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Feeling Blue? Get Acquainted with the History of a Colour

By: , Posted on: December 14, 2015

indigo dress

We’re used to thinking about the colour blue symbolically. We might have the blues, see ourselves as blue-collar workers, or receive unsettling news as a bolt from the blue. But the colour’s historical significance predates those associations by a long stretch.

Blue: Alchemy of a Colour, currently showing at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne, examines Asian and European works of art employing the colour blue from the 7th century AD to the present.

Comprising more than 60 ceramics, paintings, prints and textiles the exhibition focuses on cobalt blue and indigo, two of the most distinctive and influential colourants employed worldwide. And yet, in their raw states, neither substance is actually blue. Cobalt is a silvery-white mineral; indigo is a greenish plant extract.

It is only through complex processing, requiring considerable technical knowledge, that both substances assume the brilliant blue hues beloved of ceramicists and textile artists the world over. So let’s look a little closer.


Indigo blue is used as a dye for textiles and a pigment for paintings and prints. It is sourced from a range of plants, the best known of which is Indigofera tinctoria (“True” indigo), which has been used to dye textiles in India from before 2000BC.

Indigofera tinctoria. Wikimedia Commons

The use of indigo dye to colour cloth blue is a worldwide phenomenon, reflecting both the widespread availability of plants that contain indigotin, the active ingredient in indigo dye, and the dye’s colourfastness. Although indigo was available in Europe in the form of woad (Isatis tinctoria), the far more potent Indigofera tinctoria, used in India and across tropical Asia, was imported into Europe in enormous quantities from the beginning of the 16th century.

The NGV’s exhibition explores techniques employed to pattern indigo-dyed cloth in textiles from Egypt, Japan, China, Central Asia, India, Indonesia and Italy. Patterning with printed, painted and tied resists, such as batik, yuzen and ikat, which produce a white pattern on an indigo blue field, are contrasted with positive blue patterns produced by printing or weaving.

National Gallery of Victoria

Indigo blue textiles often have particular symbolic resonances.

Central Asian Turkmen women wear a distinctive garment in the form of an embroidered mantle with long vestigial sleeves called a chyrpy. The colour of the ground fabric indicates the wearer’s age: a young woman wears a dark blue chyrpy, a middle-aged woman wears yellow, and a woman aged over 60 wears white.

Elsewhere in Central Asia, in the towns along the silk road where sumptuously patterned fabrics were produced using the ikat resist technique, garments in dark blue indigo dyed silk and cotton fabric (adras) with white patterns were thought appropriate for older women and those in mourning.

National Gallery of Victoria

The ubiquity of indigo dye has resulted in blue becoming the colour of the everyday clothes of the working class in Europe and Asia. But predominantly blue textiles and garments are also some of the most prestigious textiles, imparting status to the wearer and worn on important ritual occasions.

Their prestige may be signified by the of valuable materials such as gold and beads, the incorporation of extra colours, patterns and techniques, or special finishes.

In China the colour blue generally signifies the natural world, springtime, youth and immortality. The emperor wore a blue court garment at annual ceremonies associated with the heavens and crops, and indigo blue was the most common ground colour of Manchu clothing during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912AD).

Deceptively simple blue cloths may also convey status through their association with important rituals. Indigo dyed ulos sibolang are probably among the oldest textile types woven by the Toba Batak people of north Sumatra, Indonesia.

They are important ceremonial cloths given by the bride, and are also given as gifts at funerals and were worn as a headcloth by widows and used to cover the corpse.

National Gallery of Victoria


Cobalt was also used in Babylonia, an area rich in cobalt deposits, as early as the 6th century BC to produce blue-glazed stonewares. The first evidence for Chinese use of cobalt to produce blue-decorated ceramics is found during the T’ang dynasty (618–906AD).

The succeeding Song dynasty showed little interest in cobalt blue, preferring ceramics in subtle monochrome colours inspired by the love of jade. It is with the Yuan dynasty (1278–1368AD) that white porcelain decorated with underglaze cobalt blue began to be produced in quantity.

Tomb of Safi-ad-din, in Ardabil, Iran. Wikimedia Commons

It appears that the impetus for producing those ceramics probably came from outside China’s borders. The Persians greatly admired Chinese porcelain but were unable to produce this high-fired ceramic body themselves.

Their own ceramic tradition, heir to the knowledge of the Babylonian ceramicists, employed cobalt blue decoration on stonewares. Evidence suggests that the Persians began commissioning and importing blue-and-white porcelain from the Chinese kilns; it is probably no coincidence that today one of the largest collections of Yuan blue-and-white porcelain is to be found at the Ardabil shrine in Iran.

It is also likely that the cobalt used in Yuan blue-and-white wears was imported from Iran. China had access to cobalt sources of its own, but these were generally of poorer quality than the imported “Islamic blue”, as it was called in Chinese documents.

Both Yuan China and Ilkhanid Iran were ruled by Mongolian dynasties; trade and cultural exchange between the two regions was intense and constant. It has been suggested that the blue and white palette would have appealed greatly to the Mongolians as a symbol of their power uniting heaven (blue) and earth (white).

That the birth of the Chinese blue-and-white porcelain tradition was the result of complex cross-cultural interactions is further suggested by the fact that many of the motifs employed on Yuan blue-and-white ware appear related to Uighur and Mongol textile designs.

National Gallery of Australia

By the advent of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644AD) blue-and-white porcelain was being produced in enormous quantities at the kilns of Jingdezhen. Imports of cobalt from Persia could not match the growing demand for the mineral and Chinese cobalt sources began to be exploited with ever greater intensity.

It was this Ming blue-and-white that began to reach Europe in small quantities, igniting a European passion for these marvellous ceramics and stimulating the quest to discover the secret of their production.

Out of the blue

It is one of history’s great coincidences that, at the same time that true indigo was introduced to Europe from India in the 16th century, Chinese blue-and-white porcelain was also beginning to arrive there in significant quantities. The craze for Chinese porcelain saw the striking blue-and-white colour palette become the height of European fashion.

Chinese porcelain also provided Europeans with an entirely new visual vocabulary of patterns, motifs and compositional principles, and these very quickly migrated from ceramics to influence the decoration of artworks executed in other media, including textiles.

The two colourants – cobalt and indigo – undoubtedly reinforced each other’s popularity. The textiles and ceramics produced with these colourants were the objects of trade and artistic exchange which has seen them traverse the whole of the globe.

Blue: Alchemy of a Colour is at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until March 2016. Details here.
This article first appeared on the Conversation. Click here for the original.

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