For the first Color Theory Thursday I thought I’d take a look at one of the most common paints, Ultramarine Blue, also known as PB29 (pigment blue 29). I’ll start out with samples of a few varieties, tell some brief history, and then show what I mixed with them.
If you don’t want to read it all, skip to the end where I show a nice mix I discovered on accident.
There are many subtly different varieties of ultramarine, with many paint makers offering as much as 2-4 varieties at once. All varieties are going to be a very dark, transparent, intense, somewhat reddish blue. Ultramarine “light” or “GS” (green shade) are about the same thing; a slightly lighter and less reddish blue. “French” or “deep” ultramarines are also the same thing, or close to it; a slightly deeper and more reddish blue.
Note: The photos are all taken at the same time in direct sunlight. I find it to be impossible, at least with my camera skills, to capture the intensity of ultramarine. In reality the blues below are more intense, except the lapis lazuli, which is actually pretty close to reality.
The paints above are each mixed with Charvin Titanium White at the bottom, first 1:1 and then 1:3.
Winsor & Newton French Ultramarine
Because this was the first one I ever got I regard it as the benchmark by which others are measured.
M Graham Ultramarine Blue
Good color, but very oily. Actually one of the most oily paints I own. This is not necessarily bad and can be a good sign. Ultramarine is famous for oil separation if a stabilizer isn’t used. I’m sure M Graham does use a stabilizer, but using too much can also be bad and changes how the paint behaves. The fact that there’s this much oil separation here indicates that they do not use too much stabilizer.
Rembrandt Ultramarine Deep
A surprisingly deep and vivid blue. Of the paints here it’s my favorite as far as color goes. It’s a little oily, but not as much as M Graham by a large margin.
Old Holland Ultramarine Blue
This one is the most expensive of the first four paints because this brand is one of the pricier ones out there. The pigment concentration is high and I like the way the paint spreads and handles the most out of the paints here. The color is a close second behind the Rembrandt example for my preference.
Of all the above paints, I think the Old Holland one had the highest tinting strength, although not by much. I might not have gotten perfectly exact mixes, but overall it seems like there’s not a lot of difference. Where there is a lot of difference is how each paint handles, with Old Holland being my preference and followed by Winsor & Newton. I hardly see any difference in the color, except the depth and vividness of the Rembrandt example, and I don’t seen much of a point in having multiple varieties of this blue on one palette. I think your choice of what brand to get should be based on price and handling.
Daniel Smith Lapis Lazuli Genuine
By far the most expensive of the paints here, being two to three times the price of the others.
Long ago artists had very limited options for blue paint, and one of those was to take the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli and basically grind it up into paint. There’s a lot more to the process than that, but the important part is that while this paint was a very good blue it was also worth more than its weight in gold. The stones were imported to Europe from mines in Afghanistan and the paint was therefore called Ultra (beyond) Marine (the sea).
In 1826 everything changed when chemists in France developed synthetic ultramarine, called French ultramarine. It was as good if not better than the real thing due to lack of impurities, chemically identical though with smaller and more uniform particle sizes, and very cheap. The market for lapis lazuli paint quickly switched to synthetic ultramarine and today it’s the synthetic ultramarine that is simply called by the name ultramarine blue.
There’s several paint makers today that still offer genuine lapis lazuli. However, there’s different grades of pigment quality based on how much of the impurities have been removed and every lapis lazuli paint on the market falls far short of the purity and intensity of synthetic ultramarine, such as what you see above. In the samples of that paint mixed with white it very quickly disappears because it’s so much weaker than the synthetic versions, on top of being duller.
The left example is lapis lazuli. To the right of that I took Winsor & Newton French ultramarine and added Gamblin Portland Grey Deep plus a few things to thin the paint. I think it’s a pretty close match as far as color goes, and considering I had to actually add grey to the synthetic ultramarine it’s clear how much duller the natural pigment is due to impurities. The only thing I couldn’t seem to match was the way the natural paint produced delicate glazes due to its high transparency, and that’s something it’s very useful for.
While going though old threads on forums I came across a reference that mentioned mixing some of the synthetic ultramarine into the natural to boost its color intensity. I tried that with some of the Old Holland paint and then a little more on the right side. The obvious result is a much stronger paint that’s still good for glazes.
