To Ultramarine or Not to Ultramarine

Ultramarine blue jar of paint

“Really? Who doesn’t use Ultramarine Blue! I never knew anyone who doesn’t consider it a staple. Intrigued! Is there a reason?” — S.B.*
(*In response to my previous blog post in which I said, right at the end, that I almost never use ultramarine.)

Well, you do now. <cue: smile>

I really, truly, genuinely, rarely use ultramarine. I definitely don’t consider it a staple. As to the reason why: I simply don’t like it enough.

If used unmixed, it’s instantly recognisable; you look at a painting and tick the mental “that’s ultramarine” box. It’s a learning-towards-brash bright, brilliant blue. It’s not a sea blue. It’s not a sky blue. It’s not a river blue. It’s not deep-dark shadows blue. It’s the blue of fabric, of Virgin Mary’s dresses, not landscape.

It’s not that I don’t have any, or haven’t tried it. I have it, and occasionally try it again because I know so many people love it. But as you can see, I’ve not used much.

Cennino Cennini, the 15th century Italian artist who wrote on the techniques of the great masters in The Craftsman’s Handbook, describes ultramarine as ?illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colours?. [He was writing about genuine ultramarine, of course, created from lapis lazuli, not French ultramarine, a pigment invented in 1828 by the colourmaker Jean-Baptiste Guime (no prizes for guessing what country he lived in).]

What blue is my favourite then? It used to be Prussian blue, but phthalo turquoise may well have moved into that spot. Prussian is still my go-to dark blue and stormy-sky blue. I also use phthalo blue (I love its staining quality), cerulean blue, cobalt teal. In some seascapes I use every blue I’ve got, and that includes ultramarine. But it’s rarely a starting point blue.
Prussian blue jar of paint
Could I live without ultramarine? Most likely. Though it feels almost sacrilegious saying so down: my least-favourite blue is ultramarine. And now I have I’m feeling guilty for not loving it enough, and might just have to try painting and mixing with it once again to see if I can’t love it a little more.

What’s your favourite and least favourite blue? Post a comment below and let me know.


6 Replies to “To Ultramarine or Not to Ultramarine”

  1. WAY too granular for the kind of painting I prefer to do. Just got a tube of Indanthrone Blue and am anxious to try it out. LOVE prussian blue the best for dark blues

  2. Oh I would love to see the sea and sky where you live! I am sure it is beautiful. I live out west USA in the mountains, and I have to say the the higher you go the more the sky is ultramarine blue straight up, that is. Our family all marveled that it was in the photos. I believe the air is thin. Long ago I lived in California on the coast and sometimes the sky was perrywinkle. But they have a lot of coastal fog too which alters the air with water. I love your articles!
    B B

  3. There are so many colors of blue…and names for blues… blue is my favorite color, the color of my eyes… my least favorite is primary blue…the crayon blue that comes in the basic crayon box. It is not a natural color…I find it irritating. My favorite blues range in the navy blue/royal purple range with a close second being in the darker turquoise/teal group. I rarely use any paint straight from the tube, I always mix it to my personal taste… as always, very interesting…

  4. I have to admit that I do not have many blues in my watercolor palette. I kind of like all of them; but, I think I like Mayan Blue Genuine from Daniel Smith the best. It has a wide range of values from very light to quite dark. If I used oil or acrylic paints, I wonder if my favorite would be different? I don’t really have a least favorite blue since I tend to use all of them at various times, depending upon my mood and/or what the paints say to me.

  5. At the moment Prussian and Pthalo Blues ( mixed with some paynes grey ) to give me “night sky blue”.

  6. Pthalo Blue and cobalt blue are the two blues that I find myself using the most in the last few years. I used to use a lot more ultramarine Blue and Prussian Blue. I have just moved to the Canadian west coast from the Canadian prairies, so I wonder if I will switch blues again?


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