A brief history of ultramarine.
Michelangelo couldn’t afford ultramarine. His painting The Entombment, the story goes, was left unfinished as the result of his failure to procure the prized pigment. Rafael reserved ultramarine for his final coat, preferring for his base layers a common azurite; Vermeer was less parsimonious in his application and proceeded to mire his family in debt. Ultramarine: the quality of the shade is embodied in its name. This is the superlative blue, the end-all blue, the blue to which all other hues quietly aspire. The name means “beyond the sea”—a dreamy ode to its distant origins, as romantic as it is imprecise.
Derived from the lapis lazuli stone, the pigment was considered more precious than gold. For centuries, the lone source of ultramarine was an arid strip of mountains in northern Afghanistan. The process of extraction involved grinding the stone into a fine powder, infusing the deposits with melted wax, oils, and pine resin, and then kneading the product in a dilute lye solution. Because of its prohibitive costs, the color was traditionally restricted to the raiment of Christ or the Virgin Mary. European painters depended on wealthy patrons to underwrite their purchase. Less scrupulous craftsmen were known to swap ultramarine for smalt or indigo and pocket the difference; if they were caught, the swindle left their reputation in ruin. Read More