For me to write colour is to write blue, and perhaps I already have with the ultramarine ink bleeding into my notebook pages. As though blood could be blue; the way my wrist veins pretend from the outside to be. Blue is not my favourite colour and I’d sooner clothe myself in red or green or pink. I have difficulty with blue. It’s not of my body nor of the soil I tread on – so knowing it feels hard. The blue sky seems to exist to improve the orange and brown underfoot, in that complementary way, that colour theorists dwell on. In the 1950s Josef Albers constructed an entire course at Yale, concerning the interactions of colour, which shaped so many of the artists’ work that we know today. But blue is a primary colour, nothing put together can equate to blue. Blue is only blue, by itself.
And I suspect that it guards this solitude. It’s a receding colour, which doesn’t travel to meet my forehead the way red does, but endlessly pulls away from my stomach. Toward Kahlo’s cobalt blue house in Mexico City, Vermeer’s girl with only one earring, Klein’s models dripping with paint, and Van Gogh’s bedroom which guides me back to my own. Where the walls hug me in periwinkle until I leave its shelter for my studio in the morning. Atlantic House studios, house of the cold ocean . . . house of blue depths?
When I follow the steps down to my studio space, into the earth now replaced with a void, my painting waits for me on the wall, perfumed in turpentine and linseed oil. Trapped in glazes of blues are multiple versions of my brother living on the same canvas, as though I’m a Cubist going through my own blue period. Suspended in oil, he embraces himself in an act of self-care, or maybe as consolation in the face of blue loneliness. To paint blue is to paint into history and converse in ultramarine, across the ocean, ways with Titian about his luminous robes. It is to sympathise with his rebelliously liberal applications at a time when the hue was reserved for depictions of the Virgin Mary only. A sacred colour beyond the body and always out of our reach. A colour of heavens and sexless mothers. Painting blue is signing a contract with Matisse that permits being seduced into his circle of Dance. It is seeing Van Gogh in the night sky, and praying most secular of prayers in Rothko’s Chapel. A space where all biblical scenes, and any figurative reference, fall away so that only panels of blue remain. These spectres of blue keep company in my studio, while I painstakingly mix my brother’s blue. Simon se Blou. A combination of cobalt, ultramarine and prussian which I frequently get wrong and with frustration scrape to one side for later use in a chromatic grey. Before pressing my brush to substrate, I tremble just a little. Painting blue seems as consequential as conjuring up the entire history of painting. So how does one enter this timeless spell of a colour; how can you claim blue and not falter?
I wonder if it’s this weight of blue my parents somehow recognised and recoiled from when they painted their house in a meek, indistinct, beige-pink-yellow. Electric blue was my suggestion. A vibrancy that might pluck the suburb from its lull. This option was eliminated when my dad painted swatches over the pumpkin orange of the house’s previous skin. I can say now that my reasons for blue were disingenuous. My yearning for a blue house was a wish to approximate Frida Kahloness. It seems “yearning” can sometimes be synonymous with “blue,” and that blue welcomes many synonyms. The artist Yves Klein’s name became blue – International Klein Blue – as though baptised into a covenant of colour. In giving up all other colours, Klein became ascetic in his devotion to blue, which he regarded as,
[having] no dimension, it exceeds everything… All colours evoke associations…, whereas blue is reminiscent of the sea and the sky, which are the most abstract parts of the tangible and visible nature.(Berke 15)
This slipperiness of blue; its perpetual pulling away from our stomachs; meant that capturing blue in its bluish pigments was a difficult pursuit and, maybe, all the more alluring for it. In pre-historic times, only “colours provided by the surface soil” offered potentials for pigment (Berke 16). It required the development of mining for people to obtain the blues that would otherwise seep from their clasps of water and light. In medieval times the gemstone “lapis lazuli was the source of blue minerals” that could only be found in Afghanistan (16). And so, the history of blue, is also the history of industry. This stone found its way to Venice where Titian used it to arrest his audiences with the splendid blues that dramatically divide Bacchus and Ariadne on its diagonal axis. And so, the history of blue, is also the history of maritime trade. That was when lapis lazuli forgot its own name and became ultramarine. A history that I was oblivious to the first time I squeezed this pigment, suspended as it was in medium, from its tube onto my make-shift palette. I was tricked by this bright blue into assuming that its naming showed kinship to the blue of the seas.
And in speaking of the magics of blue, I think of the story of prussian blue. At the beginning of the eighteenth century it was accidentally discovered in Berlin (Guichard, Le Hô and Williams 2). In the workshop of an “alchemist called Johann Konrad Dippel” during the early 1700s, when a “pigment maker called Johann Jacob Diesbach was attempting to prepare red lake using cochineal insects” (2). In trying to make red, the chemical reaction instead resulted in blue. Prussian blue, the first “modern synthetic pigment” derived “not from a natural, animal, vegetable, or mineral source, but from an artificial chemical compound” (3).
To stumble upon a new blue. It must have felt like the world gifted a new moon. And so, the history of blue, is also the history of chemistry. These disciplines were, at the time, not so distinct from each other. I’m beginning to think that blue, the most deceptive of all hues, indulges itself in its instability and ambiguity. It surreptitiously replaces red when least expected. It is everywhere beyond, yet almost nowhere to be held. It’s absent from my own body but marks the irises of my lover’s eyes. Eyes that look at me from their own blueness. Am I awash in blue from this perspective?
