Blue is the new black

What’s your favourite colour?

It’s a simple enough question and one most of us probably had an answer to as a child, but as Monty Python’s Sir Galahad the Chaste found to his cost at the “Bridge of Death”, when it comes to choosing colour, some things are never easy.

These days we take for granted the concept of blue for boys and pink for girls but it’s said that this is only a post-war marketing phenomenon and that remarkably, before that time these colour codes were either reversed, or did not apply at all. Starting from such a basis then, is it any wonder that when it comes to painting and decorating around the house, choosing the right colours can sometimes be fraught with as much difficulty as splashing the paint about the walls?

In need of a splash of paint: the exterior of Yallambie, c1988. (Source: John Botwood collection)

Although it was definitely fashionable during the mid-Victorian age to pick out different elements of a building in separate colours and shades of colour, it could be argued that Thomas Wragge and his family were always more interested in their farms than fashion. It’s impossible to know now what the colour scheme was at Yallambie in the early days. The stucco render of the house remained unpainted during Annie Murdoch’s post 1919 renovations and throughout the subsequent Bush and Temby eras. During the Ozimek family residency of the 1980s, the Ozimeks sought expert heritage advice in their choice of a specially mixed green/grey which by stretching the imagination, was supposed to roughly match the tones of previously unpainted cement.

Painted for the first time: the exterior of Yallambie at the start of the 1990s. (Source: John Botwood collection)

Available black and white photography from the 19th Century would indicate that exterior joinery at Yallambie was painted with a mixture of dark window frames, doors and window sashes. As a rule of thumb, a typical Victorian colour scheme for the joinery on a masonry house of this age might be deep Brunswick green or Indian red for window sashes and doors, with the same colour being used on gutters, barge boards, cappings and other mouldings. Although paint scrapings used to collect evidence of previous painting styles remain largely ambiguous at Yallambie, by the middle of the 20th Century it is clear that window frames and sashes had been repainted an unassuming white before being repainted again by the Ozimeks in the 1980s in a mass effect of the aforementioned Brunswick green.

“…dark window frames, doors and window sashes.” (Source: Bill Bush collection)
Red door, 2018.
Blue door, 2021

Since arriving here in the 1990s we have experimented with the alternative Indian red on some of that green exterior joinery but found that the harsh Australian sun soon burned the colour out of the red paint. Was there an alternative?

So called heritage colours are a bit of a misnomer but at Yallambie their use in the past has contributed to an overall effect which once saw the property cast in the starring role of a ghost story. What we wanted then was something that might tick the heritage boxes but in the process send those old ghosts packing.

The spooky house, March, 1997.

Film evidence of the old Bakewell era stables which was demolished at the start of the 1980s showed that the barn doors had been painted in a pure French blue, a colour that had also been used at some later time to paint the screen doors of the house.

You don’t have to live in a toadstool house to experience the joys of a blue door. (Source: Noddy Book 15)
Blue stable doors seen in Peter Bassett-Smith’s 16mm colour film.

With this in mind and with our imagination filled with happy scenes of sunny picture postcards of Provence, it was off to the paint shop to look at their colour cards for a “super intelligent shade of the colour blue”. Whether this blue might in practice prove to be intelligent in design in a general sort of way, or only when compared to all those other colours of the rainbow in the colour books at the paint shop remained the 64 dollar question.

Nancy Bush exiting the blue screen, front door as seen in Peter Bassett-Smith’s 16mm colour film.

As a pigment, blue has historically been one of the most difficult to create. Some ancient cultures did not even have a word for it. In those cultures the word for blue was subsumed by other words which were also used for black or green, which I’m thinking probably made for some rather odd greetings on a sunny morning.

Cave paintings at Chauvet Cave in southern France.

Blue is not an earth colour so you won’t find it splashed around the cave homes of prehistoric people, in between their hand prints and pictures of bison. The first stable blue colourant used in the ancient world came from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone much prized by the early Egyptians. Using Bronze Age tools, they laboriously ground the stone up and used it to colour everything from the stone tombs of their pharaohs to the eyeshadows used by the delectable Cleopatra in her efforts to lure Caesar into her bed.

In ancient China on the other side of the world, blue pigments were created by blending heavy elements such as mercury, barium and lead, a recipe that was also used in a popular but fundamentally toxic “elixir” consumed by the political elite of that country. These days, modern factory production in the People’s Republic ensures that everybody gets their fair share.

