Rhapsody in Blue

Ask anyone their favorite color, and odds are good that color might be blue. A recent worldwide survey indicated that blue is the most popular color in ten countries spread out over four continents. And not only was blue the favorite color, it had a massive margin over second place colors pretty much across the board: for instance, in Great Britain, 33% of survey respondents selected blue as their favorite color.

One surprising place where blue also topped the popularity survey was China: this is incredibly unexpected as several other colors in China including red and yellow are associated with concepts like good luck and prosperity.

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Cultural significance of the color blue

Blue doesn’t just transcend culture, either. The same survey showed that men and women in the United States both overwhelmingly selected blue as their favorite color. In the United States, blue was also preferred by approximately the same percentage of white, black, and Hispanic survey respondents, and had roughly the same percentage of supporters among Democrats and Republicans. It was also the top color across all age groups. There just seems to be something about the color blue that speaks to people around the world, regardless of demographics, which makes a blue background or blue wallpaper an excellent choice for your website, desktop, or mobile screen.

What does blue mean?

So why are people across the globe so drawn to the color blue? In many cases, it may come down to positive cultural affiliations. In North America and Europe, blue is symbolic of authority and security: just look at the sedate navy blue law enforcement uniforms found throughout both candidates for an example of that. Bonus fun fact: navy blue was once known as marine blue, but it earned its revamped moniker after it was selected as the official color for the uniforms sported by the British Royal Navy starting in 1748.

Blue can also represent safety: in Mediterranean countries like Greece, Turkey, and Albania, people wear blue eye-shaped amulets to ward off the evil eye. If you move east towards the Ukraine, you’ll find that blue is representative of good health. Blue is also emblematic of good health in much of Latin America: there it can also represent hope and wealth, and also carries with it the positive association of being symbolic of the Virgin Mary. Meanwhile, people of the Hindu faith may favorably associate the color blue with Krishna, the deity that embodies divine joy. In Chinese culture, the color blue is closely tied to the element of wood and the season of spring, and is often associated with immortality and forward progress. Finally, in cultures across the world, blue is often considered to be synonymous with tranquility and peace.

Got the blues? Other connotations for everyone's favorite color

Of course, not all cultural affiliations are positive. Blue is also inextricably linked with some pretty heavy emotions like loneliness, sadness, and depression. In fact, the blues genre of music likely got its name from the term “blue devils”, which was a colloquialism for sadness and melancholy. Overall though, the color blue is so well-regarded around the world, it is generally considered to be the safest bet as a graphic design choice: that’s why it’s so easy to find a blue wallpaper or blue background web template online. This in and of itself is a double-edged sword, though: yes, there is no shortage of cool blue backgrounds to choose from, but the popularity of the color blue also means it will be hard for the blue background of your website to stand out in a sea (pun intended) of other web pages.

Another reason for the popularity of blue might be its many varied hues. Other colors also have a multiplicity of hues, of course. But while the various shades of say, for example, white and off-white are virtually indistinguishable unless held up against one another in direct comparison, shades of blue are vivid enough to stand on their own. Blue can be categorized in three categories: light, bright, and dark.

Light blue and dark blue

When you look at a light blue background, odds are you’ll see the sky. It’s no wonder then, that these are the words that people often associate with light blue: serenity, tranquility, peace, spirituality, and infinity. These words should come as no surprise: the sky itself is vast and unbound, and often used as a metaphor for the heavens. A bright blue background on the other hand is more represented by the characteristics of the deep and unfathomable sea. Words associated with bright blue include: dependability, strength, and cleanliness. Finally, a dark blue background is used to represent qualities like truth, trust, intelligence, and dignity which is why you see it used as the main color in so many bank logos: dark blue tends to denote concepts like authority and integrity.

