December 2019 / January 2020 - Vol.107
“Let there be Light”

Part 4: Blue-Indigo-Violet and beyond

by Ros Yates 

As I write I’m in the middle of settling in to life in a new land. We’ve just moved to Muscat, Oman, in a country where average rainfall is about 100mm (4 inches) at it can go for months with hardly a cloud in the sky. A downpour makes everyone ridiculously excited and many turn out of their houses to enjoy the dousing. The sky is blue all day most days, and the azure dome arches over everything as the sun blazes its trail. I’m beginning to appreciate the language of Psalm 19. 4-6

“In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
    It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
 It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other;
    nothing is deprived of its warmth”.

                            crayons…and what a beautiful colour for that tent the Lord has spread over our heads! Apparently blue is the world’s favourite colour in recent polls, although that may not always have been the case – in fact, it’s quite a recent phenomenon relatively speaking. ‘Crayola’, manufacturers of wax crayons, have recently retired one of their yellows (‘Dandelion’) to be replaced by a new hue of blue in the 24 pack in response to consumer surveys revealing a preference for more blues.

But what of the symbolism of blue?
In this desert climate it is strange to think of blue being typically seen as a ‘cool’ colour given that when the sky is blue the day is likely to be hot! Maybe it is the contrast with the yellow-orange-red fiery colours of the sun which led to that association.  Blue is the backdrop to the sun-drenched landscapes of the Middle East, and hence to the climatic culture of the Bible. Growing up in Great Britain, with its infamous and unpredictable weather, as children we were always on the look-out for a scrap of blue sky, and my Mum would encourage us when we saw “a patch of blue sky big enough to mend a sailor’s suit”. That blue window into the heavens was a sign of hope, that the light would break through soon and bring all the colours of our soggy landscape to life and maybe we’d be able to go out to play. Here in Oman, where blue is so faithfully there almost every day I get excited about a mere cloud – like Elijah when he prayed for rain. (1 Kings 18.43-44)

These clouds were all Cyclone Kyarr could throw at us in Muscat, late October 2019.
The hot dry desert air brought it to a standstill and blue skies prevailed.
blue skyline

Heavenly colours

Coming from a damp climate, for me the colour blue is the colour of hope, and the hope of heaven in particular. Even in a hot climate ‘the heavens’ are a place to look to which is beyond our daily grind. In a pre-scientific age the heavens were the domain of God who looks down on his creation. He has the big picture, yet he loves us, honours us, and comes down to be one of us.

By ‘heaven’, I don’t just mean ‘pie in the sky when you die’; I love to look up, especially when so much of my time is spent looking at a screen (and the short-sightedness that can inflict). ‘I lift my eyes to you, whose throne is in heaven’ Psalm 123.1

Raising my eyes to heaven has many blessings;
On a physical-physiological level, at the beginning of the day, taking in the blue daylight helps wake us up and sets our internal clocks and diurnal rhythm: Lie-ins aren’t actually good for catching up on sleep deprivation.  Those living in high latitudes may need supplemental daylight lamps in winter to prevent depression (SAD). Daylight (or skylight) has a better quality to it for painting and drawing, or reading, needlework, and for growing plants!

blue sky and mountain landscape

If I ‘lift my eyes to the hills’ (Psalm 121) I take in more blue light since sunlight is scattered by the air in between; in a painting the colours of far-away hills should be shifted to the blue if you want to create a sense of distance, whilst close up objects are warm and vibrant.  I’m told that growing blue flowers at the end of your garden can give the illusion that your patch of land is longer than it actually is! And when encouraged to look up beyond the things that can block my horizon, I’m reminded ‘where my help comes from’ and that ‘my help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth’ (Psalm 124.8).

The Psalms I’ve quoted are from a series of ‘Songs of Ascents’ (Psalms 120-134) Their significance is not clear but they may well be pilgrim songs of those going up to Jerusalem, to climb the Temple Mount and worship. Certainly, there is much in their words to lift our eyes and heart to heaven.

