short history of Blue by Michelle Ogundehin | STIRworld
Indigo mood board inspiration - a shade representative of intelligence and dignity Image: Michelle Ogundehin

Well, some of this highly contrary nature can be explained by its many variants: blue being unusual in colour terms for being a rather imprecise catch-all for a vast array of shades. In other words, veer towards indigo and this shade is widely held to be representative of intelligence and dignity. Why? Because darker blues are strong and upright, commanding without being dictatorial. But, tend towards brighter blues and we evoke images of the sea and ideas of cleanliness, liberation and freedom. Albeit if contemplating very vivid blues, of the kind found in a child’s paint palette, we picture instead youthful optimism and naivety. And if we increasingly add white, we enter the paler territory of the sky with its associations of celestial harmony, serenity and calm.

Nevertheless, in art, blue was historically defined by its rarity. The first blue pigment, a Mediterranean summer sky-hued blue, was created around 2,200 BC by the early Egyptians. Mixed from sand and minerals, such as azurite or malachite, it was highly prized and used to decorate only important ceramics and the tombs of pharaohs. By the Medieval era, the more intense blue seen in European paintings of the time — think of the striking blue headscarf worn by Dutch artist Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring — is likely to be ‘Ultramarine Blue’, made from the semi-precious gemstone Lapis Lazuli imported by Italian traders from mines in Afghanistan. Also known as ‘True Blue’, it was at times more expensive than gold.

Then there’s the deeper-toned ‘Prussian Blue’, discovered in the early 18th century by a German dye-maker who accidently combined potash with blood. It was used by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai for his iconic 1831 woodblock series Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, including The Great Wave off Kanagawa and later exclusively by Picasso during his depression-inspired Blue Period (1901-1904). Much cheaper than the pigments that preceded it, and more resistant to fading, it rapidly became the new blue du jour — albeit very briefly ousted by Cerulean Blue, as favoured by the French Impressionists Monet and Morisot. And let us not forget Yves Klein blue, an artificial derivative of Ultramarine blue trademarked by the artist as his signature colour for a decade of paintings.

Navy blue mood board inspiration – the colour that signifies trust and loyalty | A short history of Blue by Michelle Ogundehin | STIRworld
Navy blue mood board inspiration – the colour that signifies trust and loyalty Image: Michelle Ogundehin

But it’s not all historical intrigue. Excitingly, a new deep blue with a reddish undertone was created just a decade ago. Named YInMn blue, it was discovered, again by chance, by a Professor Mas Subramanian and his team at Oregon State University while experimenting with new materials for electronics! Composed of yttrium, indium, and manganese, hence the peculiar name, such was the fanfare at its reveal, it was swiftly inducted into none other than the Crayola canon of wax crayon colours!

Thus, has blue held the world transfixed. After all, could the universally accessible denim jeans really have been any other colour? As such, I’d posit that any negative associations derive only from the fact that blue rarely occurs naturally in food — bar black grapes, blueberries and a few potatoes — thus something of this hue would likely be either rotten or poisonous. Ironically, blue-coloured coffees to cocktails might soon be adorning the menus of every hip restaurant and bar in town courtesy of the Butterfly pea plant, aka the blue pea. Thanks to its leaves, food and drink can now be rendered brilliant blue in seconds without affecting the flavour. Whether it'll catch on is debatable; regardless it’s a fitting next chapter in this colour’s eminently twisty history.

(Also read Michelle Ogundehin's interview with STIR to know her journey in design, and click here to know more about her book ‘Happy Inside’.)

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