Giotto’s 700 year old blue ceiling in the Scrovegni Chapel, Italy. (Source: Wikipedia)

Over the centuries blue remained a colour most usually associated with royalty and divinity. It remained rare but by the Renaissance a change was in the air. In the visual arts, the use of blue by the early Renaissance painter Giotto set his work apart from the work of his predecessors. Using techniques hardly changed since the days of ancient Egypt, Giotto used ground lapis lazuli to create his deepest pigments. The hard stone took weeks to patiently grind into a paste which could be applied as paint to the ceilings of chapels, and those ceilings required a whole lot of paint.

You never know what you might find beyond a blue door. (Source: BBC)

Blue pigment remained uncommon and expensive in any form until the early industrial age but by the dawn of the 20th Century chemical innovations meant there were hundreds to choose from. Picasso used little else over the course of the few years he painted in the depressed state of his so called “Blue Period”. Maybe he was depressed by the lack of other colours at the bottom of his paint box, but on a house I think its use turns out to be a happy colour. After much deliberation the colour we chose for the exterior joinery of this house would best be described as a French Louis blue.

In a survey the French once elected blue as their favourite colour of all which might explain all that blue we see in those picture postcards. It’s claimed that using blue on window shutters in the south of France somehow discourages the entry of flying insects and while this may or may not be true, there’s no doubting the cheerful effect of using the colour in any place where the sun shines hot. Blue is commonly supposed to symbolize serenity, stability, patience and understanding and we’re going to need a little of that I’m thinking. The Autumn is good painting weather and after spending the long weekend with my wife turning a large, triple sash window at the front of the house into a masterpiece worthy of Picasso, we stood back to look at our combined handiwork.

“I love this,” she said. “We very probably sent those nice people at the Eltham paint shop crazy getting this right, but I really like the choice of colour now. It makes me happy.”

“Thanks goodness for that. One window painted, only about three dozen and more to go.”

Take a deep breath.

8 thoughts on “Blue is the new black”

  1. Great effort all round, I love the shade of blue you’ve used, it is a happy colour as you say and it suits the house. Your writings of the history of the colour blue was very interesting, thank you. Good luck with the other 3 dozen!

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  2. Colours! The history of pigments is truly fascinating! Finding a blue pigment that holds that was the challenge. A while ago I discovered the fascinating pigmentation of the Clitoria ternatea (Butterfly Pea) They grow wild around Darwin and are well known in India. The flower is used to add blue colour to rice for special occasions. It is edible and quite a pretty pea flower. I have used the flower to make a blue tea and I have heard it is used to produce a magnificent blue colour in Gin. Becoming fascinated with natural pigments (There are a few in the area where I live that are used by indigenous people to colour textiles) I researched the brilliant blue colour that appeared in films such as Braveheart and the 2004 film King Arthur. Originally I thought it was some kind of clay but it turns out that the blue is a dye produced by the Woad plant. It is refined by a process of crushing the leaves and separating the biologically transient green from whatever the substance is that remains as a blue dye… It’s fascinating that a blue dye can be produced in such ways, but to create a lasting pigment is obviously an entirely more complex matter.

    There blue produced by Clitoria flower can be quite rich and it works as a litmus test, if you add acidity from a lemon it can turn purple. I have added a link to a blog post with a photo of the water. It’s quite a beautiful effect. https://balandaeyes.blogspot.com/2020/04/semi-isolation-cnineteen.html

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    1. In practice the ancient Egyptians found Lapis a problematic material to turn into paint and instead developed techniques to create blue pigments synthetically by grinding limestone, sand and copper minerals, AKA Egyptian Blue. The Meso-Americans made a stable colour called Mayan Blue from the leaves of a locally grown pea flower. Interesting that you have found something similar growing up there. I wonder what blue tea tastes like? Do you take milk and sugar with it? Does it turn your teeth blue? Cheers for your informative comments Dave, Ian

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  3. Hi Ian & Vicki
    Love your research with the colour blue.
    I’ve never liked the blue painted Victorian houses when I came to Melbourne in late 1970’s. It was usually used on houses where sash windows were replaced with aluminium ones and iron lace & verandah roofs removed. Surprisingly your particular shade works well on your gorgeous home – I hope the people at the paint shop are recovered now, too. Well done.
    Rachel

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