This section is from the book "Chromatography; Or, A Treatise On Colours And Pigments, And Of Their Powers In Painting", by George Field. Also available from Amazon: Chromatography, or A Treatise on Colours and Pigments, and of Their Powers in Painting.
ULTRAMARINE, Lazuline, or Azure, is prepared from the lapis lazuli, a precious stone found principally in Persia and Siberia, It is the most celebrated of all modem pigments, and, from its name and attributes, is probably the same as the no less celebrated Armenian blue, or Cyanus, of the antients. Of the latter, Theophrastns informs us that the honour of inventing its factitious preparation (by perhaps the very singular chemico-mechanical process still in use for ultramarine) was ascribed in the Egyptian annals to one of their kings;* and it was so highly prized that the Phoenicians paid their tribute in it, and it was given in presents to princes: hence it was a common practice in those times to counterfeit it. Our opinion of the identity of these pigments is considerably strengthened by the accounts modern travellers give of the brilliant blue painting still remaining in the ruins of temples in Upper Egypt, which is described as having all the appearance of ultramarine. Add to this, also, that the Chinese have the art of preparing this pigment; and as they are imitators, and rarely inventors, and cannot be supposed to have learned it from the Europeaus, it is to be inferred that they possess it as an antient art: that they have it, we conclude from having received specimens of this pigment, of a good colour, direct from Canton. In China, too, the lapis lazuli is highly esteemed, and is worn by mandarins as badges of nobility conferred only by the emperor; which remarkably coincides with the antient usage related by Theophrastus.
* Theoplirast. De Lapid. xcviii. Plin. lib. xxxvii.
Ultramarine has not obtained its reputation upon slight pretensions, being, when skilfully prepared, of the most exquisitely beautiful blue, varying from the utmost depth of shadow to the highest brilliancy of light and colour, - transparent in all its shades, and pure in its tints. It is of a true medial blue, when perfect, partaking neither of purple on the one hand, nor of green on the other: it is neither subject to injury by damp and impure air, nor by the intensest action of light; and it is so eminently permanent that it remains perfectly unchanged in the oldest paintings; and there can be little doubt that it is the same pigment which still continues with all its original force and beauty in the temples of Upper Egypt, after an exposure of at least three thousand years. The antient Egyptians had, however, other blues, of which we have already mentioned their counterfeit Armenian blue; and we have lately seen some balls of blue pigment, of considerable depth and purity of colour, in the collection of Mr. Sams, obtained by him from the ruins of Upper Egypt, which are probably of the latter kind. The Egyptians had also several vitreous blues, with which they decorated their figures and mummies.
Ultramarine dries well, works well in oil and fresco, and neither gives nor receives injury from other good pigments. It has so much of the quality of light in it, and of the tint of air, - is so purely a sky-colour, and is hence so singularly-adapted to the direct and reflex light of the sky, and to become the antagonist of sunshine, - that it is indispensable to the landscape-painter; and it is so pure, so true, and so unchangeable in its tints and glazings, as to be no less essential in imitating the exquisite colouring of nature in flesh and flowers.
To this may be added, that it enters so admirably into purples, blacks, greens, greys, and broken colours, that it has justly obtained the reputation of clearing or carrying light and air into all colours both in mixture and glazing, and a sort of claim to universality throughout a picture. These qualities of ultramarine are admirably illustrated by an experiment recorded in our next article.
This is the sober character of perfect ultramarine, and no eulogy, any farther than truth when attendant on merit, is ever the most powerful of praise.
It is true, nevertheless, that ultramarine is not always entitled to the whole of this commendation, and it is necessary that the artist should he thoroughly and in every respect acquainted with a pigment of such importance; we will, therefore, take a view of the imperfections to which it is liable. Ultramarine is often coarse in texture; and to this there are temptations in the making, he-cause in this way it is more easy of preparation, and more abundant, deep, and valuable in appearance: yet such ultramarine cannot be used with effect, nor ground fine without injuring its colour. Again, it is rarely separated in a pure state from the lapis lazuli, which is an exceedingly varying and compound mineral, abounding with earthy and metallic parts in different states of oxidation and composition: hence ultramarine sometimes contains iron in the state of red oxide, and such ultramarine has a purple cast; and sometimes it contains the same metal in the state of yellow oxide, and then it is of a green tone: it has still more frequently in it a portion of the sulphuret of iron, which is black, and gives to the ultramarine a deeper but a dusky hue. Some artists, nevertheless, have preferred ultramarine for each of these tones; yet are they imperfections which may account for various effects and defects of this pigment in painting. Growing deeper by age has been attributed to ultramarine, but it is such specimens alone as would acquire depth in the fire that could be subject to such change; and it has been justly supposed that in pictures wherein other colours have failed by age, it may have taken this appearance by contrast. Ultramarine prepared from calcined lapis lazuli is not subject to deepen by age; but this advantage is purchased by some sacrifice of the vivid, warm, and pure azure colour of the ultramarine prepared from unburnt stone: the perfection of the pigment is also in a great measure dependent upon the quality of the lapis lazuli from which it is prepared. As a precious material, ultramarine has been subjected to adulteration; and it has been dyed, damped, and oiled, to enrich its appearance: but these attempts of fraud may be easily detected, and the genuine may as easily be distinguished from the spurious by dropping a few particles of the pigment into lemon-juice, or any other acid, which almost instantly destroys the colour of the true ultramarine totally, and without effervescence, - an example of the subtile power of chemistry in changing instantly one of the most permanent substances in nature, and a reason why the mineral itself is so rare among her productions.
Though unexceptionable as an oil-colour, both in solid painting and glazing, it does not work so well as some other blues in water; but when extremely fine in texture, or when a considerable portion of gum, which renders it transparent, can be used with it to give it connexion or adhesion while flowing, it becomes a pigment no less valuable in water painting than in oil; but little gum can however be employed with it when its vivid azure is to he preserved, as in illuminated manuscripts and missals. The blue of the Definitive Scale, page 39, is of the middle depth of ultramarine.
Such are the principal merits and defects of ultramarine as a blue colour; and the fine greens, purples, and greys of the old masters, are often unquestionably compounds of ultramarine; and it was the only blue formerly used in fresco.
The immense price of ultramarine in former times * was almost a prohibition to its use; but the spirit of modern commerce having supplied its material more abundantly, and the discoveries and improvement of Prussian, Antwerp, and cobalt blues, and the French and German ultramarines, having furnished substitutes for its ordinary uses, it may now be obtained at moderate prices, particularly its lighter and very useful tints.
Pure ultramarine varies in shade from light to dark, and in hue from pale warm azure to the deepest cold blue; the former of which, when impure in colour, is called ultramarine ashes.
*Walpole relates thai "Charles I. presented to Mrs. Carlisle five. hundred pounds' worth of ultramarine, which lay in so small a compass as only to cover his hand." - Aneedotes of Painting. Harrow stales, however, that Vandyke partook of the king's present equally with Mrs, Carlisle. - Did. Polygraph.