April 7th, 2015


In modern art, blue may be the new orange. Martin Bellander, a PhD student in psychology at the Karolinska Institutet, created this visualization of how the most common colors used in paintings have changed since 1800. Bellander says he was inspired by data visualizations that looked at the colors in movies, by extracting colors from movie posters or trailers.

This is based on a total of 120, 013 images, and Bellander added a histogram on the top to show the number of images used for each year. The spikes at each decade might be because the uncertain dating was registered as an even decade.  The graph shows a clear trend toward more blue paintings toward the end of the 20th Century, with all colors increasing except for orange. Bellander’s source was this BBC site that allows you to browse through more than 200,000 paintings. He then used R to scrape data from the site about each of the paintings.

Bellander considers a few explanations for the increase in blue. The most persuasive are that the aging of resins has changed the color of oil paintings over time; that the pricing of different pigments have changed over time, with blue getting less expensive; or that it represents an artistic trend in the use of color. Make sure to check out the comments section at the bottom of his blog entry to see the conversation and some important insights on blue paint, as well as the yellowing of paint pigments over time.

Bellander can’t say definitively which of these explanations is right, but perhaps Picasso’s Blue Period (1901-1904) had a much wider influence than is commonly imagined. If you’re an art or history buff, let us know what you think in the comments section!

This blog contains excerpts from the Washington Post.