Another analogy for the colour blue is the use of ‘Blue Skies’ as a synonym for things that are limitless, with no boundaries; it denotes thinking, research, innovation and industry that is creative, visionary, not constrained by practicalities (that comes later..) and not necessarily directed by having a particular result in mind. It releases potential and is open to the unexpected and has no limits.  We can engage in this brainstorming, where imagination runs free, as we think on the implications of the promises of God. ‘With God all things are possible’ (Luke 1.37) and ‘I can do all things through the One who gives me strength’ (Philippians 4.13) because ‘all things are put under Christ’s feet’ (1 Corinthians 15.27). The word ‘ALL’ is just typical of God who knows no limit in his love, power and authority, nor in his plans and purposes for our lives. Our only limit is his nature – for God is love and will not do anything which is unloving, and neither should we. He is also Lord and creator of all and as we lift our eyes and free up our faith to his possibilities, of course we need to beware the temptation to make idols of our ambitions – as with those who built the Tower of Babel  (Genesis 11.4).  For me, I struggle more from lack faith in what God can do through me, than having too much pride in my own abilities.  Looking ‘into the blue’ reminds me of how great God is, how small I am, and how much he must love me to part the skies and come down to my level - as a human baby.

blue sea and sky
Why is the sky blue?

 ….or apparently blue, since part of the answer lies in the way our eyes ‘see’ colours. The shorter wavelengths of light from the sun are scattered more than the longer red-orange ones and it is the scattered light we see, but our eyes interpret this light as blue rather than purple because of the way the cone light receptors in the retina respond to incoming stimulus.  As you go higher from the horizon and on into space the blue gets deeper and darker as the atmosphere gets thinner and the sun’s light ceases to be scattered and shifted to the blue. ‘Sky blue’ migrates into ‘indigo’ (and ultimately into the ‘black’ absence of light altogether). 

Cool colours
Indigo is the name of a dark blue dye from the indigo plant, (not a budget Indian airline) with evidence it was used as early as 4000 BC, though it’s been made most well known in the west as the colour of blue denim jeans. Indigo has become the name of one of the colours of the rainbow - the dark end of blue before it warms to purple/violet.  In terms of artists’ paint, it is close to the gorgeous deep ‘Prussian Blue’ and the yet darker ‘Paynes Grey’ which is my all-time favourite shadow colour. A wash of this pigment creates the shadows that give a painting depth and realism. Rather than speaking negatively of ‘casting a shadow’ over a scene, to me it brings it to life. We need shadow to appreciate the light. In a picture of a hot town scene or landscape, the shadows bring a sense of cool refuge. Again, I refer to the climatic background to the Bible – where the writers lived in need of shelter from the fierce sun for a great part of the day in the summer months. ‘Shadow’ is spoken of with positive relief in the story of Jonah under his vine, and in the Psalms where we find refuge in the shadow of God’s wings (Psalm 17.8, 36.7, 57.1, 63.7, 91.1-4) and in Psalm 121.5 ‘The Lord is your shade at your right hand.’ Elsewhere the word ‘shadow’ denotes what is ephemeral – but we can trust the one who provides our shade to be steadfast. Of course, the ‘shadow of death’ (Psalm 23.4, Luke 1.79) is a place which is feared for those without hope, but this is referring to the absence of life-giving light, rather than the cooling blue relief from relentless heat.

mountain landscape illustration by Ros
Kerne Valley, Sequoia National Forest USA, illustration by Ros Yates

Rare colours

The relative absence of blue in early human history speaks of its rarity.
In some languages there is no word for blue, including Biblical Hebrew.  There are just references to blue things; the sky, precious stones like sapphire and lapis lazuli, and fabric dye. Like indigo, ‘violet’ or various shades of purple were also best known to the ancient world as a dye for cloth.

Exodus 25.3-7 is a list of things offered for the building and dressing of the tabernacle and includes words for blue and purple and red dyes or dyed cloth. They were used to colour and embroider the garments and curtains. ‘Tekhelet’, the dye used for the high priests’ robe and the tassels on a man’s prayer shawls is thought to be blue and like Tyrian purple, was likely obtained from Murex sea snails, hence it’s relative rarity and high price. The actual hue produced could vary a lot from blue to dark red. The recipe for the tekhelet dye was lost for many centuries so the actual colour used for Old Testament Jewish religious garments is probably unknown, or at least as variable as the dying process, availability and quality of sea snails.

ultramarine pigment illustration by Ros
                            YatesEzekiel’s vision in chapter 1.26 speaks of a throne made of something like sapphire, or maybe lapis lazuli since the biblical words are often interchanged.  The association of blue with royalty is also due to its rarity. Blue paint was expensive to make in Renaissance Italy, especially if you want a blue that won’t fade. ‘Ultramarine’ blue was so called because it was made from lapis lazuli stone that had to be shipped in from ‘across the sea; ultra marine’ and then it also had to be ground down and purified. The intense blue pigment was used to show honour to the Virgin Mary in late medieval times  - the girl from Nazareth would never have been able to afford to wear a blue robe.

