Having found lists of obscure/obsolete color names and rounded out the alphabet with a few simply-charming-to-me colors, each day, I’ll introduce a color and a swatch I’ve painted and then write about whatever comes to mind as I muse about the day’s color. Fair warning, my mind is a non-linear traveler, so who knows where my contemplations will take us.
U is for…
Ultramarine Ash – a rather weak blue-gray
Natural Ultramarine, made from Lapis Lazuli, remains one of the most expensive artist pigments. This extraordinarily vibrant and beautiful deep blue color was first used in 6th century Afghanistan and was in peak usage during the Italian Renaissance when it was known as Fra Angelico Blue.
The color I’ve introduced today, though, is Ultramarine Ash which is made from what remains after the Ultramarine Blue has been removed from the Lapis Lazuli. It contains only traces of the Ultramarine color, hence its weak color and name. However, it can still contain some of the sparkles from the Pyrite crystals that naturally occur within Lapis. So artists found it very useful as a medium or neutral tint, and also as an excellent underpainting color.
A synthetic form of Ultramarine Blue was developed in the late 1820s. It was non-toxic and permanent, so it was widely adopted, but it was also darker and less azure than the Lapis-based original. And without the original Lapis-derived Ultramarine Blue, there was no base from which to extract Ultramarine Ash, so its use faded as well. There is still some genuine Lapis paint made, but not on a wide scale.
Ultramarine is so connected to Lapis Lazuli, which is one of my favorite stones, that’s all my mind seems to want to consider today. I have a beautiful ring I love to wear.
Lapis Lazuli has been a valued gemstone for at least 6,000 years, treasured by ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and China.
In the story of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of erotic love and war, during her descent into the underworld, must pass through seven gates. At each, she is required to remove one of her adornments, including a lapis necklace and lapis rods.
In ancient Egypt, they were using lapis as a pigment and wore the stones as markers of rank. But there was also a spiritual component as it was believed the stone could lead the soul into immortality, as well as open the heart to love. It’s said that when Osiris became the god of the underworld, he was gold and lapis lazuli.
Although we have, for the most part, shortened the name Lapis Lazuli to Lapis, this isn’t a very accurate description. Lapis is the Latin word for stone, and Lazuli is derived from the Persian word for blue. So I think a more accurate shortening would have been Lazuli. I confess I was confused when I first read the term “Lapis philosophorum” which is the Philosopher’s Stone so important in the alchemical arts – I thought it was made of Lapis Lazuli. There are times I rue not having a classical education and my lack of Latin fluency.
I delight in imagining all the vaults and ceilings and other images painted in Lapis Lazuli pigment and Ultramine and depicting the night sky and the heavens. A recurring dream fragment I have is being outside at night, lying under the stars and waiting for what wonderful thing will turn up in the sky.
I’m looking forward to reading Blue: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau. There are numerous images of paintings and objects throughout. He’s written a series of color history books, including Red, Green, Yellow, White, and Black. My plan for my self-directed program of color immersion is to try to primarily focus on one color at a time, and I’m starting to gather my “blue” reading list. Also on it is Blue: In Search of Nature’s Rarest Color by Kai Kupferschmidt.
While I can’t claim Lapis Lazuli was involved here, I do like this journal page I created, inspired by Pablo Neruda’s words:
“We need to sit on the edge of darkness and fish for the fallen light with patience.”
What about you? Prefer the color Ultramarine Ash or Ultramarine? Think Lapis Lazuli is beautiful? Ever imagine fishing for fallen light? Any books to recommend on the color blue? Do tell – you know I’d love to hear.