Now are supply chain problems for the color blue
It is the color of the Virgin Mary’s robe used in the magnificent seas and skies of the Impressionists and favored by a depressed Picasso and a lavish Vermeer. Once more valuable than gold, ultramarine blue, which is now sold in its synthetic form, is so popular today that it ranks just behind white and black among top suppliers of artist’s colors.
But if you are a painter interested in “real blue” you may want to reconsider your next masterpiece. In our volatile world with supply chain challenges, sourcing ultramarine and a variety of other blue pigments has been difficult to impossible. The color could create blue skies on canvases today and – like Santa Clauses in shopping malls and cream cheese – be scarce tomorrow.
It also cannot help to jump straight into your “rose period”.
A deficiency in titanium dioxide, the pigment for titanium white and an essential component of around a third of artists’ colors, also endangers other colors. And in addition to the color, restorers lack swabs and cloths for cleaning paintings. Artists struggled with delivery delays for important equipment such as canvas and stretcher frames. Even more worrying, however, is the scarcity of colors – especially blue, the world’s calm and cool favorite color, according to numerous surveys.
Earlier this year, paint manufacturers feared they might run out of synthetic ultramarine when one of the two main factories in France that supplied the pigment for the paint stopped manufacturing and the other was unable to keep pace with the resulting demand to keep restricted international export.
And that’s not the only blue that was scarce. AkzoNobel, a home paint manufacturer based in the Netherlands, has reported difficulties sourcing the 50 to 60 ingredients needed to make a shade of blue for its industrial paints. Golden Artist Colors, a paint company in New York, found that the lack of titanium white could limit production of mixed blues like light phthalo blue and light ultramarine.
The idea that blue color could disappear completely may seem absurd, but even the suggestion that hit the headlines this fall is enough to fuel existential doom. Once upon a time it was easy to forget that the colors we experience in art and in our daily lives are materials – physical goods designed, selected and transported. Today, the supply chain crisis has gotten to grips with our reality and the seams have been opened.
âPeople don’t think that everything is colored,â says Narayan Khandekar, curator of the Forbes Pigment Collection at Harvard Art Museum, which contains more than 2,700 pigments. âEven car tires – each car tire probably contains six pounds of soot to make it black instead of milk white latex. Pigments are used everywhere, also in a way that we take for granted. “
When asked what they would do without titanium white, Pete Cole, president of Gamblin Artists Colors in Portland, Oregon, said, “Our earth would stop rotating.”
Looking back on the past year, US color companies describe the chaos. John Polillo, operations vice president at Blick Art Materials, says it’s like nothing he’s seen in the industry in four decades. He hopes the situation will improve by the spring, after the Lunar New Year is celebrated in China. The holiday should slow production there and help alleviate delivery bottlenecks elsewhere, he said.
The load on the materials started with the basic ingredients. During the record-breaking February freeze in Texas, large petrochemical plants closed, resulting in a shortage of resin, a plastic additive used in paint. Then paint manufacturers faced a flaxseed oil shortage, which some attributed to pandemic health trends.
Eventually colors began to come and go, seemingly random. Golden Artist Colors says its popular earthy quinacridone golds and browns have been discontinued. During a COVID-19 surge in India, the company was unable to source quinacridone magenta and Hansa yellow because the government had to divert all industrial oxygen normally used to make these colors to hospitals.
Artist inks are unique in that they contain highly concentrated pigments made from elements and other ingredients that come straight from the earth.
“If I sell you a tube of ‘burnt sienna,’ it’s God’s honest burnt sienna, dug out of the ground and burnt in an oven,” says Cole. And that means there are no substitutions. For example, one gram of natural Tyrian purple pigment takes 120 pounds of sea slugs to make, so paint companies make a mixed, man-made shade instead.
It is this combination of hyper-specific pigments and a global trading network that uniquely makes artist paints vulnerable to supply chain problems. “You have a constant flow of color that moves around the world,” says Cole. âYou mined pigments from Italy. Cadmium is produced in hard-to-reach places like India and Brazil. They have modern pigments made in Germany. “
A cursory glance at some key works in art history reveals how colors and pigments work like a technology of vision. Monet’s rich yellow sunsets and landscapes could only be painted after the invention of cadmium yellow in the early 19th century. Hokusais The great wave, and the rest of his “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” series would not have been possible without the recent arrival of Prussian blue ink in Japan. Loss of access to a pigment is like losing a visual aid.
Many famous artists have used blue in excess. A Picasso in his twenties plagued by depression after the death of a friend created more than 100 paintings during his Blue Period. The spiritually inclined abstract painter Yves Klein has registered his own vibrant International Klein Blue as a trademark and used it almost exclusively because he believed it was the best color to paint âthe voidâ.
Johannes Vermeer practically went bankrupt for blue. In search of a permanent blue color, Vermeer would have been limited to natural ultramarine blue 300 years earlier. (The cheaper, synthetic version wasn’t invented until 1826.) Ultramarine, made from lapis lazuli – a semi-precious stone from a remote river valley in Afghanistan – was outrageously expensive, so most artists reserved the paint for special occasions, such as painting the ceiling of the Scrovegni- and Sistine Chapel.
But not Vermeer. The Dutch artist has applied ultramarine to everyday scenes of ordinary people with the skill of a master and the self-control of a child. Ultramarine blue floods the Vermeer scarf Girl in the red hat. It glitters over the soft face of the The girl with the pearl earring. In Woman keeping a balance, the mountainous, ultramarine fabric on the table suggests a great expanse, as if the woman were looking down into something mysterious. Coupled with his low productivity and poor business acumen, Vermeer’s love of ultramarine eventually drove him and his family into debt.