Its color defines its name. This magnificent stone helped create some of the most beautiful paintings in history. Converting lapis into a pigment is not as simple as turning malachite into green pigment. Its a tricky process and here in Lapis Lazuli Color – Pigment we’ll describe Cennini’s master formula to turn lapis lazuli into lapis pigment.
Lapis Lazuli means Blue Stone. Lapis is the Latin word for “stone” and lazuli comes from “lazulum” which comes from the Persian word “lajavard” which is the name of the stone in Persian.
The abundant blue color comes from the sulfur fundamental in the structure of lazurite. The blue color of lazurite is more intense when there is greater quantity of sulfur anions. It is usually described as an intense blue to a gray blue. In its dark blue variety the content of sulfur reaches 0.
In the best quality stones, the color is uniformly distributed, but generally lapis is stained. The mineral composition, except lazurite, influences also in the color. Well distributed pyrite highlights the color with a bronze golden shade. An excess of the same minerals also gives lapis a boring green dye. The majority of high quality lapis admirers and collectors also agree that is better when there is less calcite.
Lapis Lazuli has been mined from Afghanistan since the 7th millennium B.C. and has been used since then. The first known use of Lapis Lazuli pigment as we know it now dates back to the VI and VII centuries in paintings in Zoroastrians and also Buddhist temples in Afghan caves. This pigment has also been identified on Chinese paintings from the X and XI centuries, on Indian murals from the XI, XII and the XVI centuries. Also on illuminated Anglo-Saxon manuscripts from 1100.
Lapis Lazuli appears in the Christian world approximately from the ninth century, probably inspired by its use in the Buddhist world. It is thought that when first used in Christian painting it may have arrived already ground.
At the end of the Middle Ages, Lapis Lazuli began to be exported to Europe. There it was ground into powder and made into Ultramarine, the finest and most expensive of all blue pigments. It was used by some of the most important artists of the Renaissance and Baroque.
One artist who insisted on using natural ultramarine was the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). We can appreciate the use of ultramarine in these beautiful examples of Vermeer paintings. Woman in Blue Reading a Letter painted in 1662-1663 (Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) and Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1664-1665) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Michelangelo couldn’t afford ultramarine. It is said that his painting The Entombment was left unfinished as the result of his failure to procure the prized pigment. Rafael also reserved ultramarine for his final coat, preferring for his base layers a common azurite; Vermeer was less parsimonious in his application and proceeded to mire his family in debt. Ultramarine: the quality of the shade is embodied in its name. This is the superlative blue, the end-all blue, the blue to which all other hues quietly aspire. The name means “beyond the sea”—a dreamy ode to its distant origins, as romantic as it is imprecise.
Ultramarine can be found in almost all Vermeer’s paintings. Not only is it to be found in blue-colored objects, but traces can also be detected in shaded areas of white draperies, black marble tiles, green foliage, white-washed walls, shadows, and even the warm oranges and browns of wood and also clothing. Vermeer realized that adding natural ultramarine to shades of grey gave them the characteristic brightness of intense daylight. He used the pigment to create bright white light. To do this he mixed ultramarine with lead white to cover the warm brown of the canvas.
There are numerous medieval recipes for the making of lapis pigment. One formula was the one from, the Benedictine monk Theophilus in the twelfth century. Another formula which is also used today is the one from Italian Cennino Cennini in the fourteenth to fifteenth century.
Cennini wrote, “Ultramarine is a colour illustrious, beautiful and most perfect, beyond all other colours; on could not say anything about it or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass.” He continues, “Choose a good stone and ensure you have the correct quantities of all ingredients ”. Which means A LOT of lapis lazuli.