Batik Workshop- dying with violetSimilarly, with purple, the colour of emperors, it was the colour of the rich and powerful.

In the New Testament we hear about Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, who became a Christian and welcomed Paul into her home in Philippi. Purple continued to be a royal colour in Europe throughout the centuries until a Victorian scientist and Christian called William Perkin accidentally discovered how to make a synthetic purple dye named ‘mauve’ whilst searching for a cure for Malaria using coal tar. The story is close to my heart since he lived not far from us in West London and my husband (a chemist by training) was involved in establishing a school named in his honour (the uniform is bold purple). William Perkin made purple accessible and affordable to all and paved the way for a host of new synthetic dyes which have changed the way we dress forever.

violet fabric patternI have used the story of purple with students in a creative workshop at the sister school where my children studied. We dip dyed cloth using batik and tie-dye to make a purple banner.
Alongside this we read in the Bible how Jesus was mocked as ‘King of the Jews’ being dressed in a purple robe before he was put to death. The King of Kings willingly bore our shame to cleanse us from the ‘filthy rags’ of our sin, and welcome us into the Kingdom of Heaven as his own family.

….and to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God     (John 1.12).  So, if we are God’s children, brothers and sisters of the King of Kings, that makes us royalty – and with the right and the resources to wear the royal colours. We can all wear purple, whoever we are, whatever our background, class, gender, nationality. We are all his children, princes and princesses of the household of God.

The naming of colours

In the tradition of William Perkin, in 2009, Mas Subramanian, a scientist and his assistant Andrew E. Smith, at Oregon State University, happened to produce the first new blue pigment for 200 years whilst trying to manufacture new materials which could be used in electronics. The mix of oxides of Yttrium, Indium and Manganese when heated to a very high temperature produce an intense blue powder which was both stable and non-toxic. It was dubbed 'YInMn blue' in reference to the elements in its chemical composition.  The names of many tubes in my paint box describe what chemicals the paint is made of – Pthalo turquoise,  Dioxazine violet, Quinacridone magenta, Cadmium red, Oxide of Chromium, Titanium white. Other names reflect how they are made – Burnt Umber, Lamp Black. It is like naming someone by doing a bio-chemical analysis of their make-up; Fancy being called ‘mostly water’, ‘a carbon-based life form’, ‘home to several million gut bacteria’.  But we are more than a bag of chemicals; ‘Ultra-marine’ describes where the lapis lazuli comes from (‘across the sea’), yet no matter how proud we may be of our ethnic roots this is not what defines us as Christians.

Paint producers for the DIY decorating industry are constantly trying to come up with new names to excite and entice us, but just because the pale yellow on my bedroom wall is named ‘Divinity’ the name is no guarantee of heavenly peace and fulfilment in my home!

The ‘Blue Danube’ is a magnificent river traversing the heart of Europe, but seen in different circumstances you might be more overwhelmed by the muddy brown composition of the water itself than the ‘blue’ which is the reflection of the sky above.

The blue Danube river

What colour are you? What defines you? What name do you want to be known by? And will that name tell the truth about your true colours?

‘Permanent Rose’, and ‘Transparent Yellow’ are descriptive of how that paint behaves, yet there is a danger of labelling people according to their actions rather than who they really are. And as parents we are warned to avoid telling our children ‘you are so stubborn, difficult, lazy…’ or whatever it is, because they may grow to fulfil our prophetic names. Rather, we should tell them the truth about who they are and who they belong to.

