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  • Writer's pictureLisa Allshire

Lapis lazuli

So one of the cool things about art is the pigments that artists have used throughout history to create images. it is a facinating subject that goes hand in hand with the history of art and I will probably post more about this in future blogs, but today I am excited about one particular colour that has intrigued me for decades, and I finally received in the mail yesterday evening. That colour is Lapis Lazuli.

The page in the photo above is from An Atlas of Rare and Familiar Colour published by the Harvard Art Museum’s Forbes Pigment collection ISBN # 978-0-9975935-7-0

I am not sure if my obsession with the colour blue stems from growing up in the west of Ireland, where the skies were mostly cloud covered- so the blue skies of sunny days delighted me. I vividly remember as a child one sunny day looking up and wanting to get a knife and scrape a chunk of blue from the sky as if digging into blue butter- an early indication perhaps of my interest in painting.

Lapis Lazuli was used in the famous french Book of Hours - Les très Riches Heures du duc de Berry. This magnificent work created by three brothers the Limbourg brothers Pol (Paul) Hermann (Hennequin and Jan(Jean). Sadly all three painters, together with their patron, died from Plague in 1416 before the Tres Riches Heures was finished.

Throughout history the semiprecious gem Lapis lazuli could only be sourced from one mine in Afghanistan. The ancient Egyptians loved the colour and used it to create small objects and also in their burial practices Including in the Death mask of Pharoah Tutankhamun, however the difficulty in procuring the stone motivated them to create another blue- the recipe for which is uncertain today, this blue is more similar to a cerulean blue called Egyptian faience on ceramics, and is the first known synthetically produced pigment.

Cennino Cennini said it, the pigment made from powdered lapis lazuli was the most perfect of all colours in his “Book of the Arts,” written around 1400.

It was an expensive pigment that could only be used by the wealthiest artists and patrons- and was originally reserved for the robes of the Virgin Mary in Christian art. In the 17th Century Vermeer used it unusually extensively both to create realistic shadows mixed with lead white, Raw umber and Bone black, and as the colour of clothing and drapery.

The colour came to be known as Outremer - meaning beyond the sea, or Ultramarine. In the 1820s a blue substitute was discovered a Sodium Sulphosilicate compound, which must have been a financial relief to artists everywhere.

So for me blue has developed into a lifelong obsession, and I have collected blue objects over the years. The two containers of pigment here come from the wonderful Ôkhra factory a cooperative in Roussillon in Provence in the south of France- A magical colourful place where art courses are taught on the site of an old Ocher pigment mine as well as an art shop whjere I bought these pigments- Ultramarine and Cereulean blue. The rings in the photo are sapphire and the pendant is tanzanite an interesting purplish blue gem found in Tanzania. So now after many years I am in possession of the real thing, the fabled and celebrated colour from history, from the mountains of Afghanistan- carefully made by one of the best paintmakers in the world - What will I do with it? Michael Harding suggests in his notes to perhaps create a painting around the colour- which is probably what I will do. I feel a bit of pressure about this! Yikes! Wish me luck......

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