By Michael W. Harris
I love blue, it is my favorite color by far (with purple a medium distant second), and even better is that the color has a fascinating history in our culture. It is a color that is sad and joyous. It is the color of royalty and the color of the commoner. It is one of the rarest naturally occurring colors and yet is also the color most associate with both our planet and its two most prominent features: water and sky.
And it is a color that has been among the hardest to produce for dyes and pigments until relatively recently. It is a color that at one time was so prized in Western art that artists had it written into agreements how much patrons would provide for them, and it was reserved for only the most import subjects in art: Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
I will not attempt to rehash the history of blue here, but the links to the following YouTube videos will provide a more thorough (and entertaining) recap of this fascinating color:
- VSauce2 – The Invention of Blue
- BBC History of Art in Three Colors – Blue
- Chicago Humanities Festival – Material History of the Color Blue
- It’s Okay to Be Smart – Why is Blue So Rare in Nature?
My interest in the color blue is multifaceted. Historical, philosophical, material culture, and sociological. However, for this post, I will focus on a single aspect: categorical.
As a librarian/archivist/information philosopher (it’s true, just see my personal business cards!), I love sorting and putting things in particular order. Bringing meaning to chaos, even if only for a few fleeting moments. So it was that at the conclusion of a lengthy dive into examining/studying over 150 different blue inks in a quest to find not only the best match for Parker Penman Sapphire (see an upcoming post), but also my favorite blue ink (still TBD), that I needed to organize my blue ink swabs…and to sort through that many I had to first answer one question: what is blue?
Or to put it a better way, I needed to wrangle the naming conventions of the many shades of blue into a sort of order. Teal is Turquoise, Turquoise is Teal or Azure or a million other things. I needed to decide what I would call these inks rather than just “blue.” So it was that I sat down one day and started sorting. I initially used the six Montblanc “Blues” inks as a starting point, but quickly expanded to eight: Teal (though I should really call it Cyan), Turquoise, Azure, Blue Sapphire, Lapis Lazuli, Ultramarine, Indigo, and Navy.
Each one of these colors is a history lesson of its own, but I will offer a few words on each of them plus give some representative examples of each (with chromatography where I can).
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Teal, along with Navy, is the only color name I have chosen that does not have some sort of basis in a plant or stone/gem. Instead, the name “teal” is derived from the Eurasian Teal Duck, it is the color that is found on their head, an almost iridescent green-blue, and that (to me) is the essence of a teal. It is mostly green with undertones of blue. However, many people and companies sometimes call this Turquoise, as the turquoise mineral has a color that can range from green-blue to blue-green.
However, to me, a true Teal is green-blue, maybe even a sea green. Of course, even within this range, the color can range from the light teal that really emphasizes the green like Colorverse First Moon Landing Eagle or Monteverde DC Supershow Teal to closer to the bluer side like Straits Pens Sad Stormy Swedish Sea or Blackstone Sydney Harbor Blue. You can even call something like Maruzen Athena Eternal Blue a teal when compared to other blues because of the amount of green present. A very dark teal, sure, but somewhere in the vicinity, though also being dark enough to almost be Navy.
Turquoise, on the other hand, is usually considered a very light color associated with bright, vibrant oceans (though more vivid than a traditional sky-blue Azure). As mentioned above, turquoise is the name of a specific blue-green mineral, whose color can vary depending on the specific chemical composition of the rock. Though, overwhelmingly when you search for turquoise in google images, the stones that appear are much more “teal” in shade than what I think of as “turquoise.” I should probably just come up with different names for these two colors (and I probably will at some point), but for now, this is what I am going with.
There are a lot of great turquoise blue inks out there, and Lamy Turquoise (aka Pacific Blue) is a true standout. I am also a big fan of Papier Plume Peacock Blue, but these best represent the middle range of Turquoise for me. On the lighter side is Sailor Shikiori Yuki-akari while Franklin-Christoph Spanish Blue is on the darker end of the spectrum.
Azure is next and to me will always be synonymous with sky-blue. The name “azure” derives from the famous lapis lazuli (though the color has nothing truly to do with it) along with the mineral azurite (though again, no real color relation). The big difference between Azure and Turquoise is that Azure is a pure, light blue. No hints of green are left in the spectrum. This is Colorverse Horizon on the lightest end or Pilot iroshizuku kon-peki. Going a bit darker it is Monteverde Capri Blue, Sailor Sky High or KWZ Azure #5. These colors are what a lot of people think of as “true blue” at the darker ends of the spectrum, though for me that is reserved for the next category.
