Color Curriculum

Cobalt Blue

By Carolyn Payzant

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 18, Issue 2


In March, I attended a symposium co-sponsored by University of Warwick, Victoria & Albert Museum University of Istanbul and the Peabody Essex Museum entitled A Material World: The Art and Culture of Global Connections.  This symposium is relevant because of their discussion of the history and use of one of the most expensive pigments in the world – cobalt blue. 

Cobalt blue is a cool blue used extensively by the Chinese when painting their lovely blue and white porcelain. What I found most interesting, is finding out that the Chinese had no native source for cobalt blue. Therefore, as early as the 9th century, they purchased the pigment from the Persians.  This impure pigment traveled from Persia as raw material, the Chinese applied it to their blue and white porcelain, shipping finished products back to Persia – hence the very early blue tiles famous in the Middle East.  By the 17th century Chinese porcelain was being exported to western European countries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Swedes and French, not to be outdone by the Chinese, devised a chemical compound resembling cobalt. Their compound contained arsenic and sulfur! 

The points made at the symposium were several but most outstanding are: global trade is ongoing. There has always been international trade, each country has its own superior character and each tries to position not to be dependent on the other. We can understand this concept when we purchase pigments of different brands from different countries. Today, major deposits of cobalt can be found in Canada, Congo, New Caledonia, and in smaller amounts, Idaho. 

My choice of PB28 cobalt blue (watercolor) is made by M. Graham (US). I am sure that many of you use other brands such as Daniel Smith (US) similar to M. Graham but more textural, Daler-Rowney (UK) a steely hue, Sennelier (FR), Maimeri (IT), Schminke (GR), Holbein (JP), or last but never least Winsor & Newton (UK) the most muted (Comments are from observations of my samples). I found M. Graham less powdery, lightfast, and semitransparent; therefore, for my palette, a perfect middle blue pigment. It has a large drying shift, losing most of its luminosity. It is still one of the most beautiful versatile pigments: one cannot make as many multifaceted greens, violets or neutrals without it.

Neutrals with Cobalt Blue

  • Mix with one of its complimentary colors, PO62 Permanent Orange (DS), and create hues of burnt sienna, raw umber, and fawn grey.
  • Mix with PO73 Pyrrol Orange (DS) and create hues from a slightly browner Venetian red to perylene maroon to perylene violet.
  • Mix with PR176 Carmine (DS) and create a black with definite Carmine overtones.

Green with Cobalt Blue

  • Mix with PY3 Hansa Yellow Light (DS) and reach for early spring and summer greens.
  • Mix with PY97 Hansa Yellow Medium (DS) and the green starts as acid hues but quickly turns to shades of handsome blue hosta leaves.
  • Mix with PY65 Hansa Yellow Deep (DS) to create a richer hue of green gold all the way to a very saturated olive green and on to a molten gray.
  • Mix with PY151 + PO62 Gamboges (MG) and gather in natural shades of green.

Violets with Cobalt Blue

  • Mix with PR209 Quinacridone Red (MG) and the violets are pinker.
  • Mix with PR179 Carmine (DS) and the violets are velvety and more mysterious.
  • Mix with PV19 Quinacridone Violet and create a gray/black with a smoky violet bias.
  • Mix PV15 Mineral Violet (Holbein) and create a hue that hovers between violet/brown/blue – really mysterious.
  • Mix PV37 Dioxazine Purple (MG) and see pansies and iris leap off your page.

Lastly, please remember that all cobalt pigments are poisonous when ingested, so handle with care.

  • This plate beautifully demonstrates the power of cobalt blue; c.1540-1550 Iznik dish in saz and rosette style–British Museum. Photographed by Marshall Colman.