A good number of my paints are named for the person who created them – Hooker’s Green, Winsor Red, Turner’s Yellow, Davy’s Grey.  In the book of Hebrews we are told of the heroes of faith that ‘God is not ashamed to be called their God’ (Heb 11.16).   Can you say ‘I am the Lord’s child’ and know that he is pleased to be known as your God?  It wasn’t because they were perfect that this is said, but because these faithful ones were looking for a better land – a heavenly one – rather than looking back to where they had come from (v 15). We are children of God, heirs of the kingdom and citizens of heaven. Our ‘true colours’ should reflect our God who made us in his image, who is forming the likeness of Christ in us, and preparing us for our eternal home.

There has been a recent revival of interest in the re-publishing of ‘Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours’ by P. Syme 1802. It claims to be the book Darwin used on his voyage aboard ‘The Beagle’ to help him record the colours he observed in the nature he discovered. Colours are given names and referenced to ‘animal, vegetable and mineral’ examples in the real world – which was invaluable to one without a digital camera, stable pigments or the means to preserve the ‘real thing’ and bring it back to show to others. It is also gloriously poetic and revels in the beauty and diversity of the natural world. Ultramarine is ‘the upper side of the wings of small blue heath butterfly’ or a Borrage flower, as well as the mineral, Lapis Lazuli.

‘Magnesium Iron Silicate’ (Mg Fe)2SiO4 may be accurate, but I greatly prefer ‘Pistachio Green’, ‘The neck of a drake Eider Duck’, or a ‘Ripe Pound Pear’.  The chemical composition of sapphire can be written in symbols, or described as a glittering gem stone, or the colour of the sky.

illustrations from book

Are you known as ‘YInMn blue’ or ‘peacock blue’?   ‘Cobalt turquoise’ or ‘Teal’.  Will I be known simply by my constituent chemicals, by what I was? or what I’m becoming and whom I am reflecting?  

Earlier this year the walls of our local community gallery were painted a pasty grey you could call ‘clay’ or ‘mud’ but which the manufacturers named ‘Elephant’s Breath’ perhaps conjuring the image of a misty jungle filled with the sunlit steamy presence of a living creature; stately, magnificent, wise and afraid of nothing… Well, perhaps my imagination is running away, but I suggest that rather than being known by a chemical formula or my constituent parts and impurities, and feeling powerless to change who I am, instead I can seek to abide in the presence of the Light of the World and reflect his nature more and more, like Moses’ face glowing with the glory of the Lord.   ‘All of us who reflect the Lord’s glory with an unveiled face are being transformed into his own image, from one degree of glory to another”. (2 Cor 3.18)

A community of colour

Dandelion clock reflecting the sunThe naming of a colour is really a community thing – a way of helping other people know what you are talking about. We use our common encounters with nature and shared experiences to give language to the colours of life. Each of us has a unique story to tell but we can’t fulfil our God given purpose if we live in isolation.  I suggested in part 1 of this series of articles that we can see ourselves as receiving the light of Christ which contains every wavelength in the spectrum, and each of us reflects back in differing cocktails the glory which he places in us.

Shall I be labelled by my ‘chemical composition’, an atheistic analysis of my constituent parts, my history, genes, culture etc – or because I look like Jesus? In the end my name is the one Jesus gives me, and it is his name for I belong to him (Rev 22.4 ).  But my calling is to ‘be holy, as I am holy, says the LORD God’,  and as a people we can be holy best when we do it together, reflecting God’s ways in Godly relationships, painting a picture of Him through our Christian Community. His work of art is composed of many colours, shades, hues, enhancing one another and reinforcing the impact we have on those around us, to the glory of God.

We have reached the end of the rainbow, the visible spectrum, but God’s light goes beyond what we now see – into the Ultra-Violet and to other forms of radiation, forever pushing the boundaries of our knowledge, obedience and faith.

“For we are His creative work, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God has prepared beforehand so we can do them” Ephesians 2.10 (NET)

“Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is.”  1 John 3.2 (NET)

playing with purple and blue

Violets in my London lawn

Ros Yates,  November 2019

Ros is an Anglican Deacon, self-taught artist, and a member of the Antioch Community in London, but currently living in Muscat, Oman for a season – which she hopes will be a creative and fruitful one. 

You can contact her at or see more art on Instagram @rosinoman.

> See other articles by Ros Yates in Living Bulwark

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