Blue Sapphire and Azure could really be one large group where the “blue” colors live. Indeed, in many ways (especially with additive colors) there are only three big categories of blue: indigo, azure, and cyan. Teal and Turquoise are cyan, and Blue Sapphire is smack in the middle of Azure. A lot of your standard blue inks (i.e [insert company name here] Blue) are here, including the “royal” blues of many brands. The blue inks that many school children (not in the US) had to use live in this category: Namiki Blue, Lamy Blue, Aurora Blue, Waterman Serenity Blue, and so on. These are all basic blues that also appear a bit washed out due to lower saturation…so why the “sapphire” in my name? To me, sapphires represent the base color of blue in nature, and really most are fairly light and semi-translucent. Naturally occurring, they are not a deep, iridescent blue like lapis or ultramarine. They are just blue.
So, when someone says they don’t like blue inks, they are probably talking about blues in this range. Though I have to admit that I like the basic Parker Quink Blue in this range. Also Diamine China Blue.
Okay, now we are getting to the stars of the show: Lapis Lazuli and Ultramarine. These are two closely related colors with a shared history. Obviously, lapis was once one of the few sources of making blue pigment for dyes and paints. It is a semiprecious stone with a deep blue color found in only a few mines through the world, with the largest being in one specific spot in Afghanistan. One. Singular. Mine. In a very specific valley. A mine that has been active for millennia.
That is raw lapis, though. It wasn’t easy to create a pigment from it, and it was a time and labor intensive process that would yield what the Europeans called “ultramarine” or “beyond the sea.” And while Lapis Lazuli is a deeper blue than what I am calling Blue Sapphire, it is not as deep, vibrant, or shocking as Ultramarine (especially synthetic ultramarine). Ultramarine is truly an almost pure blue, in my opinion. This is the blue of Yves Klein’s blue canvases. It doesn’t have the purple of an Indigo or the black of a Navy. It is just a deep, rich, saturated blue.
It is hard to really paint a clear border between Lapis Lazuli and Ultramarine, and in the middle it is a real toss-up. However, to illustrate between the two, Lapis Lazuli would include classics like Monteverde Horizon Blue and the various DC Supershow Blues from both Monteverde and Private Reserve. Visconti Blue and Pilot iroshizuku asa-gao would also be here (albeit on the lighter end of the spectrum). For Ultramarine, think of Akkerman #5 Shocking Blue, Diamine Majestic Blue, and Monteverde’s Ocean Noir at its absolute darkest (and that last one is ALMOST a Navy…and I may yet still change my mind about it).
The (in)famous Parker Penman Sapphire is on the darker end of Lapis, not quite an Ultramarine (though some of the lighter Ultramarines would fall somewhat close to it in the doppelgänger category). I will explore this category of inks more closely in a future post, though.
The last two categories are blue’s transition to the other end of the color spectrum: blue-purples and blue-blacks, what I am calling Indigo and Navy, respectively, because, unlike many historians, I try to NOT suck at naming things.
For my ink collection, Indigo, named after a dye derived from a plant of the same name, is rather small and underrepresented category, with Sailor Ultramarine and deAtramentis Sapphire Blue being the light and dark extremes of the color (but also notice how both colors are not cataloged by me as their names would lead you to believe).
Navy, on the other hand, is quite well represented in my swab catalog, and is the second largest of my sub-sections, having 25 cards in the drawer (not counting those from Papier Plume, Parker, or Montblanc as they have their own sections). The true standout here, though, is the limited edition Montblanc JFK Navy Blue from which I derived this category’s name. However, it is also a color with a wide palette ranging from the “dark” blue of Sailor Blue and Monteverde Peace to the almost grey of Sheaffer Blue-Black, Rohrer & Klinger Salix (that is after it dries), Pelikan 4001 Blue-Black, and Monteverde Azure Noir.
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In my current “Col-o-Catalog” drawer, the blues range from Diamine Soft Mint as the greenest of the Teals to Monteverde Azure Noir as the greyest of the Navies. Granted, there can be variation between people’s swabs depending on the type of cards they use, their particular method for swabbing the ink, and even (I’ve noticed) the light you look at it under and what color you have been staring at right before! When I was sorting the 149 “blue” swabs (yes One-hundred Forty-Nine) in my collection (not counting the 13 Montblanc, 5 Papier Plume, and 9 Parker blue swabs), I would rearrange and reclassify inks depending on if I was looking at a Teal or Azure right before, or an Indigo, or a Sapphire. What I am trying to say is that it is an incredibly subjective process and my swabs and decisions may or may not match your own.
I am not 100% happy with the way it stands, but I am least content with it for now.
And if archives school taught me anything, it is this: while there may be a better way to classify one thing, it will inevitably mess up something else down the line and you need to learn to be able to sleep at night with “good enough” and let history be the judge.
I fully expect this to spark some conversation either in the comments or elsewhere, so…what do you think? Or am I just crazy for thinking this much about a single color? If you feel the latter, just you wait…this there plenty more to come…
N.B. – I would like to give a huge thanks to @allthehobbies, @dsmallc, and @TiffanyT55 from the Pen Addict Slack group for their help and generous donation of ink samples for this project.