Episode 7: An accidental case of the blues

Overheard’s Amy Briggs ventured into the National Geographic photo studio to see a new color—the first blue pigment of its kind to be discovered since Thomas Jefferson was president.

Pigments color the world all around us, but where do those colors come from? Historically, they’ve come from crushed sea snails, beetles, ground up mummies, and a host of natural and artificial sources. But new pigments are still being discovered and in researcher Mas Subramanian’s case, a new color came, well, out of the blue. Overheard’s Amy Briggs ventured into the National Geographic photo studio to see the new color—the first new inorganic blue pigment discovered since Thomas Jefferson was president.
Photograph by Mark Thiessen, NGM staff

Pigments color the world all around us, but where do those colors come from? Historically, they’ve come from crushed sea snails, beetles, and even ground-up mummies. But new pigments are still being discovered in unexpected places, and for researcher Mas Subramanian, a new color came, well, out of the blue. Overheard’s Amy Briggs ventured into the National Geographic photo studio to see the new color—the first blue pigment of its kind discovered since Thomas Jefferson was president.


BRIGGS: So this is my first time back in the office in—March, April, May, June, July, August—Six months. Six months.

Like a lot of other places in the US in the summer of 2020, our office was closed to help slow the spread of coronavirus.

But in August my producer Brian Gutierrez and I returned to our basically empty office for one day to take a look at what a couple of our coworkers at National Geographic were up to.

Oh, and our voices might sound a little muffled, because we’re all wearing masks. Here we go…

BRIGGS: So anyway, this is my desk. And it's near where a lot of the photo editors sit, and it's intentionally kept kind of dark. And like on your way to the kitchen, there's this really cool wall of, like, all the National Geographic photographs, like the iconic ones. It's beautiful. It's colorful. Everywhere you look, there's something that just draws you in. But this iconic wall of pictures sort of hides this secret room. So it feels almost like you're going into a labyrinth. But you follow the signs, and you go through the secret doors.

BRIGGS: And then it opens up into this giant studio space. Like if you were ever a theater nerd, it looks like backstage. There are lights and curtains and tables everywhere.

This is the Nat Geo photo studio. It’s a huge room where we photograph everything, from ancient artifacts to models of prehistoric sharks.

But today, the spotlight is on a tiny pile—six grams of blue dust.

BRIGGS: It's like a little movie star ready for its close up.

This stuff is called YInMn blue. And it’s the first inorganic blue pigment discovered in more than 200 years.

It’s kind of a strange name and it comes from a strange place, but it’s not nearly as bizarre as some of the other pigments people use to color the world around us.

I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine, and you’re listening to Overheard: A show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo, and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week: when colors come from out of the blue, and what it takes to get them on the pages of National Geographic.

We’ll have more after the break.

AMY BRIGGS: So can you tell me what your name is and what you do?

MAS SUBRAMANIAN: My name is Mas Subramanian. I'm a chemistry professor at Oregon State University. Our research mostly focus on the discovery of new materials.

BRIGGS: “Materials,” as in the stuff other stuff is made of. And this stuff matters. Think of the way we name ages after the materials that defined them: Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age.

Some people have even started calling our time the Silicon Age, because smartphones and computers depend on silicon-based materials.

That’s what Mas specializes in. He has his name on patents for 60 different materials, including electronics.

So, how does someone go about discovering a new material? It sounds almost like a mad-scientist lab or something.

SUBRAMANIAN: Well, there are some fundamental principles we can use. We try to create a material by mixing various elements in the periodic table. We mix them together. Then we heat to high temperatures, and after the synthesis, we try to analyze them, whether the materials formed or not.

Pick some elements, mix them, heat them up, and see if it makes a useful new material. It’s sort of like a big complicated game of guess and check. Which means that sometimes he’ll discover something that he didn’t know he was looking for.

In 2009 Mas was searching for a material that could make a new kind of computer memory when he stumbled across a new pigment.

SUBRAMANIAN: There was not a word of pigment in my proposal. So then I asked my then graduate student to mix three components.

Three components: yttrium oxide, manganese oxide, and indium oxide. A white, a black, and a yellow powder.

