I thought of the blue that my eye had conjured within itself, the colour I try to find through dyes and other pigments (the ceiling in the room where I am typing is a deep blue, as close to the Scrovegni ceiling painted by Giotto in the early 14th c for which he used lapis lazuli ground and mixed with binding agents, as close to that blue as I could get, using a guidebook from the chapel and the scanner at the hardware store). I thought of the blue I dreamed, just out of reach when I woke next morning, and how I’ve tried to find ways of mixing it, recipes for it. In Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, we’re told that “Indigo Blue, is composed of Berlin Blue, a little black, and a small portion of apple green.” And Prussian Blue? (“Beauty spot of wing on Mallard Drake.”) Well, it’s “Berlin blue, with a considerable portion of velvet black, and a small quantity of indigo blue.” And Berlin Blue? (“Wing feathers of Jay.”): “Berlin Blue, is the pure, or characteristic colour of Werner. W.” Who was Werner, you ask? He was Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749-1817), a mineralogist and geologist born in Prussian Silesia who developed a scheme for identifying minerals by key characteristics. His work was furthered by Patrick Syme (1774-1845) who extended Werner’s charts to include natural history.
When you fall into the rabbit hole of pigments and how they were developed, you could tunnel down forever. You’d find the origins of Prussian Blue, a story involving a toxic compound called Dippel’s oil (created by its namesake as an alchemical attempt to make an elixir of immortality, containing crushed animal bones and blood) accidentally added to a vat of red dye composed of crushed insects, iron sulphate, and potash. The result was a colour that the world was waiting for and embraced with such enthusiasm that it was used for everything from colouring tea to military uniforms to the palette of Picasso where it inspired his blue period. A slight variant of the pigment was manufactured in China, named Berlin Blue, exported to Japan where it appeared as the key colour of Hokusai’s beautiful views of Mount Fuji, in part because of its ability to lend depth to sky and water.
–from “The Blue Etymologies”, an unpublished essay