More types of blue | The Art Institute of Chicago

Through , , and

This lack covers a wide range of historical periods, languages ​​and geographical locations. It’s intriguing, no doubt. But despite this scarcity of words, it’s hard not to notice the incredible variety of shades of blue in the manufactured world, especially after reading the first collection of writings on blue. The human need for wisdom and the serenity associated with it continues in the following works of art selected by four blue-minded colleagues.

Neon blue

At Senju’s Cascade the paintings appear to be rendered with blue pigment, but this is not the case.

Against a dark background, the waterfalls are painted in a white that turns blue with the use of ultraviolet (black) light. Seen in the installation, the waterfalls have an ethereal glow and appear to be painted with light itself. To create his works, Senju carefully mixes his own pigments, using a unique and modern combination of fluorescent pigment and acrylic. (Senju has been creating his signature stunts since 1995 and has been using fluorescent pigments for about a decade.)

Senju uses the traditional folding screen as a format, but unconventionally he does not use a brush to paint the waterfalls. Instead, he pours paint from the top of the screen, surrendering control to gravity as he lets the materials show their true nature and beauty. Next, the artist uses an airbrush to create the distinctive effect of spraying water in mist and droplets. It is fascinating that in order to best capture the mystery and awe of these natural wonders, Senju opts to use such an artificial pigment. Yet he instills a transcendent sense of reverence for the beauty of nature.

—Janice Katz, Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art, Asian Arts

blue laundry

When I first approached this sculpture, the bright blue of the carved wooden surface caught my attention.


Use the zoom function to explore details.

Then, as a kid, I was overwhelmed with the urge to find out what was inside the rooster-shaped container. This sculpture of a kneeling female figure holding a covered bowl was made in Nigeria by a Yoruba artist, either Obembe Alaiye (active late 19th/early 20th century) or Agbonbiofe (d. 1945). Containers like this were often used to hold kola nuts, the seeds of kola trees, which were shared as a sign of hospitality. During a collaborative study of objects in the Arts of Africa gallery, we were able to remove the rooster-shaped lid and found a different offer: more blue!

Figure with the rooster lid removed, revealing the blue inside

Scholar Bolaji Campbell said, “Yoruba people think with colors. For them, colors have two realities: the coloring matter on the one hand and the dimension of transformation on the other. On the material side, our scientific analysis revealed the identity of bright blue: synthetic ultramarine. Beginning in the late 18th century, various types of blue pigments were marketed as “lye blue”, an agent used in washing to counter the yellowing of white fabrics. These products have been embraced by artists in different cultural contexts as affordable and readily available alternatives to more traditional artists’ pigments and may be the source of the pigment found here. If you look closely, you will discover blue pigments on the surfaces of other objects in this gallery, such as this other wooden female figure with a bowl.

—Clara Granzotto, Assistant Conservation Scientist, Conservation and Science

sapphire blue

Completed in 2003, their home began as ‘a white house with navy blue trim’ that the client, a couple with two young sons living in Chicago, first imagined when he approached Margaret McCurrythe architect.

Margaret McCurry

They wanted a nautical theme for this weekend home along the shores of Lake Michigan, an “east coast-seaside look with the spirit of Michigan.” After discussion, this color scheme was reversed and became a key design feature. The architect and client considered several types of blue – from a cobalt tone to lighter and darker samples, including a blue/purple option – for the exterior color. The final selection was “Suddenly Sapphirein matte, which covered the vertical tongue-and-groove cedar siding and contrasted with the white trim and white metal roof.

In front of the Blue House, looking towards Lake Michigan

The blue connected the building to nature, to the vast expanse of water and sky that the house overlooked from its skillful location in a sand dune. The striking color also enlivened the gable-roofed structure, a reference to Midwestern barns and cottages, but subverted it with a bold and unexpected paint choice. For McCurry, color could establish an immediate presence. Whether it’s blue, red or the whole box of colored pencils, color in architecture is often paramount.

—Craig Lee, Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice, Postdoctoral Fellow in Architecture and Design

muslim blue

Historically known in China as “Muslim blue”, the cobalt pigment imported from Persia via the Silk Road was widely used to decorate white pottery from the 14th century.


The cobalt was applied using an underglaze technique where the ceramic was painted and then covered with a clear glaze, enhancing the color underneath. The resulting shade of blue was so prized that manufacturers in Jingdezhen, China’s porcelain capital, considered cobalt a commodity twice the value of gold.

During the Chinese occupation of Vietnam in the 15th century, Vietnamese potters readily adopted the cobalt underglaze, which had already gained popularity in export markets in the Muslim world. Vietnamese blue and white wares sometimes had two types of cobalt: cobalt from the Middle East gave a bright blue but was more expensive than darker cobalt from Yunnan, China.

Commercially manufactured cobalt blue pigment

From 1436 to 1465, China’s Ming dynasty abruptly ceased trade with the outside world, creating a trade vacuum that allowed Vietnamese blue and white ceramics to monopolize markets for about 150 years. Vietnamese wares of this era have been found throughout Asia, from Japan, through Southeast Asia (Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines), to the Middle East (the Arab port of Julfar, Persia, Syria, Turkey, Egypt) and East Africa. (Tanzania). The approximately 300,000 ceramics excavated from a shipwreck near Hội An off the coast of Vietnam, like those in the Art Institute’s collection, were probably exported when the ship sank. As in China and Vietnam, the prevalence of cobalt in blue and white ceramics would eventually inspire imitative products in Islamic ceramics, Japanese ceramics, and European Delftware.

—Richard Gessert, Office Assistant, Headquarters

At Senju’s Cascade for Chicago is on view until March 13 in gallery 109, curated by Andō Tadao.


For further discussion on Female Figure with Cock (Olumeye)see the entry of Babatunde Lawal in Let’s Talk Objects: African Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, edited by Constantin Petridis, p. 101, cat. 35 (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2020)

Bolaj Campbell. Painting for the Gods: Art and Aesthetics of Yoruba Religious Murals. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2007.


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