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Trade Terminology

Ultramarine is a blue pigment consisting essentially of a double silicate of aluminium and sodium with some sulfides or sulfates, and occurring in nature as a proximate component of lapis lazuli. Also known in the past as azzurrum ultramarine, azzurrum transmarinum, azzuro oltramarino, azur d'Acre, pierre d'azur, Lazurstein. Current terminology for ultramarine include natural ultramarine (English), outremer lapis (French), Ultramarin echt (German), oltremare genuino (Italian), and ultramarino verdadero (Spanish). The pigment color code is P. Blue 29 77007. Ultramarine is the most complex of the mineral pigments, a complex sulfur-containing sodio-silicate (Na8-10Al6Si6O24S2-4), essentially a mineralized limestone containing a blue cubic mineral called lazurite. Some chloride is often present in the crystal lattice as well. The blue color of the pigment is due to the S3- radical anion, which contains an unpaired electron.

  • Uses
  • The first noted use of lapis lazuli as a pigment can be seen in the 6th- and 7th-century AD cave paintings in Afghanistan temples, near the most famous source of the mineral. Lapis lazuli has also been identified in Chinese paintings from the 10th and 11th centuries, in Indian mural paintings from the 11th, 12th, and 17th centuries, and on Anglo-Saxon and Norman illuminated manuscripts from c.1100. Natural ultramarine is the most difficult pigment to grind by hand, and for all except the highest quality of mineral sheer grinding and washing produces only a pale grayish blue powder. At the beginning of the 13th century an improved method came into use, described by the 15th century artist Cennino Cennini. This process consisted of mixing the ground material with melted wax, resins, and oils, wrapping the resulting mass in a cloth, and then kneading it in a dilute lye solution. The blue particles collect at the bottom of the pot, while the impurities and colorless crystals remain in the mass. This process was performed at least three times, with each successive extraction generating a lower quality material. The final extraction, consisting largely of colorless material as well as a few blue particles, brings forth ultramarine ash which is prized as a glaze for its pale blue transparency.

    The pigment was most extensively used during the 14th through 15th centuries, as its brilliance complemented the vermilion and gold of illuminated manuscripts and Italian panel paintings. From the beginning of the 16th century this pigment began to be imported into Europe from "over the sea," as azurrum ultramarinum. As lapis lazuli only yields from 2 to 3% of the pigment, it is not surprising to learn that the pigment used to be weighed up with gold. It was valued chiefly on account of its brilliancy of tone and its inertness in opposition to sunlight, oil, and slaked lime. It is, however, extremely susceptible to even minute and dilute mineral acids and acid vapors. Dilute HCl, HNO3, and H2SO4 rapidly destroy the blue color, producing hydrogen sulfide (H2S) in the process. Acetic acid attacks the pigment at a much slower rate than mineral acids. Because of this susceptibility, ultramarine was only used for frescoes when it was applied "secco", in which the pigment was mixed with a binding medium and applied over dry plaster (such as Giotto di Bondone's frescos in the Cappella degli Scrovegni or Arena Chapel in Padua).

    European artists used the pigment sparingly, reserving their highest quality blues for the robes of Mary and the Christ child. As a result of the high price, artists sometimes economized by using a cheaper blue, azurite, for under painting. Most likely imported to Europe through Venice, Italy, the pigment was seldom seen in German art or art from countries north of Italy. Due to a shortage of azurite in the late 16th and 17th century the demand for the already-expensive ultramarine increased dramatically. In 1814 Tassaert observed the spontaneous formation of a blue compound, very similar to ultramarine, if not identical with it, in a lime kiln at St. Gobain, which caused the Societé pour l'Encouragement d'Industrie to offer, in 1824, a prize for the artificial production of the precious colour. Processes were devised by Jean Baptiste Guimet (1826) and by Christian Gmelin (1828), then professor of chemistry in Tubingen; but while Guimet kept his process a secret Gmelin published his, and thus became the originator of the "artificial ultramarine" industry.

  • Chemistry and manufacture
  • The raw materials used in the manufacture are: iron-free kaolin, or some other kind of pure clay, which should contain its silica and alumina as nearly as possible in the proportion of SiO2:Al2O2 demanded by the formula assigned to ideal kaolin (a deficit of silica, however, it appears can be made up for by addition of the calculated weight of finely divided silica); anhydrous sulfate of soda; anhydrous carbonate of soda; sulfur (in the state of powder); and powdered charcoal or relatively ash-free coal, or colophony in lumps. "Ultramarine poor in silica" is obtained by fusing a mixture of soft clay, sodium sulfate, charcoal, soda and sulfur. The product is at first white, but soon turns green ("green ultramarine") when it is mixed with sulfur and heated. The sulfur fires, and a fine blue pigment is obtained. "Ultramarine rich in silica" is generally obtained by heating a mixture of pure clay, very fine white sand, sulfur and charcoal in a muffle-furnace. A blue product is obtained at once, but a red tinge often results. The different ultramarines—green, blue, red and violet—are finely ground and washed with water.

  • Synthetic alternatives
  • Synthetic ultramarine is not as vivid a blue as natural ultramarine, since the particles in synthetic ultramarine are smaller and more uniform than natural ultramarine and therefore diffuse light more evenly. Synthetic ultramarine is also not as permanent as natural ultramarine.

    Artificial, like natural, ultramarine has a magnificent blue colour, which is not affected by light nor by contact with oil or lime as used in painting. Hydrochloric acid immediately bleaches it with liberation of hydrogen sulfide. It is remarkable that even a small addition of zinc-white (oxide of zinc) to the reddish varieties especially causes a considerable diminution in the intensity of the colour, while dilution with artificial precipitated sulfate of lime ("annalin") or sulfate of baryta ("blanc fix") acts pretty much as one would expect. Ultramarine being very cheap, it is largely used for wall painting, the printing of paperhangings and calico, etc., and also as a corrective for the yellowish tinge often present in things meant to be white, such as linen, paper, etc. Bluing or "Laundry blue" is a solution of synthetic ultramarine that is used for this purpose when washing white clothes. Large quantities are used in the manufacture of paper, and especially for producing a kind of pale blue writing paper which is popular in Britain.

    Ultramarine is based on the sodalite structure which is a 3 dimensional aluminosilicate cage containing 3 sulphur atoms bonded together to form an ion. These ions are charge balanced by cations of sodium in the natural material. The sodium ions can be ion exchanged with lithium and potassium as described above. The modification of the ions has a dramatic effect on the structure of the cages. Lithium being smaller than sodium causes the cage to contract whilst potassium being large causes the cage to expand. The modification of the cage structure and the interaction of the different cations with the central sulphur species modifies the colouration of the final pigment.

    By treating blue ultramarine with silver nitrate solution, "silver-ultramarine" is obtained as a yellow powder. This compound gives a blue potassium- and lithium-ultramarine when treated with the corresponding chloride, and an ethyl-ultramarine when treated with ethyl iodide. Selenium- and tellurium-ultramarine, in which these elements replace the sulfur, have also been prepared.

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