A New Shade of Blue: YInMn

An interview with writer Evan Nicole Brown about her story in the NYT

At the beginining of Febuary, The New York Times published a story about YInMN blue, a new shade discovered by Mas Subramanian in 2009. It’s now available commercially (though still rare and expensive). The article, published by Evan Nicole Brown, perfectly coincided with a conversation I was having with Mursal Nazary, who paints mostly in the shade lapis lazuli (published in last Friday’s newsletter).

Blue has been a point of fascination for many artists—Maggie Nelson, Picasso, Matthew Wong, Yves Klein, Joni Mitchell. Equal parts ungraspable, rare, and emotional, blue in art evades understanding. Like looking into a vast impasse, blue paintings allow the viewer to get lost in looking.

Below is my conversation with Evan about her reporting and interest in blue, interspersed with notable blue-artworks by Canadian artists.

“I’m not sure that I can say why exactly  I chose the color blue, but there are a number of encounters with blue I have had that have left an imprint on my mind….The historical roots of a particular variant of blue, lapis lazuli, have heightened this focus. The mineral was originally mined in a region that my ancestors inhabited, so employing the colour has been a way to reconnect with the landscape while considering how ancestral heritage shapes my experience,” said Mursal Nazary in Friday’s newsletteer.

Tatum Dooley: How did you first discover YInMn blue? What made you want to find out more? 

Evan Nicole Brown: I actually first heard about YInMn Blue about a year ago, in January 2020. Dr. Subramanian's work on the pigment was published in a science journal and it piqued my interest because I am a little obsessed with how color informs our moods and experiences moving through the world. Pantone's 2020 Color of the Year was "Classic Blue" which I had just written a piece on a month prior, so the cultural significance of blue had been swirling around in my mind. I was excited by a new blue pigment that was much more vibrant -- and told more of a story -- than the more traditional, default blues we're used to. And beyond the significance of color in art and design, I am generally fascinated by the mechanics of how things are created; the chemistry of creating pigments is right in that sweet spot.

TD: In the first paragraph you write, "The blues that abound in nature — a butterfly, a navy beetle, even blue eyes — are not natively blue, according to scientists, but instead are reflections of light, the impression of blue." which. the scientist echoes later in the piece. Can you explain this a bit more? Is there no such thing as a real blue in nature? 

ENB: Blue is an optical illusion, as all colors are, in the sense that it depends on the way light bounces around the structure to become a hue we can see. There are some blue-ish natural materials that can be used to create blue, like woad, indigo, and semiprecious gemstones, but those are traditionally used to create dyes (for things like denim jeans) not artist's paints. Pigments, from my understanding, tend to be made from inorganic materials. Blue shows up in nature but it's not pure blue like a concentrated, chemical powder is. 

TD: Do you have an idea why buying YInMN blue as paint is so expensive? Do you think it'll hit the mainstream, or stay a rarity? 

ENB: I think part of the reason for YInMn Blue's steep price is the fact that it hasn't existed long enough (as an artist's paint) to be widely produced yet. Dr. Subramanian has patented the pigment, so though I don't know the legal details, I presume he has ownership over producing or sharing it to some degree, which makes the pigment artisanal in a way. I also think YInMn Blue's value as a non-toxic pigment that can be applied to various materials (along with being used as an artist's paint) adds to its demand. Cobalt, for instance, is a fairly dangerous pigment to produce because cobalt oxide is toxic when going through the chemical process, but the materials become significantly less harmful once in pigment form. So paint companies have been searching for a more safe and environmentally-friendly alternative to producing this blue hue for a while now. It's a real boon that YInMn looks so similar to a color like cobalt, but can be created more safely. 

I do think YInMn Blue will become mainstream -- it's irresistible! And beyond that, I imagine that the more and more it shows up in paintings, the more desirable it will become to the general public. Ultramarine pigments, which were created from ground lapis lazuli stones, were extremely rare and expensive until demand for the color became greater as more people saw the dimensions it added to paintings -- especially for depicting the sky and the sea. Blue became associated with wealth and value and holiness, and I imagine YInMn Blue will become yet another hue added to the spectrum of that history.

TD: You mentioned to me that the scientist now sees blue differently when going to museums--what has that experience been like for him? 
ENB: The breadth of blue became more visible, I think. He mentioned that the nuances of different shades — cornflower, cerulean, indigo, azure — started to appear on the canvases once he understood, through his own process, how those colors were created in the first place. It seemed to me like his relationship to art has deepened from his understanding of the science behind what we see. It's inspiring to think about how a change in perspective can completely shift how we view things that look simple at face value.

TD: Has writing about YInMn blue shifted your own perspective on colour?
ENB: Yes! I used to look at color as a means to an end — a quality that helps convey a larger message. Writing about YInMn Blue allowed me to see an entire universe in a single hue. The color tells the viewer so much, even in a fleeting look. Writers and artists have long meditated on Blue -- it conjures up so many psychological associations with sadness and isolation, and its temperature is cold. But writing about the science behind a cultural symbol complicated it for me. It became the conclusion of a very long investigation, a whole made up of many microscopic parts. There is something special about the way Dr. Subramanian landed on a precise and perfect combination of elements I frankly don't understand, and turned them into something I can. 

TD: Was there anything you wanted to add to the piece that got cut that you'd like to share here? 

ENB: YInMn Blue has a cooling effect! It has the ability to absorb heat by reflecting a lot of infrared light, so if you painted your house's roof with this color the inside of the home would become roughly 10 degrees cooler. As the world becomes more and more eco-conscious, this pigment could help reduce home cooling costs and the use of energy.

Evan Nicole Brown is a writer, reporter, and editor from Los Angeles, now (mostly) based in Brooklyn. She has written for various outlets including Architectural Digest, Atlas Obscura, Eye on Design, Fast Company, Metropolis Magazine, and The Creative Independent. Currently, Evan is a reporting fellow at The New York Times covering politics and culture.

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