Colours

The Multiple Uses of Prussian Blue

Prussian Blue is an interesting colour that was created and used in multiple fields.

This colour was invented by accident but it was beneficial for everyone. It’s non-toxic and used before for various types of mediums out there in society. The colour is a rich deep blue that is one of my favourite colours to paint with. This colour was discovered by accident.

“Nothing is perhaps more peculiar than the process by which one obtains Prussian blue… And if chance hadn’t taken a hand, you ‘d have to admit that a profound theory would be necessary to invent it.”
French chemist Jean Hellot – 1762.

Johann Jacob Diesbach, a Berliner dye maker from Dippel Laboratory was rushing an order for red cochineal dye for a client one day. While he was producing the Florentine lake, a red pigment based on cochineal red, he ran out of ingredient potassium, an alkali metal, substituted it for potassium contaminated with hexacyanoferrate; the mixture contained animal blood. Instead of producing a Cochineal red, it created a blue. The blue became known as “Berliner Blau” to German speakers and “Prussian Blue” to English speakers. This was the first synthetic colour produced. There is a lot of debate on when the colour was invented but to guess when it was, 1704 – 1707.

003153_PrussianBlue
Prussian Blue HEX code 003153

There was a lot of back and forth communication between Frisch and Leibniz around 1708-1716. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was the president of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Johann Leonhard Frisch of Berlin Gymnasium mentioned the blue in various letters mentioning the importance of the colour, facts about the inventor (Diesbach), the formula was a kept secret [until 1715], sales of the pigment already in production and how he was actively promoting the colour to the public in various cities around Europe. “Notitia Coerulei Berolinensis nuper inventi” was the first known paper about Prussian blue that was published by Royal Academy of Sciences in 1710.

The discovery of blue made it popular amongst the people. Many artists wanted to use this blue in their work. At the time, it was finally an easily findable and stable colour of blue to use in artwork. Painters like Pieter van der Werff, Entombment of Christ. Hendrik Krock and Beniot le Coffee are two painters that are well known for using Prussian blues in their paintings with Lead White paint. The cultural impact of Prussian blue still lasts and it was used in different types of productions over the years. Originally, the colour faded to grayish-green when mixed with white paint.

ranz Rudolf Frisching portrait - Jean Preudhomme
Jean Preudhomme’s painting of Franz Rudolf Frisching portrait in 1785 in Prussian Blue.

Prussian blue also created the first form of photocopying by being used to invent blueprints. Sir John Herschel was in his darkroom with a piece of paper covered in ammonium ferric citrate. He dried the paper then emerged it into potassium ferricyanide to turn the paper Prussian blue. He then experimented with placing objects on the paper blocking the light from touching created a white shadow object on blue paper. This was the process called cyanotype. Then he drew a diagram on tracing paper and placed that in front of the light. The drawing on the paper turned white and the background was bright blue. This was the invention of blueprints, the first type of photocopying. This was to replace the expensive photolithographic printing and have an ability to copy hand-drawn images on a need basis. Around the 1890’s, architectural offices picking up the process for their drafts the more popular the process became. Other processes of copying architectural drafts developed out of this process.

Prussian blue was also a part of the rise of the ancient art form in Japan – coloured woodblock printing. This was an art form that was slowly disappearing from the public because there was no good blue to use for printmaking. Also, the art seemed too old fashioned for a lot of the people in Japan. The blues they used before Prussian blue was indigo blue which turned black. Then Prussian blue came along and people wanted to use this colour. It brought new artists that became enthralled with the colour’s message of modernity and industry around 1820’s. This colour made it possible for people to produce wider ranges of colours that are vivid and long lasting.

Katsushika Hokusai was a painter that influenced many people with his use of the colour in his artwork. He was a Japanese artist, painter, ukiyo-e print, expert of Chinese paintings. He produced most of his work after the age of 60 and is known for his series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, The Great Wave and a pioneer in Manga with hundreds of his sketches in mass produced books from his studio. Hokusai manga work also spoke of realism much like Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec of his time.

The Great Wave - Katsushika Hokusai
Katsushika Hokusai’s painting of The Great Wave with Prussian Blue

Vincent Van Gogh saw some of these Japanese prints in Paris at a show and was influenced by the use of the colour. He used Prussian blue and Indian yellow in his work, Starry Night. This painting was originally influenced by the hospital room’s window view over a field before sunrise when he was in the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in 1889.

The 1935 King George V Silver Jubilee Stamp became well known for a printing error. The Prussian blue shade was mistakenly perforated and issued as a normal stamp only to be disapproved by the post office when the stamp was slightly smaller than a regular stamp. The main mistake was Prussian blue was used instead of Royal blue. It is a rare stamp for collectors.

In modern studies of Prussian blue, many scientists have been using this compound colour to detect iron, cyanide or radiation clean up. But Prussian blue insoluble is used to treat thallium and radioactive caesium poisoning. Prussian blue insoluble does not treat complications of radioactive exposure. It is known for decreasing potentially toxic poisons in thallium poisoning from “dirty bombs” from very young children to full grown adults. For example, Caesium poisoning was discovered to treat patients after a 1987 incident in Goiânia, Brazil. 46 people have been contaminated with 137-caesium. The use of Prussian blue reduced the effects of the metal by a large percentage. People with prolonged exposure may have blue, sweat, tears and waste. It can also cause constipation in people and usually administered with laxatives or a high fibre diet. Prussian blue insoluble is in the World Health Organization Model List of Essential Medicines as a specified antidote in poisonings for symptomatic and supportive treatment.

Banner credit: Cropped Image – Franz Rudolf Frisching,Jean Preudhomme (c. 1785)
Resources:
Finlay, Victoria. The Brilliant History of Color in Art. Getty Museum, 2014.
The Journal of Art in Society – Prussian Blue and Its Partner in Crime
“FERRIC FERROCYANIDE.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Database, U.S. National Library of Medicine
Avalon – History of Blueprint