Ultramarine is a blue pigment consisting primarily of a double silicate of aluminium and sodium with some sulfides or sulfates, and occurring in nature as a proximate component of lapis lazuli. In the past, it has also been known as azzurrum ultramarine, azzurrum transmarinum, azzuro oltramarino, azur d'Acre, pierre d'azur, Lazurstein. Current terminology for ultramarine include natural ultramarine (English), outremer lapis (French), Ultramarin echt (German), oltremare genuino (Italian), and ultramarino verdadero (Spanish). The pigment color code is P. Blue 29 77007. Ultramarine is the most complex of the mineral pigments, a complex sulfur-containing sodio-silicate (Na8-10Al6Si6O24S2-4), essentially a mineralized limestone containing a blue cubic mineral called lazurite (the major component in lapis lazuli). Some chloride is often present in the crystal lattice as well. The blue color of the pigment is due to the S3− radical anion, which contains an unpaired electron.
The pigment was most extensively used during the 14th through 15th centuries, as its brilliance complemented the vermilion and gold of illuminated manuscripts and Italian panel paintings. It was valued chiefly on account of its brilliancy of tone and its inertness in opposition to sunlight, oil, and slaked lime. It is, however, extremely susceptible to even minute and dilute mineral acids and acid vapors. Dilute HCl, HNO3, and H2SO4 rapidly destroy the blue color, producing hydrogen sulfide (H2S) in the process. Acetic acid attacks the pigment at a much slower rate than mineral acids. Because of this susceptibility, ultramarine was only used for frescoes when it was applied "secco", in which the pigment was mixed with a binding medium and applied over dry plaster (such as Giotto di Bondone's frescos in the Cappella degli Scrovegni or Arena Chapel in Padua).
European artists used the pigment sparingly, reserving their highest quality blues for the robes of Mary and the Christ child. As a result of the high price, artists sometimes economized by using a cheaper blue, azurite, for under painting. Most likely imported to Europe through Venice, the pigment was seldom seen in German art or art from countries north of Italy. Due to a shortage of azurite in the late 16th and 17th century the demand for the already-expensive ultramarine increased dramatically. In 1814 Tassaert observed the spontaneous formation of a blue compound, very similar to ultramarine, if not identical with it, in a lime kiln at St. Gobain, which caused the Societé pour l'Encouragement d'Industrie to offer, in 1824, a prize for the artificial production of the precious color. Processes were devised by Jean Baptiste Guimet (1826) and by Christian Gmelin (1828), then professor of chemistry in Tübingen; but while Guimet kept his process a secret Gmelin published his, and thus became the originator of the "artificial ultramarine" industry.
The materials are 'baked' together in a kiln, usually in brick sized amounts. The resultant solids are then ground and washed as per any other insoluble pigment manufacturing process. The chemical reaction produces large amounts of sulfur dioxide meaning that Flue gas desulfurization is an essential part of its manufacture to comply with pollution regulations. Large chimneys were used to disperse sulfur dioxide produced in the process, resulting in ultramarine tinting the surrounding ground surfaces and roof vents with a blue color. (Google Maps offers views of two such synthetic ultramarine manufacturing sites, one near Hull, England (now defunct) and another in Comines, France)
"Ultramarine poor in silica" is obtained by fusing a mixture of soft clay, sodium sulfate, charcoal, sodium carbonate and sulfur. The product is at first white, but soon turns green ("green ultramarine") when it is mixed with sulfur and heated. The sulfur burns, and a fine blue pigment is obtained. "Ultramarine rich in silica" is generally obtained by heating a mixture of pure clay, very fine white sand, sulfur and charcoal in a muffle-furnace. A blue product is obtained at once, but a red tinge often results. The different ultramarines—green, blue, red and violet—are finely ground and washed with water.
Artificial, like natural, ultramarine has a magnificent blue colour, which is not affected by light nor by contact with oil or lime as used in painting. Hydrochloric acid immediately bleaches it with liberation of hydrogen sulfide. It is remarkable that even a small addition of zinc-white (oxide of zinc) to the reddish varieties especially causes a considerable diminution in the intensity of the colour, while dilution with artificial precipitated sulfate of lime ("annalin") or sulfate of baryta ("blanc fix") acts pretty much as one would expect. Synthetic ultramarine being very cheap, it is largely used for wall painting, the printing of paperhangings and calico, etc., and also as a corrective for the yellowish tinge often present in things meant to be white, such as linen, paper, etc. Bluing or "Laundry blue" is a solution of synthetic ultramarine (sometimes, prussian blue) that is used for this purpose when washing white clothes. Large quantities are used in the manufacture of paper, and especially for producing a kind of pale blue writing paper which is popular in Britain.
Ultramarine is based on the sodalite structure which is a 3 dimensional aluminosilicate cage containing 3 sulfur atoms bonded together to form an ion. These ions are charge balanced by cations of sodium in the natural material. The sodium ions can be ion exchanged with lithium and potassium as described above. The modification of the ions has a dramatic effect on the structure of the cages. Lithium being smaller than sodium causes the cage to contract whilst potassium being large causes the cage to expand. The modification of the cage structure and the interaction of the different cations with the central sulfur species modifies the colouration of the final pigment.
By treating blue ultramarine with silver nitrate solution, "silver-ultramarine" is obtained as a yellow powder. This compound gives a blue potassium- and lithium-ultramarine when treated with the corresponding chloride, and an ethyl-ultramarine when treated with ethyl iodide. Selenium- and tellurium-ultramarine, in which these elements replace the sulfur, have also been prepared.
Ultramarine Blue: a "new," unique color space for painting the world blue: can anyone claim that a "new" blue color space has been "discovered" when talking about a pigment that has been in use for almost 200 years? Are paint makers so acquainted with the Ultramarine Blue pigment that it no longer holds anything of real interest to them?
Jun 01, 2006; This article aims to change the way the coatings industry sees Ultramarine Blues, because Nubiola has developed...