It was one of a whole series of experiments that Mas thought just might get him closer to discovering the material he called the “holy grail” of computer memory.

But he got something very different instead.

SUBRAMANIAN: It was so blue, I was shocked.

Blue, as in the color.

SUBRAMANIAN: I have never seen such a blue in my experience through research—I've been doing this for a long time by that time. So I asked my student, Are you sure you did the right experiment I ask you to do? Because manganese materials are not supposed to be blue. They are supposed to be a black or gray. He said yes. So I checked his notebook. Yes, he did. And then ask him, OK, this is amazing. That means it may be useful as a pigment, even if it is not useful in electronics.

The material didn’t have the electronic properties he was searching for.

But Mas happened to know that blue pigments like this were rare and potentially valuable—the last one was discovered when Thomas Jefferson was president.

So instead of throwing it away, he patented it. And—being a chemist—he decided to name the pigment after its ingredients on the periodic table: yttrium, indium, and manganese. He called it YInMn blue.

NARAYAN KHANDEKAR: YInMn Blue is, you know, it's the newest permanent inorganic blue pigment that's come onto the market. The last pigment was cobalt blue. And that was then 1802. So, you know, it's a couple of hundred years since something has come onto the market in that way.

That’s Narayan Khandekar, and he would know. His official title is director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard Art Museums.

And as a part of his job, he curates the Forbes Pigment Collection at Harvard University, where they keep more than a thousand different pigments.

KHANDEKAR: And we've got the pigments arranged as if it's an opened-out color wheel. So we have yellow in the middle, going across to blue on one side and across to red on the other side.

The Forbes Pigment Collection was started by Edward Forbes, a director of Harvard’s art museum. He was buying paintings for the museum, but he had a problem: How could he know if he was buying a genuine painting or a forgery?

KHANDEKAR: Americans were known to have a lot of money and a lot less experience with paintings than Europeans. And so they were seen as something of an easy mark. And what Forbes decided to do was be able to test the pigments that were being used and see if they were available during the artist's lifetime.

So, for example, if someone says they’re selling a painting by Van Gogh, but it has YInMn blue in it, then it can’t be a real Van Gogh. Turns out all blues were not created equal, and that comes down to pigments.

But what is a pigment anyway?

KHANDEKAR: The pigment is what gives the paint its color. It's a small particle of colored material.

Really small. Narayan explained that paintings look very different on a microscopic level.

KHANDEKAR: Looking down a microscope at things is unbelievably beautiful, focused experience. When you look at pigment particles, what you see is lots and lots of tiny little specks of color. And each of them is very, very beautiful. Some of them have more color. Some have less. They’re different shapes. They mix together in different ways.

BRIGGS: So what makes something a good pigment? I mean, I've got brown dirt outside my house. I doubt it would make a great pigment.

KHANDEKAR: So if you got the brown dirt outside your house and mixed it with a binding medium and and tried to paint, you'd very quickly find out the difference in the quality of the coloring material. I did visit some deposits of ocher, and it's amazing. It gets all over your hands. It gets all of your clothes. It's really—there's so much of it. It's not just like colored dirt. It's something very, very special and something very different.

Really colorful powder that could work as a pigment is rare. And since good pigments are so rare in nature, they often come from unexpected places.

KHANDEKAR: So there are lots of unusual ways of making pigments. And I mean, one of them is to get insects and crush them, so you could get kermes lice or you could get cochineal beetles. And it's a bright red color. It's just like really, really intense red color. And it's used—it's still used actually for makeup, for food coloring, and so on.

BRIGGS: So squishing bugs. OK, what else?

KHANDEKAR: Squishing bugs. We've got squeezing a gland of a mollusk. It exudes a liquid, which then on exposure to sunlight turns red and then purple. So that's another sort of odd source of a pigment.

BRIGGS: OK. So mussel squeezing.


BRIGGS: Squishing bugs.

KHANDEKAR: Yeah. We've got Indian yellow, which is a very unusual way to collect a pigment. It was widely used in India and Persia. And it's made by collecting the urine of cows fed only on mango leaves. And that urine is then dried into round cakes or round bowls, and then it's refined with hot water and then turned into this incredible, brilliant yellow.