History of the color blue

So, has blue always been so popular and iconic? To find out more about that, we’ll have to dig out our art history tomes and take a journey back in time. Interestingly enough, the word blue didn’t always exist, even in times when other colors like black and white did have a linguistic equivalent. Historians have never been able to find an analog for the word blue in ancient Greek texts: it simply is never mentioned. In fact, one of the most iconic lines in literary history exists precisely because the word blue didn’t exist. In Homer’s The Odyssey, a phrase is used four times that stymied translators until Andrew Lang, a Scottish poet and collector of folk and fairy tales, released his translation in 1879. One curious-sounding phrase’s closest English approximation was the rather clunky “wine-face sea”: Lang, with his poet’s ear, translated it as “wine dark sea”. It’s become so iconic that it is the most widely-used English translation of the phrase. In fact, many other authors including Patrick O’Brian have subsequently referenced it in the titles of their own original fiction. Blue was also one of the last colors to be named in the English language: the colors white, black, red, green, and yellow were all named before blue was.

While art has existed for something like 20,000 years, blue wasn’t always present in it. In fact, it wasn’t until about 6,000 years ago that the ancient Egyptians made some of the first known attempts to create a blue pigment from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious gemstone mined in the mountains of Afghanistan. But though lapis lazuli is a brilliant, deep blue, attempts to turn it into paint were unsuccessful: instead, Egyptians used the stone in jewelry and headdresses. Efforts to turn lapis lazuli into paint weren’t successful until the sixth century when it began to appear in Buddhist paintings in Afghanistan. It would take almost another 1,000 years to reach Europe, where the pigment was dubbed ultramarine. Ultramarine was kind of like the Vantablack of its day: it was almost prohibitively expensive to make, and as a result, only a select few artists were able to work with it. Its rarity made it all the more special and unique, and its presence in paintings like Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring really elevated artwork of the era.

Around the same time ultramarine was tantalizing the European art world, the textile world was being rocked by the arrival of indigo. Indigo was derived from a plentiful crop called Indigofera tinctoria, and its ubiquity made it much less expensive to acquire. Even so, trade wars between Europe and America erupted over demand for the dye which could be used in a variety of textile applications, from blue jeans to blue wallpaper.

One of the most fun stories pertaining to blue pigment comes from the birth of Prussian blue. Circa 1706 a German paint-maker named Diesbach was working on creating a new red dye with potash, a type of mined salt that is rich in potassium chloride. The potash came into contact with animal blood, but the resulting pigment wasn’t red: instead, the iron in the animal blood reacted with the potassium chloride and produced a vibrant blue pigment. Prussian blue went on to be featured in some truly iconic artwork. Japanese woodblock artist Katushika Hokusai used it to create The Great Wave off Kanagawa which is one of the most internationally-known pieces of Japanese art. Pablo Picasso used Prussian blue to create every piece of work he created during his famed Blue Period. And in 1842, an English astronomer discovered that Prussian blue’s sensitivity to light made it the perfect hue to copy drawings. This resulted in the technology that allowed early architects to copy their plans and designs; hence, blueprints were born.

The concepts we’ve touched on here don’t even begin to scratch the surface: we could continue to do a deep blue deep dive. It’s no wonder cool blue backgrounds are so appealing when the history behind the color blue is so cool itself. Whether you’re looking for a light blue background, a dark blue background, or something in between you can tell a wide-ranging story with the color blue. Utilize multiple shades of blue for a multi-tonal approach, contrast cool blues against warm oranges or vibrant reds, or bring your own unique take: odds are the beloved blues you choose will resonate with your intended audience no matter who - or where - they are.

Colophon

While Cool Backgrounds is a fine resource for generating images from popular javascript libraries, the real heavy lifting comes from the library authors themselves. When it comes to customer support, Quinn Rohlf from Trianglify.js is incredibly responsive and a really smart guy to boot. Particle.js is developed by Marc Brüderlin with a wonderful API and is being actively maintained. Gradient Topography is a newly minted project by me as a response to the amazing work by the Codrops crew. And of course Unsplash is one of the best internet treasures of all time, built by the former Crew team as a side project.

Oh yea and can't forget CSS Gradient and Rellax.js which is the "cool background" that powers those sliding parallax shapes in the content section of this site!