The colors of the sea

“I have been feeling very clearheaded lately and what I want to write about today is the sea. It contains so many colors. Silver at dawn, green at noon, dark blue in the evening. Sometimes it looks almost red. Or it will turn the color of old coins. Right now the shadows of clouds are dragging across it, and patches of sunlight are touching down everywhere. White strings of gulls drag over it like beads.

It is my favorite thing, I think, that I have ever seen. Sometimes I catch myself staring at it and forget my duties. It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel.”

― Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

“Sea with waves does not have a universal colour. but he who sees it from dry land sees it dark in colour and it will be so much darker to the extent that it is closer to the horizon... and he who sees the sea from the high seas sees it as blue.”

Leonardo Da Vinci

“Blue has no dimensions. It is beyond dimensions.”

Yves Klein

 “The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural.”


The colors of the sea have always fascinated us. We associate these colors to multiple feelings that resonates with us when contemplating the ocean. The turquoise sea of the warm waters in a protected cove or the dark blue of the high seas, the leaden sea of a threatening storm or the wine dark sea at sunset, described by Homer in The Iliad.

Science says the colors of the sea come from the absorption of the shorter wavelengths of light (red, orange, yellow) in the ocean, where the blue light (longer wavelengths) travels deeper. In addition, particles suspended in the water intensifies the scattering of light and change the color of water for example, phytoplankton or algae and their photosynthesis turns water greener.

Nevertheless, the influence of colors goes further. Multitude of place names by the coast are influenced by the different colors of the sea or the ocean. Finding a new name related to the colors of the sea is like finding a treasure that has been preserved throughout language by generations: Costa Smeralda (the Emerald Coast) in Sardinia Island, Emerald Coast in Florida, USA, Costa Esmeralda in Mexico, Turkuaz Kiyi (the Turquoise Coast) or Turkish Riviera, Turquoise Coast and Bay in Western Australia, Sapphire Cove in Hawaii… And multiple names of lost coastal places ready to be discovered by the curious wanderer.

It surely is not a coincidence that the color blue is the symbol of harmony, peace, and balance, all of them values given by the contemplation of the sea horizon in a clear day. Blue is also the color we associate to open spaces, distance, freedom, intuition and imagination. It has calming effects on mind and body.

However, strange as it may sound, colors have not always been as important to the human experience as they are today. Most Ancient languages, such as Greek, Chinese, Japanese or Hebrew did not have a word for the color blue, in other languages there are overlaps between blue, green and grey, or red, orange and brown, and many indigenous languages do not have a word for blue. For example, Icelandic sagas, the Koran, ancient Chinese stories, Ancient Hebrew versions of the Bible or Hindu Vedic hymns, blue is not mentioned, or is mentioned as a shade of green. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the color blue was very scarce, so it became very expensive and soon associated to nobility and royalty, being used to represent Heavens and was the color associated to the Virgin Mary as well.

Reflecting on this, we started thinking about the shades of blue, green and turquoise which have been used in Art, because the History of colors is the history of cultural exchange, creativity and discovery. Our favorite blue hues:

  • Egyptian blue: used by Ancient Egyptians, was created with a mixture of limestone, sand, and copper into calcium copper silicate. Variations of this color were used by Mesopotamians, Persians, Greeks and Romans as well. The color is also called cuprorivaite and is a rich turquoise. This shade would be the shade of a deeper turquoise sea, a little far from the coast.
  • Azurite: a copper carbonate, it was used since 2500 BC to 1800 AD. A shade that resembles that of the ocean in a winter day, is the one used by Velazquez in The Surrender of Breda.
  • Ultramarine: found in Buddhist paintings in Afghanistan from the 6th century, was brought to Europe through Italy in 14th and 15th centuries. Its name means “beyond the sea” and its value was as high as gold. The French Ultramarine is its synthetic version. It is the color of deep ocean.
  • Cobalt Blue: was discovered in the 8th and 9th centuries. Used in jewelry and ceramics, was used for example in Chinese porcelain and by painters such as Renoir and van Gogh. It is a color of the ocean in a good day of summer.
  • Cerulean is made of cobalt magnesium stannate and its name comes from the Latin, meaning “dark blue.” It was intensively used by Impressionists.
  • Navy Blue is the darkest color of the ocean. It was formerly called “marine blue” because it is used by officers and sailors of the Navy, Marines, Army in a number of countries.
  • Prussian Blue was discovered by the dye-maker Johann Jacob Diesbach in 1704. It was used in Art by Pablo Picasso and Katsushika Hokusai. Its sensitivity to light makes it suitable for creating a number of copies from a drawing, or “blueprints.” This color takes us to the sea in a summer day trip at midday.

In the case of green, the symbol of growth and hope is found in little coastal coves with white-sand beaches. It is probably the most relaxing color to the human eye and is the color of nature as well. There are some famous green shades in Art:

  • One of the most famous hue is the Scheele’s Green, created by the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele and highly poisonous due to the arsenic it included. It was used in Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom and allegedly linked to his death.
  • This hue was replaced for a more durable option called Paris Green by the end of the 19th century, which was used by impressionists. This was also toxic and banned in the 1960s.
  • The color green was also used in the Art Nouveau period with muted hues.

Regarding turquoise, it represents for us coralline and Caribbean beaches. It combines the relaxation given by blue and the vibrant life in green. Turquoise has been also used in Art:

  • Pre-columbine art in Latin America. The “Mayan blue” was made by mixing indigo with clay called Palygorskite. It was used in their turquoise fresco paintings.
  • For Aztecs it was a link to the Sun and the Moon, reflecting waters and sky. In Nahuatl (the language spoken by the Aztec), the word for turquoise is ‘xihuitl’ which is also is used to refer to a herb, comets, the year and to anything precious.
  • In Persian art, turquoise is used to create contrast and remark details in paintings, manuscripts and architecture. Sometimes domes had tiles with a bright turquoise hue as a metaphor for the sky.

And for you, what are the most inspiring, vibrant, relaxing… colors of the sea?