Saturday, November 26, 2011

Art and Nature: The Alchemy of Blue (1 of 2)

Prussian blue
The primary color blue was difficult to obtain naturally.  In Ancient Egypt, blue was regarded as a sacred color.  The Egyptians experimented with various elements until they created the first synthetic pigment – Egyptian blue.  This formula for blue pigment was used throughout Europe until the Fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century, when it was lost.

After that, people had several unsatisfactory choices for blue paint.  For example, created from lapis-lazuli that had to be transported from Afghanistan, ultramarine color was more costly than gold.  Meanwhile, the color indigo often turned black with age, and was not very versatile.  Also azurite and other copper-based blues often changed to green.  Creating a useable blue was imperative for painters everywhere. Knowing that the color blue was created once, artists through the ages experimented in search of a replacement formula. 

When Prussian Blue was made available in the early 1700s, it took Europe and later Asia by storm.  The first synthetic pigment of the Modern Era, Prussian Blue became widely used by printers, manufacturers, and others.  In fact, it was the synthetic pigment most widely used from 1708 to 1970, when phthaloryanine blue replaced it.

Prussian Blue was first mentioned in a letter written by Johann Frisch (German, 1666-1743).  He was promoting its virtues to Gottfried Leibniz (German, 1646 – 1716), the president of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Prussia in 1708.  Frisch, the product manager who oversaw the manufacture of Prussian Blue, sent product samples throughout Europe.

The apocryphal story of how Prussian Blue came about centers on the discovery being an accident.  This pigment was created through serendipity. Colormaker (Johann) Diesbach (German) was trying to create a red pigment in his laboratory in 1704.  Diesbach mixed iron sulphate with potash that was accidentally contaminated with blood.  What was created by this accident is the chemical compound of iron ferrocyanide.  Frisch, Diesbach’s supervisor, improved the original formula to make the pigment more stable.

Through Frisch’s active promotion, Prussian Blue became widely used in Europe by 1710.  He named the new color, “Prussian Blue”.  As the use of the pigment spread across Europe, it became also known as “Berlin Blue” and “Parisian Blue”.  Since different manufacturers used local supplies, slightly different hues of this pigment came into being.  Some of these hues were known as “Celestial Blue”, “Haarlem Blue”, and “Hamburg Blue”.  However, the generic name for Prussian Blue is “iron blue”.

The exploration of color in the 18th Century was more than simply an artistic pursuit.  It was also a scientific and philosophical one as well.  The examination of “color” was the junction of practical and aesthetic pursuits during this time.  For example, the invention of Prussian Blue crossed many disciplines.  Manufacturing the pigment involved colormakers, apothecaries, drysalters, and chemists.  No one group had total control over the process of making the paint.  Conflicts arose prompting the eventual breakdown of traditional guilds, and the rise of modern manufacturing methods.

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