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Color in design: Blue and White

The use of color is fundamental to interior design for both residential and commercial spaces. There is so much science that goes into pigments and the naturally occurring color of the natural world. Of course, the history of the pigments for paint for the artist is just as fascinating and the history of porcelain which is where the use of blue and white came from originally. Naturally, I wanted to delve into the development of these two color pigments in more detail because knowing where things come from creates a nicer picture in our minds.

One color scheme that is often used in traditional design is blue and white. In the book Decoration of Houses written by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr, the recommendation is to use a limited palate of color in the room for a restful and pleasing effect. It states that it “produces an impression of unity and gives an air of spaciousness to the room”. The blue and white scheme is just that in definition. I would argue though that this book is a bit old fashioned, it was written in the late 19th century. Blue and white has become a neutral and it goes so well with other colors as an accent such as salmon pink and yellow. You can be much more expressive today and I encourage it.



The color blue is one of the short wave length colors that has a calming effect of the viewer. It is the color of the sky reflected on the seas. Many are drawn to the color blue for the tranquility it inspires.

The use of blue pigments in interiors and decoration have an ancient beginning. The history can be further broken down into the various shades of blue. The oldest uses going back to Egyptian blue that have been found on ancient tombs. Their blue came from glass that was ground into a fine powder. The Persians used cobalt for the glazes of their tiles for mosques. The color blue represented the heavens. In the town of Herat there is a tomb of Gowhat Shad that has been described as the most beautiful use of blue in architecture. Even the Chinese prized the color blue in their porcelain and would exchange their green celadon for Mohammedan blue”. Chinoiserie was highly prized by the British. The Chinese use of blue and white for their porcelain was the impetus for the use of this color combination for decoration in English homes. Also, the pigment colors in Chinese porcelain can also be used for historians and other professionals for dating and authenticating since the colors changed during dynastic reigns (ie. Ming dynasty had their particular blue that was being used, etc.).

So the most favorite color for artists was ultramarine, or known as “beyond the seas”. The pigment originally came from the stone lapis lazuli mined in the northern most area of what is now Afghanistan. The oldest use of this pigment was found on two Buddha statues of enormous size near the town Bamiyan along the Silk Road. The history of this place was gradually destroyed because of politics and they have been subsequently completely destroyed by the Taliban in the early 2000s.

Bamiyan Buddhas – Before and after destruction

Lapis Lazuli

Eventually natural materials have been replaced by synthetic. In the 19th century, the French scientist Louis-Jacques Thenard was able to turn cobalt into a purer form of pigment for artists. Also during the 19th century there was an award offered to anyone who could create a synthetic form of ultramarine. The prize of 6,000 francs was awarded to two chemists, Jean Baptiste Guimet of France and Christian Gmelin from Germany. The name given to their pigment was “French Ultramarine”. These inventions made the pigments less expensive and more readily available to artists and artisans.

Louis-Jacques Thenard, (born May 4, 1777, La Louptière, Fr.—died June 21, 1857, Paris)


White pigment powder for paint


You would think the “absence of color” would have a simple description but not even close. The development and creating the white pigment is both kinda gross (it included using excrement) and dangerous since it was very toxic (lead) and killed a number of people. Many women died from lead poisoning because they used it in beauty products as well as paint.

Today the pigments are less toxic using caulk and titanium but the results are no where close to the original lead white pigments you will find on many pieces of artwork hanging in galleries all over the world. Most of todays white paints are very sheer and volatile but at least they won’t kill you but many artists still prefer the use of the original using the proper precautions to avoid lead poisoning.

I love my collection of blue and white plates. I have the ultramarine and cobalt colors represented in my collection. Blue is definitely one of my favorite colors. It is so serene and it reminds me of the days spent at the ocean. I love the classic look of blue and white and I try to keep it simple.

If you have interest in reading more about specific pigments and where they came from the the author’s antidotes about her travels in researching the various colors please read the book Color, A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay. It was both informative and enjoyable to read the accounts of where she traveled and who she met along the way.

Peace to you and your family.


Finlay, Victoria; Color, A Natural History of the Palette; Random House©️ 2002

Wharton, Edith and Codman, Jr, Ogden, The Decoration of Houses; Charles Scribner’s Sons©️ 1897