The History of the Color Blue: Ancient Egypt Uncovered a Color That Couldn’t Be Seen

Pyramids in Egypt in a blue color lit up by the moonlight

If you’re like many, you love the many shades of blue. You can’t get enough of it in your life, and you enjoy combining any number of shades in your decorating, your wardrobe, and even other products you choose to buy, such as your car. You know blue makes you feel good. You know it speaks to you, and you know it often serves as one of the loveliest neutrals you can get your hands on.

Blue jeans go with anything. A pop of blue in the form of a throw pillow can work on almost any couch, and when you add a piece of art that contains shades of blue to your space, it often doesn’t matter what your color theme is. Space without blue just isn’t complete.

But do you know the history of this lovely color and all its variants? We see it all around us in nature, but how did people learn to transfer it into dyes and paint? Let’s find out.

The Color Blue Wasn’t Always Seen

The hero of the ancient Greek myths Odysseus from the Odyssey poem

You might not know it now, but some scientists believe that the color blue couldn’t be seen by the earliest humans. In fact, at first, it is thought that they could only see black, white, red, and only after some time, yellow and green.

Some suggest that the poet Homer alluded to this in his epic poem the Odyssey, with his description of the sea as being “wine red.” Since people couldn’t see it, they didn’t know how to describe it.

So, when the Ancient Egyptians were able to develop the earliest shade of the color blue that was permanent, it’s a wonder that they were able to see it and incorporate it into their works of art.

The Developing Shades of This Stunning Color

Before we can understand how blue comes in so many shades, we need to know where the color came from and how it was made. As it turns out, blue was the first color that was synthetically made. Even more amazing is that it happened around 2,200 B.C. in Ancient Egypt.

Egyptian Blue

Ancient hieroglyphic carvings on ceiling in Egyptian Blue color

Egyptian blue is also known as cuprorivaite, and it’s made by crushing and combining limestone, sand, and a mineral that contains copper. Then, it is heated to about 1500 degrees before turning into a glass that needs to be crushed and mixed with agents to help it thicken to create a wash or paint.

It’s no surprise that the Ancients highly favored this color and considered it very valuable. It was used to paint ceramics, in pharaoh’s tombs, and it continued to be a valued color into Roman times.


Closeup texture of the Lapis Lazuli stone used to make what is now called the ultramarine color

The next beautiful shade of blue to be made into a pigment for art was, in a sense, uncovered when the stone lapis lazuli was discovered. The true blue of this stone is stunning to almost any eye, and when the Egyptians tried and failed to crush this gem and turn it into paint, the result was a washed-out gray color.

It wasn’t successfully turned into a paint until about the 6th century when Buddhist monks in Afghanistan began adding it to their paintings. In the 14th and 15th centuries, it was Italian traders who introduced this color, now called ultramarine, to Europe, and the medieval artists of the time.

If you weren’t wealthy, though, it was highly unlikely that you would be able to use this coveted color, because it was considered to be as valuable as gold. Thus, it was reserved for the most important commissions of the time.

In 1826, a French chemist found a way to synthetically create ultramarine, which decreased the cost of this paint.

The Evolution of Even More Shades of Blue

Cobalt element in enameled mineral used to create blue pigment

The infatuation with, and need for the color blue in art – and in life – continued, and so did the discoveries of how to create even more shades of blue. Cobalt blue was the next color created, during the 8th and 9th centuries. During this time, it was used primarily for ceramics and jewels. China was particularly fond of cobalt which is often seen in their blue and white porcelain. In 1807, commercial production began and it was considered by artists of the day to be an acceptable and affordable alternative to ultramarine.

Then came cerulean, often thought of as sky blue, which wasn’t officially available as a paint color until 1860.

Another favorite, indigo, was more readily available because it was made into a dye. It came from a widely grown crop and changed the way that fabrics were colored. It also changed the world of 1600’s textiles in Europe and was a catalyst for the American European trade wars.

Navy Blue, Prussian Blue, and More

Picture of 19th century naval officers wearing navy blue uniforms

If you think that blue finishes with indigo, you’re forgetting about other lovely shades including navy blue, which carries the formal name of marine blue. It is the darkest shade of blue, with indigo as the base. The British Royal Navy adopted this color for their uniforms in 1748.

Then came Prussian blue, a delightfully vibrant shade, which was discovered by accident in Germany by a fabric dye maker.

International Klein Blue is a matte version of ultramarine that a French artist registered and used exclusively between 1947 and 1957.

The most recent discovery, YInMn, was a complete surprise that happened in 2009. A professor and his graduate accidentally created it when delving into new materials to make electronics. It’s made up of three different heated elements. In 2017, Crayola added this color to their lineup of blue crayons.

The Use of Blue in Clothing and Life

Fabric dyed in indigo color by hand

For many years, the color blue was used to color different types of artwork, ceramics and statues, but was not used in clothing. When blue was new in the world, mostly poor people wore the color. It came from indigo, which was made from a plant called woad. It was grown in Northern Europe until it was replaced by true Indian indigo in the 1800s.

Julius Cesar thought of blue as the color of barbarians, since Germans and Celts would often paint their faces blue before going into battle.

In the 12th century, with the use of ultramarine in stained glass windows and paint, the “Virgin Mary Cult” popularized this shade and blue became synonymous with holiness, protection, humility, and virtue. This is probably what led royalty to adopt the color for their clothing in the middle ages. France’s King Louis IX started the trend by wearing blue clothing all the time. He was the first king to use blue as a royal color.

Naturally, the wealthy and powerful adopted blue clothing as their signature color, too. And so the blue trend in clothing began.

Today, different shades of blue can be found in everything from jeans to shirts, undergarments, and more. It is a true neutral and is often used in some of the most unlikely color combinations with success.

The Color Blue on Walls Today

Bright inviting living room painted with blue accent wall

Not surprisingly, blue is an incredibly common color used for decorating and painting both interior and exterior walls of homes and businesses. There are likely many reasons for this, the first of which is that it can function as a neutral, but still add depth and dimension to any space.

Not only that, but there are so many shades, and so many different warmer and cooler variations. Choose a blue with warm undertones and enjoy a warm, soothing retreat that reminds many of a sunny beach. Conversely, blues with cool undertones often work well with gray to offer a soothing, sophisticated look.

Whether it’s a deep blue accent wall, a wall of cabinets, or a whole room in a favorite soothing shade, the options and uses of blue on both inside and outside walls are growing. Many people report that blue is their favorite color, and most have a favorite shade.

How Blue Affects Mood, Emotion, and Behavior

Illustration of relaxed man sitting near calm blue lake with mountains in the background

Blue is most often used in spaces where people need to rest because it makes us feel relaxed and calm.

When it comes to the psychology of this color, there are some significant findings to note:

  • Blue represents stability, so when businesses want to look secure, they will advertise with this color.
  • Many think of blue as masculine, because it is the color that most men prefer.
  • It has been shown to lower body temperature and heart rate.
  • For those that want to feel calm, tranquil, and serene, a blue space helps set the mood.
  • Blue helps people be more productive too. Many businesses that want to encourage productivity in employees paint their walls blue.
  • Despite its positives, blue can also make people feel sad or aloof.

It’s important to note that not everyone who looks at the color blue will feel the same way, and some people feel that blue is artificial or negative.

No matter how the individual feels about it, the rich history of the color blue ensures that it will be sought after for years to come, and who knows, maybe in another century or so, another shade will be discovered to boost its popularity even more.