Cennini wrote his formula as follows. Get some good blue lapis lazuli and pound it first in a bronze mortar, then on a porphyry slab. Sift it and pound again. Mix it with pine resin, gum mastic and also wax. Cover your hands with linseed oil and knead well together; Keep the ball for three days and also nights, working it a little every day. To extract the blue suspend the ball in a basin of warm lye. Then knead between two sticks (the lye is caustic). Afterwards squeeze out the blue colour into the lye. Let it settle. Pour off the lye and let the blue dry as powder. Repeat the process over several days until no more blue is extracted. The dough retains the foreign particles but the fine particles of lazurite settle in the alkaline water.
The first extraction gives the purest blue; each successive extraction is less and less blue until only a grayish colour remains – “ultramarine ash”. Bear in mind that if you have good lapis lazuli, the blue from the first two yields will be worth eight “ducats” an ounce. It is a hard work so the artist would have employed a range of apprentices, students, and maybe even slaves to do the hard work.
Nowaday, some pigments arrive ready to use, already mixed with honey. Other pigments are mixed on the spot with egg yolk. ‘Wash in egg yolk to clean’. Cennini distinguished between the yolks of town eggs, better for more sheltered complexions, and that of country eggs, better for rudier cheeks. ‘Pinch egg yolk to break the membrane’. Then, ‘mix the lapis lazuli with the yolk but DO NOT MIX it with water. ‘It is translucent enough’.
Nowadays, there are different techniques but Cenninis formula is the base of all. With these formulas it can be obtained 4 blue pigments:
- Fra Angelico Blue
- Pure 1st grade pigment
- Ultramarine Ash
- Lapis Fine Powder
For its expensive cost, the search for synthetic ultramarine was suggested to the Societé d’Encouragement pour L’Industrie Nationale. In 1824, the Societé d’Encouragement offered a prize of six thousand francs to anyone who could produce a synthetic variety not to exceed three hundred francs per kilo. On February 4, 1828, the prize was awarded to Jean Baptiste Guimet who submitted a process he had secretly developed in 1826. Guimet’s ultramarine was sold for four hundred francs per pound.
Independent of Guimet, Christian Gottlob Gmelin, a professor of chemistry at the University of Tubingen discovered a slightly different method based on the analytical results of Désormes and Clément which he published only one month after Guimet. Gmelin claimed that he beat Guimet and a rivalry ensued for years but France upheld Guimet’s right to the prize. By about 1830, Guimet’s ultramarine was being produced at a factory that he opened in Fleurieu-sur-Sâone, France.
Reflection of Light from Synthetic Ultramarine and Natural Ultramarine Pigment Paint
The lapis pigment particles are far more transparent allowing more light to pass through them also allowing greater reflection of light. While synthetic pigment particles do not allow much light to pass through them absorbing most of it and reflecting little.
The lapis pigment is a gemstone pigment therefore its particles act as finely faceted jewels reflecting light giving a crystalline glitter to the painting; synthetic ultramarine is a chemical pigment, its particles are round and small they cannot reflect light like natural ultramarine.
As lapis pigment allows more light to pass through it so the layer of paint underneath it receives more light and becomes more luminous; synthetic pigment do not allow much light to pass through therefore the paint layer underneath it is not illuminated.
The natural ultramarine has a high stability to light and records have shown a painting 500 yrs old which has as pure and intense a blue color as freshly painted. It is suitable for every medium, equally excellent with oils, water and egg tempera. Ultramarine is well suited to make works of art more distinguished and alive with its gemstone energy.
Techniques in which it can be used in oil paintings
- With ultramarine pigment mixed in oil you can paint wet on wet (i.e. mix paint both on the palette and the canvas)
- Layered (apply a layer of ultramarine paint once the previous has dried)
- Glaze – ideally suited for glaze (you can work with very thin transparent layers)
- Blending – it can be blended with any colour, giving smooth and velvety brush strokes. It imparts luminosity to every color it is blended with.
Magical Lapis that will stay with us for a long time through are Arts History. Embodied for eternity in the incredible master pieces the great artist left us.
And will stay with us in the shape of the exquisite Lapis Jewelry from my favorite Nammu.com store.
Like I said before, there are countless formulas to make lapis pigments, and we will talk about them on another post…