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Claude Monet, “Impression, soleil levant (sunrise)” (1872) (via Wikimedia)

How blue is the visual art of our era? Interpreting the data of 94,526 paintings created between 1800 CE and 2000 CE, Martin Bellander, a PhD student at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, discovered that blue has increased in art while orange has become less common.

Bellander was inspired by projects like data analyst Edmund Helmer’s 2013 look at the oranges and blues in film trailers, and relied on the BBC’s Your Paintings online database, Google Art Project, Wikiart, and museum sources to select 130,000 paintings and cut any without defined dates. Scraping information with R statistical software, a random selection of 100 pixels was taken from each piece and graphed over time, showing the increasing dominance of the moody blue tones. The visualization, shared with Hyperallergic by Bellander, is below:

Visualization of the colors of 94,526 paintings from between 1800 and 2000 (courtesy Martin Bellander) (click to enlarge)

After a friend’s Tweet got some internet attention, Bellander wrote a post about the process and included his code. He notes that there could be numerous reasons aside from artistic preference, such as the affordability and availability of blue pigment, the age of resins causing the perceived colors to change, or even the quality of the photographs.

“[T]he changes in color might be a result of a combination of factors,” he writes. “One of these could of course be trends in the use of color. If we assume a smooth linear deterioration of certain colors in oil paintings, it would be possible to subtract that change and study the short term fluctuation in color use. For example the marked increase of blue at the time of the First World War, might actually reflect a true trend in color use.” He adds that he’s interested in finding more details on such data as photographic quality and is welcoming suggestions in the comments on how to improve the visualization.

Read more about the data visualization of painting colors from 1800-2000 on Martin Bellander’s blog.

h/t Washington Post

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

6 replies on “Is Now the Bluest Time in Art?”

  1. It would also be interesting to see the changes in colour useage as new pigments are introduced.

    Synthetic ultramarine over lapis, phthalo blue, indanthrone, etc.

    When new pigments become available, is there a honeymoon period where they are overused, or are painters slow to adopt the new options?

    1. I like the idea of charting a honeymoon period! Maybe with more widely accessible data through all the art databases there can be a way to do some data analysis. I believe the Impressionists, for example, had a huge influence on their palette from new synthetics.

  2. …and Salsa overtook Ketchup as the number one condiment.

    However, regarding an increase in the use of blue, this has little to do with the race to number one condiment. Going back to medieval times, reds and oranges were always more common because the pigment (iron oxide) was readily available. In 1848, William Gladstone (Scholar and British PM) proved that blue pigments were so scarce in the ancient world the Greeks and Romans didn’t even have a name for the color. However, by comparison, blues are far more easily processed and readily available today. End for riddle! Dah!

    This article is over-intellectualized nonsense. The writer, Allison Meier, shouldn’t be allowed access to a keyboard for at least 90 days.

    1. Aren’t you a charmer, but I’ll respond anyway because it’s the internet so no comment that starts out sane without its personal insult tagged at the end…

      This chart does not go back to medieval times, however, and synthetic blue goes back to the mid-19th century and was sold commercially. Interesting about the note from Gladstone and definitely the availability of blue is a factor. It would be interesting to chart its progress geographically once it was widely accessible.

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