It is the color of the Virgin Mary’s robe, used in the seas and lavish skies of the Impressionists, favored by a depressed Picasso and a spendthrift Vermeer. Once more valuable than gold, ultramarine blue, now sold in its synthetic form, is so popular today that it ranks just below whites and blacks in the sales of major artist paint suppliers.
But if you are an avid painter of “true blue”, you might want to rethink your next masterpiece. In our volatile and supply chain challenging world, sourcing overseas, along with a host of other blue pigments, has been difficult, if not impossible. Color could create a blue sky on the webs today and, like shopping mall Santas and cream cheese, be in short supply tomorrow.
Jumping straight into your “pink period” might not help either.
A shortage of titanium dioxide, the pigment of titanium white and a fundamental ingredient in about a third of artists’ paints, also puts other colors at risk. And beyond painting, restorers lack swabs and tissues to clean the paintings. Artists faced delays in shipping essential equipment like canvases and stretcher bars. But color shortages are more bewildering, especially when it comes to blue, the calm and cool world’s favorite color according to many polls.
Earlier this year, paint companies feared they would run out of synthetic overseas when one of France’s two main factories supplying the color pigment stopped manufacturing it, and the other, unable to meet rising demand. resulted, restricted international exports.
And this is not the only blue that has become rare. AkzoNobel, a Netherlands-based home paint manufacturer, has reported difficulties sourcing the 50 to 60 ingredients needed to make a shade of blue used in its industrial coatings. Golden Artist Colors, a New York-based paint company, noted that the shortage of titanium white could limit the production of mixed blue paints, such as light phthalo blue and light ultramarine.
The idea that the blue paint could disappear altogether might sound absurd, but even the suggestion – made in the headlines this fall – is enough to instigate existential catastrophe. It was once easy to forget that the colors we feel in art and in our daily lives are materials – physical goods designed, selected and transported. Today, the crisis in the supply chain has caught the cracks in our reality and exposed its seams.
“One thing people don’t think about is that everything is colorful,” says Narayan Khandekar, curator of the Forbes Pigment Collection at Harvard Art Museums, which has more than 2,700 pigments. “Even car tires – each car tire probably contains six pounds of carbon black to make it black instead of the milky white latex. There are pigments used everywhere, even in ways we take for granted.
Asked what they would do without titanium white, Pete Cole, president of paint manufacturer Gamblin Artists Colors in Portland, Ore., Said, “Our Earth would stop spinning.
Thinking back to the past year, American paint companies describe chaos. John Polillo, vice president of operations at Blick Art Materials, says it’s unlike anything he’s seen in four decades in the industry. He hopes the situation will improve by spring, after the celebration of the Lunar New Year in China. The holidays are expected to slow production there and help ease shipping bottlenecks elsewhere, he said.
The pressure on the materials started with the basic ingredients. During the record-breaking February freeze in Texas, large petrochemical plants shut down, leading to a shortage of resin, a plastic additive used in paint. Next, paint companies faced a shortage of linseed oil, which some blamed on pandemic-induced health fads.
Eventually the colors started to come and go, seemingly at random. Golden Artist Colors says its popular, earthy quinacridone golds and browns have been discontinued. During a COVID-19 outbreak in India, the company was unable to obtain quinacridone magenta and hansa yellow because the government had to redirect all of the industrial oxygen normally used to produce these colors to hospitals.
Artist paints are unique in that they contain highly concentrated pigments made up of elements and other ingredients that come directly from the earth.
“If I sell you a tube of ‘burnt sienna,’ it’s God’s honest burnt sienna, dug out of the ground, burnt in a kiln,” says Cole. And that means there are no substitutions. One gram of Tyrian Natural Violet Pigment, for example, requires 120 pounds of sea snails to create, so paint companies make an artificial mixed shade instead.
It is this combination of hyper-specific pigments and a global commercial network that makes artists’ paintings particularly vulnerable to supply chain issues. “You have a constant flow of colors moving around the world,” says Cole. “You extracted pigments from Italy. Cadmium is made in hard to reach places like India and Brazil. You have modern pigments made in Germany.
A glance at some key works in art history reveals how paints and pigments work as a technology of vision. Monet’s rich sunsets and yellow landscapes could not be painted until after the invention of cadmium yellow in the early 19th century. Hokusai The great wave, and the remainder of his “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series, would not have been possible without the then recent arrival of Prussian blue ink in Japan. Losing access to a pigment is like losing a way to see.
Many famous artists have used blue to excess. A 20-something Picasso, plagued by depression after the death of a friend, created more than 100 paintings during his blue period. Spiritual-leaning abstract painter Yves Klein filed his own vivid International Klein Blue and used it almost exclusively, believing it to be the best color to use when painting “the void.”
Johannes Vermeer has practically gone bankrupt for the blue. Searching for a lasting blue paint 300 years earlier, Vermeer would have limited himself to natural ultramarine blue. (The cheapest synthetic version would not be invented until 1826.) Made from lapis lazuli – a semi-precious stone from an isolated river valley in Afghanistan – ultramarine was shockingly expensive, so most artists reserved the color for special occasions, such as painting the ceiling of the Scrovegni and Sistine Chapels.
But not Vermeer. The Dutch artist applied ultramarine to mundane scenes of ordinary people with the skill of a master and the restraint of a child. Ultramarine blue floods Vermeer’s shawl Girl in red hat. It sparkles above the soft face of the a girl with an earring. In Woman holding a balance, the ultramarine mountainous fabric on the table suggests a great expanse, as if the woman were plunging into a mysterious elsewhere. Coupled with his low productivity and poor business acumen, Vermeer’s love for overseas ultimately drove him and his family into debt.