BRIGGS: Wow. I'm wondering how one discovers that process.

KHANDEKAR: No one knows how that was discovered. It was described in the late 19th century.

If crushed up bugs and cow pee weren’t enough, Narayan told me about one color of paint that was tragically looted from Egyptian tombs—mummy brown.

KHANDEKAR: It comes from grinding up Egyptian mummies and putting them into paint. And in the 19th century, pre-Raphaelites used that a lot. And when one of them found out that it was from Egyptian mummies, he held a funeral service for his paint and his associates all thought that it was really just a fanciful name. But in fact, It really did come from Egyptian mummies, whether human or reptile or cat or something else. We don't know what the exact source of the mummies were, but it's, you know, it's an odd thing to grind up and incorporate into a paint.

These pigments that come from natural processes are called organic pigments.

It’s been estimated that these kinds of pigments only make up three billion of a 30-billion-dollar pigment industry.

If that number seems surprising, think about how much paint it takes to coat the inside of your home.

And the outside of your home is probably covered in even more paint: 4.5 million metric tonnes of pigment were used last year in paints and coatings.

For this kind of thing, people tend to use inorganic pigments like YInMn blue because they’re more durable and opaque.

These were the kinds of pigments that were being photographed for the December issue of National Geographic.

BRIGGS: So, Mark is setting up an overhead light. It's like a spotlight just for the pigment.

Back in the Nat Geo studio, Mark Thiessen got things all set up to photograph YInMn Blue for the magazine. Mark’s one of our staff photographers. We used a microphone at the end of a six-foot pole to record what he was up to.

THIESSEN: When this flash goes off, it's brighter than daylight for that split second.

BRIGGS: It's a really vibrant blue. It's like New York Giants blue, for those of you who like football. But for those of you who don't, it's actually—it's close to that, like, magic-hour blue of the night sky after the sun goes down but it hasn't gotten dark yet.

THIESSEN: The nice thing about the studio is we have such an assortment of lighting equipment, from big lights to small lights. We can do just about anything here.

BRIGGS: Yeah. When you look at the close-up of the photo, it has a lot of craggs, a lot of shadows. It looks kind of rough. Like a mountain range. Lots of texture.

THIESSEN: What we're doing is playing off of its properties and its kind of clumping nature, and using a very focusable spot to make it kind of look like it's something else. To make it look special.

BRIGGS: It's the best looking pile of blue dust I've ever seen.

YInMn blue has a lot of potential, but some of its elements are rare. So it’s a little too expensive to start painting buildings with it just yet. So Mas started to experiment, and that’s when he came across another surprise.

SUBRAMANIAN: Indium is expensive. So we decided to take the indium and replace with titanium and zinc, which are cheaper. We thought we'd make it blue. No. The color changed into purple.

He accidentally discovered a second pigment! And more colors came after that.

SUBRAMANIAN: Just like when you are looking for treasure: You know where to look for, then you can go look for more. I can take the YInMn blue. Same material. I can remove the manganese and put in some iron. I made yellow color pigments and also orange color pigments depending on the amount of iron there. Then I remove the manganese and put copper and some titanium, I created green pigments.

By slightly adjusting his formula, Mas invented a wide range of pigment colors from purple to yellow. But there’s one color he hasn’t cracked yet.

SUBRAMANIAN: So we are now looking for a new red pigment. But it is not easy. We know what to look for because we understand where the color come from. But that doesn't mean I can just go to the lab and mix some three or four chemicals and make a red next day.

Like any of his work in computer science, finding the next red pigment will require a strong understanding of chemistry, but it will also require the ability to recognize the value of a new material, even if it seems like a mistake.

SUBRAMANIAN: Luck favors the prepared mind. Somebody might have already made a red pigment. So they might have simply put in the bottle and stored it somewhere. Because they’re not looking for it, and they didn’t think the material they made would be useful.

And, of course, that works in reverse too.

SUBRAMANIAN: When you are looking for a red pigment, maybe we'll discover a material that can be used in computers maybe. We don't know.

To me, Mas’s real talent is being able to spot a good thing when he sees it. That’s a talent that photographers need too. Mark took about 400 photos of the pigment. Figuring out exactly which one is the photo—that’s Julie’s job.

