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What colour is Dutch blue?

What colour is Dutch blue?

Dutch blue is a complex and often misunderstood colour in the painting world. Originating in the Netherlands in the 17th century, Dutch blue refers to a range of blue pigments that were invented and popularised by Dutch painters. But what exactly is Dutch blue? What are its origins and history? And what makes it such a distinctive colour in art? This article will explore the fascinating story behind Dutch blue.

The origins of Dutch blue

Dutch blue first emerged in the early 1600s in the studios of Dutch painters who were seeking vivid new pigments to capture subtleties of light and shade. At the time, one of the most common blue pigments used was smalt – a powder made from ground blue cobalt glass. But smalt had limitations. It was unstable, fading over time. And it had a muted grey undertone, lacking the vividness that painters wanted to achieve.

To create more vibrant blues, Dutch painters started tweaking smalt in their studios. They increased the calcination temperature which improved pigment stability. And they added materials like indigo or ashes which introduced a deeper blue tone. These studio experiments produced modified smalt pigments with names like “smalt ultramarine”, “light Dutch blue” and “dark Dutch blue”. Each Dutch master had their own unique formula and approach.

The heyday of Dutch blue

In the 17th century Golden Age of Dutch painting, the innovative new shades of blue pigment were quickly adopted by masters like Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt and Jan van Goyen. Dutch blue allowed them to capture subtle variations in the sky, water and shadows with breathtaking realism. The pigment was opaque and long lasting, yet could be diluted to create soft, luminous backgrounds.

Vermeer likely used a “smalt ultramarine” blue in works like Girl with a Pearl Earring to depict delicate skin tones and diffuse interior light. Rembrandt’s dark Dutch blues lent brooding intensity to portraits. And van Goyen was one of the first masters to take advantage of the pigment’s atmospheric potential in his seascapes and cloud-filled landscapes.

The new hues were a key development that helped Dutch artists define a distinctive visual style focused on photographic naturalism. The innovation put the Netherlands at the forefront of the artistic world.

Properties and manufacturing process

So what exactly made Dutch blues so special? Here are some of their key characteristics:

  • Deep blue tone – Ranging from mid to dark blue
  • Transparency – Could create opaque or transparent glazes
  • Fineness – Extremely finely ground particles
  • Stability – Long lasting if properly calcined
  • Mixability – Could be safely mixed and diluted

These prized qualities came from improvements in the manufacturing process of smalt pigment. Here are the basic steps used by Dutch colourmen:

  1. Cobalt ore was mined and processed to extract cobalt salts
  2. Salts were combined with quartz and potassium to make blue glass
  3. Glass was ground into a fine powder
  4. Powder was heated at specific calcination temperatures (850-1000°C)

Higher calcination temperatures increased pigment stability. And additional ingredients like ashes counteracted grey undertones. The result was a finely ground, stable, vivid blue perfect for oil painting.

Decline and rediscovery

Dutch blue fell out of fashion in the 18th century as other brighter blues like Prussian blue were discovered. The complex pigment required technical skill to manufacture consistently. And sources of cobalt ore used to colour the glass became scarce.

The pigment was eventually rediscovered by artists in the 19th century seeking the atmospheric hues of the Old Masters. But the lack of written formulas from the 17th century Dutch studios meant there was mystery around how to recreate the original pigments accurately.

After years of research into historic texts and paint samples, researchers at Kremer Pigments perfected recreations of light and dark Dutch blues in the 1980s. These paints, based on original smalt recipes, make the colours accessible to artists again.

Modern cobalt blues

Today, paint manufacturers like Winsor & Newton and Rembrandt offer modern versions of Dutch blue paints. While not identical to the originals, these cobalt blue hues are inspired by the antique pigments. They carry on the rich colouristic tradition forged by Vermeer, Rembrandt and their contemporaries.

Modern cobalt blues have these attributes:

Hue Transparency Permanence
Blue with slight red undertone Transparent to opaque Excellent, due to stable modern pigments

Key differences from historic Dutch blues:

  • Based on cobalt aluminate rather than smalt glass
  • Brighter and cleaner tint
  • Machine made for consistency

The magic of the original handmade Dutch pigments is hard to recreate. But modern paints offer a convenient way for artists to incorporate these historical hues into their work.

Using Dutch blue in painting

Dutch blue is ideal for:

  • Skies – It captures the depth and changeability of cloudy or sunny skies.
  • Water – Rivers, seas and ponds glow with life.
  • Shadows – Adding luminosity and tone to shadows.
  • Distance – Suggesting atmospheric perspective in landscapes.
  • Portraits – Delicate skin tones and background tones.
  • Interiors – Diffuse, glowing light in rooms.

Tips for working with the colour:

  • Glaze over warm underlayers to create vibrancy.
  • Use opaque passages for intense shadows.
  • Dilute with white to capture sunlit water and clouds.
  • Layer pure and mixed hues to add depth.

Mastering the subtle variations of Dutch blue can lend evocative atmospherics to many subjects and styles of painting.


Dutch blue has a rich history intertwined with the rise of the artistic Dutch Masters. Their innovative pigments transformed painting, allowing artists to capture nature with new freshness and immediacy. The original Dutch blue pigments were prized for their superb handling qualities and beautiful blue colour.

While the original pigments remain difficult to recreate, modern cobalt blues recapture some of their glory. The blue with a red undertone is well-suited for skies, seas, shadows and portraits. Mastering the hues and handling can help artists pay homage to the Golden Age innovation of Dutch blue.