Featured Color Story: Ultramarine


‘The blue gold’

Ultramarine is a colour that has appealed to people’s imagination
since the early Middle Ages. These days it is impossible to imagine the
standard palette without this intense blue with its excellent
lightfastness. However, up until 1828 only the natural variant was
available. An expensive affair, all the more so since this pigment cost
more than pure gold.

Originally Ultramarine was obtained from the semi-precious stone
Lapis Lazuli, literally ‘stone’ (Latin) and ‘blue’ (Persian). An
extraordinarily laborious and expensive process, whereby the stones are
ground by hand and all the impurities are removed. The best quality
Lapis Lazuli was traditionally mined in Afghanistan, where Ultramarine
was already being used in, for example, murals in the 6th and 7th

Expensive pigment

In the beginning of the thirteenth century a method was developed
that allowed an even purer pigment to be obtained from the stone. This
resulted in a considerable decrease in profit per stone, and an
unprecedented increase in price which even exceeded that of pure gold.
Nevertheless, artists were so impressed with the colour intensity and
lightfastness that the demand only increased. Also in Western Europe,
which since the 14th century received ever larger quantities of Lapis
Lazuli shipped from overseas. And this in fact is how Ultramarine
derived its name, ‘ultra marum’, Latin for ‘beyond the sea’. Due to the
high price, however, the pigment was by no means part of artists’
standard range of colours. What’s more, we know that artists such as the
Dutch 17th century masters charged their clients for the extra cost of

Guimet’s discovery

During the Industrial Revolution when the science of chemistry was on
the rise, an affordable alternative for the extremely expensive
Ultramarine was sought. In 1824 a competition was held in France for the
creation of a less expensive, synthetic variant that still had to
retain the same quality. The prize: 6000 francs. In those days that was a
fortune. In 1828 three chemists, Guimet, Gmelin and Köttig, developed
independently from one another a practically identical method of
preparation. Guimet ultimately won the competition as he had already
been working on his discovery in secret for some years.

Quality success

In terms of properties Guimet’s synthetic
Ultramarine hardly differs from its natural counterpart. Both, for
example, are highly susceptible to ‘Ultramarine disease’, whereby
humidity in combination with acids causes the colours to fade. However,
in the course of the years the quality has greatly improved and external
factors now hardly affect the colour intensity. What’s more, Royal
Talens adds an ingredient to its Ultramarine oil colours that makes the
colour totally ‘immune’ to the ‘Ultramarine disease’. All the more
reason for the now affordable ‘blue gold’ to be on the standard palette
of almost every artist.


Ultramarine is a blue pigment with ‘traces of red’. Mixed with bluish
reds it offers numerous possibilities for creating surprising shades of
violet. In addition, Ultramarine is often used as a transparent layer
in the glazing technique. If applied thinly on a white ground or by
mixing it with a little white paint, the characteristic, intense, clear
blue colour is created.

Royal Talens has the colour Ultramarine in the following product ranges:

  • Rembrandt oil colours, colour numbers: 683, 505, 506 and 507
  • Rembrandt acrylic colours, colour numbers: 504 and 507
  • Rembrandt water colours, colour numbers: 503, 506, 512 and 507
  • Rembrandt soft pastels, colour numbers: 505 and 506
  • Van Gogh oil colours, colour numbers: 504 and 512
  • Van Gogh acrylic colours, colour numbers: 504 and 512
  • Van Gogh water colours, colour numbers: 506 and 512
  • Van Gogh oil pastels, colour numbers: 504 and 507
  • Cobra water mixable oil colours, colour numbers: 504 and 512
  • Amsterdam acrylic colours Standard Series, colour numbers: 507, 519, 504 and 512
  • Amsterdam acrylic colours Expert Series, colour numbers: 504, 516 and 518
  • Amsterdam oil colours, colour numbers: 504 and 512
  • Talens Gouache Extra Fine quality, colour numbers: 505, 506 and 512

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