HAU: I'm Julie Hau. I'm a photo editor for National Geographic magazine.

BRIGGS: Julie, what do you do for the podcast?

HAU: I'm a photo editor for the podcast.

BRIGGS: It's funny because I think most people wouldn't immediately go, Oh, of course, a podcast should have a photo editor. I mean, why do you think a podcast should have a photo editor?

HAU: To entice people to listen, to have a visual to show them, to pull them into the episode and listen.

You should be able to see one of those photos on the webpage for this episode, along with all the other amazing images Julie helps us find. And YInMn blue will be in the December issue of National Geographic in a story about man-made pigments.

BRIGGS: Is it weird to be like you're photographing a literal color, you know? We can start like, yes, it's a powder, and yes, it's a vial. But what you're trying to show is that—the color.

HAU: Yeah, we're thinking about that a lot. It'll be difficult to photograph, to really replicate that color that it should represent: that dark, dark vibrant blue is usually out of gamut for print. It'll be interesting to see what they can do, how close they can get.

The discovery of YInMn blue drew a lot of attention, not just from our photographers. To celebrate the discovery, Crayola released a new crayon which they called “bluetiful.” They did their best to replicate the YInMn color using crayon ingredients. Which sort of reminds me of how we try to manage color in the magazine.

ELAINE BRADLEY: Blue is a hard color to reproduce with printing techniques.

Elaine Bradley is a senior designer for the magazine. She helps decide how the final magazine should look, including getting the color to look just right.

BRADLEY: So we very carefully work at how much of the basic colors that make up blue go into the picture, to get the feeling that you want of a fish swimming around in a coral reef. A blue sky looks too gray, and you know that it was bluer. So that's the kind of general thing. We're not altering photography—we're bringing out what's there.

BRIGGS: So, we've got kind of a like blow-your-mind kind of question. So a pigment is, you know, a fundamental unit of color. And the ink in the magazine uses different pigments than the one—the pigments that we're gonna be photographing for the article. Is there something strange maybe about using one set of pigments to show a different set of pigments?

BRADLEY: Yeah, it's gonna be a challenge. You're using one technique to reproduce another technique. I don't know how much of this is subjective. But I do know that it is absolutely impossible to make the four-color process look like what you see out of your eyeball. Absolutely. It will never happen.

If you have a color printer at home, you probably know the four-color process: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Our printers place microscopic dots of these inks on the page to create the illusion of different colors.

BRADLEY: Think about it. You look at a picture in a magazine, and you think you're seeing every color in the rainbow. And you're not. You're seeing different percentages of four colors, period. That's magic.

More after this.

Colors have fascinated humans for thousands of years. For example, in 2020 researchers discovered an 11,000-year-old pigment mine in an underwater cave in Mexico. We’ve included a link to that story in our show notes, along with articles about the strange history of mummy brown and Phonecian purple.

And the science of color itself is truly fascinating. One team of researchers has recently determined that there are 12 types of rainbows—and they don’t all look like the seven colors you learned about in grade school.

You might also want to take a look at a photogallery we put together of how the world appears to the people of Pingelap Atoll, where 10 percent of the population is colorblind.

That’s in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, and Laura Sim.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who also edited this episode.

Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.

Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.

And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. See you next week.


Want more?

Read about how underwater cave explorers discovered a 11,000 year old pigment mine in Mexico and what it might tell us about the people who lived there.

The names of colors are usually fanciful, but mummy brown is a surprisingly accurate description of this macabre pigment.

This episode is all about color, and so we have two colorful photo galleries for you to dive into: Photos through the eyes of the color blind, and the 12 different kinds of rainbows defined by science.

Also explore:

Check out the pigment collection and Harvard’s Art museum.

Read more about Mas Subramanian’s research at Oregon State University.

And for paid subscribers:

In this episode, Amy Briggs went into the Nat Geo studio to see our staff photographers hard at work photographing YInMn blue and other pigments. Take a look at our magazine feature to see the final product.

The Phonician empire was shaped by the production of Tyrion purple, a pigment with its weight in gold which was made by boiling the mucus glands of thousands of sea snails.