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Ultramarine: The Most Expensive Pigment Ever

Genuine ultramarine is characteristic colour in Medieval paintings.

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The prices of some tubes of paints may make modern-day artists gasp, but often there’s a cheaper alternative, such as a synthetic version of a pigment. Now imagine painting in an era when the most beautiful of all blues was more expensive than even gold, yet because of the symbolism associated with it you simply had to use it. To be working in a time when using expensive pigments in a painting was seen as a act of devotion to God and your painting’s value was judged by the cost of the pigments used in it. (A commission might even specify exactly how much ultramarine was to be used!)

This was the situation European artists were in during the early Renaissance (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), when pure, intense color was regarded as a reflection of God’s glory. The three purest colors were ultramarine, gold, and vermilion. Ultramarine was described by Cennino Cennini, the 15th century Italian artist who wrote on the techniques of the great masters, as “illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colors”. Artists reserved it for the most revered of subjects, such as the robes of the Madonna and Christ.

All the ultramarine used in Europe was imported from the mines at Badakshan, in what is now Afghanistan. Extracted from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, it was extremely lightfast, bright deep blue. The extraction process was complicated and labor-intensive, which added to its cost. The pigment was imported through Venice in Italy, so it’s found in a lot of paintings by Italian artists, who had relatively easy access to it.

Durer is quoted as saying: “I have used the very best colors I could get, especially good ultramarine … and since I had prepared enough, I added two more coats at the end so that it would last longer.”

The Decline in the Value of Ultramarine
The concept of inherent value of a color diminished with the development of oil painting. One of the reasons for this was that ultramarine needed to be mixed with white when used with oils to regain the intensity it had when used with egg tempera. In the late Renaissance-era paintings we start to see a range of blues as ultramarine was mixed with white, such as in the works of Titian and Durer.

The final blow came in 1828 when a synthetic version of ultramarine was invented by the French colormaker Jean-Baptiste Guimet. It was about a tenth of the cost of the natural pigment, and is still known as French ultramarine today.

Giving a Medieval Feel to a Painting
In addition to the use of ultramarine, there are certain things you can do to give a medieval feel to a painting. Use large areas of intense, opaque pigments. Use a limited range of colors and large areas of more ‘expensive’ pigments. Vermilion is hard to find, so substitute a red with a high opacity, such as cadmium red. Remember that medieval painters didn’t care for yellow paints -- why would they use these ‘inferior’ pigments when they used so much gold leaf?

Realism was not important, so instead of painting realistic backgrounds, such as trees or sky, use flat areas of gold leaf or opaque color. Any figures in the painting should be proportioned according to their importance, not their actual heights.

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