Monday, July 12, 2021

Those Soulful Shades of Blue

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Art and Environment, Biodiversity, Nature, History of Science , Society, Culture

Ed Hessler

An photograph of a blue bird I ran across dazzled my eyes. The blue was one I'd never seen, blue beyond blue. Seeing that image reminded me of an essay on the color blue I read in Aramco World by Tom Verde about humankind's quest for blue. It is a less than common color in nature, including minerals, animals and plants. Many of the blues we see are not the result of pigments but physics, a good example of structure and function.

Before I get to the bird and a structural blue, I want to snatch a few items from Verde's essay which is also beautifully illustrated. I urge you read this captivating story. Below are the blues  discussed and a few comments from the essay.. By the way, the quest for blue through the ages presents a rich and complicated history--social, cultural, technological, engineering, art/ceramics, human ingenuity, protoscience and science.

Egyptian Blue: To the Egyptians it was "a source of inspiration and worship, blue was also the color of the cosmos, fertility, sustenance and rebirth.." I'd never thought about its use in headdresses with their bold blue and gold stripes. The raw materials were scarce and presented their own particular difficulties and eventually the Egyptian artisans invented this blue (ca 3250 BCE). Roman military  engineer and architect Vitruvius "preserved the knowledge of to make Egyptian blue." He recorded the ingredients and manufacturing details.

Faience. Further experimentation led to the development of this blue. It could be worked with, especially "for small jewelry and decorative objects." Potter Amy Waller told Verde that making faience was difficult and it is only"in the last century or so that we have an understanding of how faience was actually made." Waller's website has information on and photographs of Egyptian faience as well as a list of readings.

Ultramarine. In its day it was costly, rare, celebrated and very much sought after, this color "from beyond the sea.".  "Michelangelo left a painting permanently unfinished in Rome because he couldn't get his hands on enough ultramarine. Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer penniless in 167,5 in part because of his lavish use of the pigment in many of his famous paintings, such as the "Girl with a Pearl Earring' and 'Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.''' Vermeer would have had to pay $228 dollars an ounce in today's U.S. currency.  It is discussed in an Arabic treatise on purifying the gemstone lapis lazul by Jabir ibm Hayyan, the "father of chemistry." Interestingly "Arab alchemists were more interested in the pharmacological virtues of ground lapis than its color although it was use to "illuminate manuscript editions of the Qur'an.". In the early 19th  century, European chemists, mimicking their pharaonic Egyptian predecessors, mixed china clay, soda, charcoal, quartz and sulphur to produce an affordable, synthetic ultramarine. ... As ever, the business of blue played a major role in its use, production, procurement and prestige.

Cobalt Blue. Aas Verde puts it, this was a case of blue meeting white. It was known as "Muslim blue" and was made from Persian cobalt, a mineral known to be imported to China during the first quarter of the 13th century CE.," where it was used in statuary and wall paintings. However, "it was used in tough yet translucent porcelain--an invention dating to the Han Dynasty (22 CE - 250 CE)--that popularized cobalt-based-blue on an international scale. The Chinese "were not especially fond of mixed blue-and-white patterns. ... The driving force behind the adoption were wealthy Muslim merchants living in Quanzhou who controlled much of export, marketing and even manufacture of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain targeted to serve almost exclusively and Islamic market." It led to Dutch Delft, Danish Royal Copenhagen,  English blue-and-white wares and, across the Atlantic, American Currier & Ives designs--and more." The city Iznik "in western Anatolia," became noted for pottery and there is a photograph of the famous "Blue Mosque," in Istanbul, Turkey" which is "covered with 20,000 hand-painted ceramic tiles that feature more than 50 designs."

Indigo. It is also known as True Blue because it is colorfast--dyed linen borders found with Egyptian mummies retain their blue even today. An aggressive smear campaign was launched by those with financial stakes in the flowering plant woad. Indigo was claimed to be poisonous, even  referred to as "The devil's dye," with prison and even death following its use instead of woad. Indigo is from an Indian plant Indigofera tinctoria. Verde writes that "owing to its prestige, indigo blue became the color of European royalty, especially the French, who adopted it for robes and heraldry." Indigo blue became "a favorite for heavey-use attire uh as military uniforms, industrial work coveralls, and pants, e.g., blue jeans." The "Blue Qur'an" is made from parchment dyed with indigo on which calligraphers used gold leaf. It dates to the late ninth and 10 centuries in Tunisia.

YlnMin Blue (aka MasBlue). It was discovered at Oregon State University in 2009 when a graduate student was exploring the electronic properties of manganese oxide and is described as "brilliantly blue." The blue is brilliant and extremely stable. It is also a "cool" pigment, i.e., it has a high solar reflectance and will likely be used in exterior applications applications" for reducing surface temperatures, lowering cooling costs and energy consumption.
Now to the bird, one not quite in hand. This brilliantly exuberant blue is the result of microscopic physical structures. It is worn by the male of the species, Grandala coelicolor, a result of biological evolution and works by physics.  The link includes a video (8m 27s) which explains the physics and other details. Be sure to scroll down for more pictures.  

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