My conclusion? Genuine Lapis Lazuli isn’t worth its marketing hype with the choices in today’s market, but in specific cases it could be useful. If it were to cost much less I might actually like it in the same way I like natural green earth, which is also transparent and weak tinting, but the price is a bit prohibitive. I have updated the wording here to be a little less critical than it used to be. I still think it’s far too expensive, but again it does work well in some situations.
Here I mixed each of the above paints, in the same order, with cadmium yellow pale (PY35) from Winsor & Newton. I tried to go for 1:1 mixtures in the first row. You can see they each produce about the same green, even though two of these blues are the french/deep variety and two aren’t. The Old Holland mix seems a little bluer, maybe because of it being slightly stronger than the others. The lapis lazuli on the other hand barely had an effect on the yellow. To get the same effect from the first four blues I had to mix the yellow in the bottom row with the tiniest little droplet of blue paint. I’d estimate the mix to be about 1:20, or somewhere around there.
Note than when using ultramarine mixed with yellow for greens you’ll typically get earthier, duller greens around the middle of the green range because the reddishness of ultramarine will cause the mix to come closer to the neutral center of the color wheel than what you’d see if you used a greener blue to begin with.
For all of the mixes past this point I used Winsor & Newton’s French ultramarine exclusively, making three mixes of different amounts with each other paint.
One of the most common ways that artists mix their own black paint is to combine ultramarine with burnt sienna (PBr7), such as this one from M Graham, because they combine nearly perfectly to hit black in the center of the color wheel and because they’re both among the cheapest paints. On the left side I used more blue in the mix, producing a very dark blue black. The center is a neutral mix. It’s not exactly a 1:1 mix, and since I had to add more paint back and forth to get the right balance I’m not sure what the final ratio was. On the right is mostly burnt sienna with a little blue added.
Here I mixed Winsor & Newton cerulean blue (PB35) with ultramarine. The left side has the most cerulean and the right the most ultramarine. I wasn’t too excited about the results, but the middle one is kind of nice.
I really liked this mix of ultramarine with Williamsburg Naples yellow italian (PBr24). It looks a little washed out in the photo but that’s mainly because the yellow is dull to begin with. I’ll be recording the greenish blue on the left in my library of mixes to remember. Update- Since posting this Williamsburg has changed the formula for this paint due to changes in pigment supply so it’s no longer a single PBr24 pigment.
Here I mixed ultramarine with M Graham raw sienna (also PBr7). I like the middle green a lot. It’s a very nice earthy green. I highly recommend this mix for landscapes.
Here’s where I think ultramarine really shines, being a reddish blue to begin with. I mixed it with Daniel Smith quinacridone pink (PV42) and got a range of vivid purples and violets.
This time it’s Daniel Smith quinacridone violet (PV19), which is more violet to begin with than the pink version above. The mixes are very similar, but I think a little more intense, because the violet is closer to ultramarine than the pink already and so doesn’t have to cut across the color wheel quite as much.
I used Holbein Scarlet Lake (PR188 and PO69 mixed) this time. Because this red is closer to orange than to violet it has to cut across the color wheel closer to the center to get to blue, so mixes with this produce dull purples. I actually kind of like the left mix, being similar to eggplant, and the right mix, being a very earthy red, but I don’t think I like the middle one at all.
So here’s the mix that I mentioned at the start of this whole post. On the far left is pure Daniel Smith Sleeping Beauty Turquoise Genuine. Like the lapis lazuli before this is one of their “PrimaTek” paints, made from real turquoise. In the mix to the right of that I used mostly ultramarine and a little bit of the turquoise and immediately thought how similar it looked to cobalt blue (PB28), a much more expensive paint than ultramarine. I got out a tube of Winsor & Newton cobalt and put that above it. I can’t really tell a difference between the two. I know of another mix for imitation cobalt that involves ultramarine, phthalo blue (PB15), and white, but what I got here was basically a mixed paint that nearly perfectly, to me anyways, matches my cobalt and doesn’t use white to do it. This mix is far cheaper than cobalt.