It occurs to me that blue is the only colour capable of signifying feeling, an ontological state, a being blue. If blue is feeling, it’s also oceanic feeling. Caroline Rooney writes that, “the oceanic borders on the mystical” (19). And it is this spiritual, mysterious dimension that came up, too, in Romain Rolland’s correspondence with Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s. For Rolland it is, “a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded — as it were, ‘oceanic’” (Rooney 20). This sentiment reflects and refracts back to Klein’s blue in its ever-exceeding nature. Its pull away from my stomach. A call for me to follow and become immersed in its immensity, to sublimate my desires for sense and meaning and exact, understanding.
But oceanic feeling is also when I run into the breakers with Emma or sit next to Monique on a rock, our feet dangling in the cold. The water makes my patterned blue swimsuit a shade darker, and I like the curls in my hair after swimming. I scream and laugh at the same time when the freezing, salty water splashes against my stomach. When I go deeper my nipples burn and my legs ache so that I feel my body differently from how it feels on land. There I can almost forget I have a body until I stump my toe or lose my breath. In the sea my body tingles to remind me it exists. Oceanic feeling is floating on my back and watching the clouds drift above, strangely synchronous with the rhythms of my body carried by undulating waves. It is also a feeling for the ocean. Affection for waters that hold me as if in amniotic fluid. It is a maternal love. This feeling has been so consistent across the various oceans of my life.
My first swim must have been in the warm Indian Ocean at Sardinia Bay, in Port Elizabeth, now Gqeberha. Then followed the Garden Route beaches, Mooibaai and the Transkei. These days I swim mostly at Clifton but love Simon’s Town waters best. Over the years I’ve swam with so many friends and strangers sharing in this experience of blue, which also comes with its sounds. Hearing blue is listening to the seagulls moan above. Swaying to the tune of waves crashing on the shores and against boulders, or softly mumbling very far in the distance. It is also listening to blues. And to all jazz, but especially to Miles Davis playing his trumpet in the twelve-bar blues of “All Blues,” and singing:
…Talkin’ ’bout the sea and the sky
Andi’m talkin’ ’bout you and I
The sea, the sky
For you and I
And I know we’re all blues
Davis translates that oceanic understanding of the “I” and the “you” as bounded to the sea and the sky into sound, that utmost transcendental medium. The character Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road finds a liberating shared experience, that characteristic of the oceanic and of coming before a field of blue, in jazz music. He ecstatically refers to, “that alto man” who had “IT” the night before (Kerouac 187). When Sal Paradise, the novel’s protagonist asks what “IT” means, Dean explains:
All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets it — everybody looks up and knows; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He’s filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his bell-bottom strain, remembrance of ideas, rehashes of our blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it’s not the tune that counts but IT.
What Dean is talking about is almost ineffable so he finds roundabout ways to explain a timeless, spiritual, interconnected experience of a sublime moment in the jazz tune. That “IT” seems synonymous with blue.
I remember learning from an interview that contemporary artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, paints whole shows to Davis’ Kind of Blues album. A sort of additional medium in the room, perhaps; a sonic space that holds the visual. She remembers these paintings, for her time spent with Davis resounding from her studio speaker, I would imagine. As though these paintings are not only works in themselves but documents of dialogue between artists across time and space. Her painting creates pictures in glacier blues and indigos that go deeper than black. These are the works that draw me back to my own studio. Paintings that make me want to paint, and to paint blue. By replacing the Virgin Mary and Renaissance brilliance, Yiadom-Boakye, always with support from Davis, gives us permission to play around with blue. And although I might never visit Kahlo’s house or dance in Matisse’s circle I can go to the shop and buy a tube of ultramarine paint. When I squeeze out a bead of this truest blue, as it’s sometimes called, I enter into the folds of history, but also converse with my contemporaries. At once I’m talking to Titian and Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh and Betye Saar and Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner and Moshekwa Langa and Oscar Murillo and Cinga Samson and Igshaan Adams, until it gets so noisy that I call upon Davis, to drive the spectres out.
Jean-Marié Malan is an artist and postgraduate student in English Literary Studies at the University of Cape Town. She grew up in Port Elizabeth, now known as Gqeberha. In 2020 she graduated with a BA in Visual Arts (Fine Arts) from Stellenbosch University, and has since been involved in artists’ studios and exhibition-making practices in Cape Town. Her broad set of interests is reflected in her interdisciplinary approach to research and art-making that is concerned with both theoretical and speculative modes of thinking and writing.
Berke, Heinz. “The invention of blue and purple pigments in ancient times.” Chemical
Society Reviews. 36 (2007): 15-30.
Davis, Miles. “All Blues.” Kind of Blue. CD, 1959.
Guichard, Charlotte, Le Hô, Anne-Solenn and Williams, Hanna. “Prussian Blue:
Chemistry, Commerce, and Colour in Eighteenth-Century Paris.” Art History. (2023): 2-34.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2011.
Rooney, Caroline. “What is the Oceanic?” Angelaki: Journal of theTheoretical Humanities.
12.2 (2007): 19-32.