Legend has it that ultramarine is the reason why Michelangelo’s painting The Entombment was never finished. Ultramarine pigment was too expensive for the artist, but the peerless shade of blue was the only worthy color for Michelangelo’s work. Ultramarine was historically derived from lapis lazuli. Its name means beyond the sea, stemming from the vast distances these precious pigments were shipped across great oceans – from northern Afghanistan to Europe.
Alongside gold, this intense shade of blue was used by artists in the Renaissance for the most important details of a painting. This was both because the color was beautiful, and because the pigment was long-lasting and unharmed by the passing of time. In older paintings of the Virgin Mary, her mantle is painted with ultramarine of the finest quality.
Had Michelangelo lived today, perhaps he would have been able to finish his painting, because ultramarine is now produced synthetically and is not nearly as expensive.
Like ultramarine, cobalt blue has historically been one of the more exclusive colors – some people even considered cobalt to be an excellent, slightly cheaper substitute for ultramarine. Cobalt blue is a little bluer than ultramarine and develops hints of green when blended with linseed oil. The shade is a blend of cobalt oxide and aluminum oxide and Swedish chemist Georg Brandt was actually the first person to isolate cobalt in the 1730s; he also discovered that it was what caused shifting shades of blue in glass. Cobalt is named after Kobold – a goblin once believed to live underground, with power over ore in the mines. The shade is the characteristic blue found on Chinese porcelain and blue-colored class.
Anyone who has been to the French Riviera likely has a clear memory of turquoise. The water surrounding the coastline is a dazzling turquoise, even if the Côte d’Azur is named after azure blue, which is the color of a clear blue sky.
Turquoise is often used to refer to shades of blue with hints of green, but in fact, the precise color of the precious stone turquoise gave the color its name. Turquoise was also one of the first precious stones to be mined, and the finer stones are still valuable today.
Royal blue is both a darker and brighter shade of azure blue, and is not to be confused with navy blue. The shade is said to have been named by the minors of Somerset, England, who had royal blue garb made for Queen Charlotte in the 1810s. The color is still associated with the British royal house, and is also the shade of blue adorning the British flag, the Union Jack.
Indigo blue is the world’s most common color, with a history dating back over 4,000 years. The reason indigo is so common is mainly because it is the color of traditional work clothes, like overalls. In Sweden, indigo is derived from the woad plant, but in Japan for example, it comes from a plant that is related to the broadleaf plantain and pale smartweed. Traditionally, indigo gave jeans their blue hue and in some places in Japan, the culture of indigo dyeing lives on. DIY enthusiasts and smaller, exclusive denim producers still use the traditional and meticulous indigo method to give jeans the perfect color.
As the name suggests, sky blue is the bright, clear shade of blue that colors the sky on a cloudless day. Today the shade is occasionally called baby blue, but usually baby blue refers to a shade lighter than sky blue.
Lavender includes pale shades of purple, violet and lilac with a hint of gray. The name comes from the lavender plant whose beautiful blossoms lend color to the south of France in the summer.
Violet blue is named after the lovely, heart-shaped purple petals of violets, and in literature, it is perhaps one of the most carelessly used blues. Violet blue eyes are incredibly rare, but in the fairy tale world, they are conspicuously common.