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Paintings Have Become Increasingly Blue

Move over, orange: modern art is all about hues of blue

(Daniel THIERRY/ /Photononstop/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Perhaps you’ve noticed that all movie trailers seem to look the same—and that orange is a predominant part of their color palette. But another color has become dominant in paintings as art history progresses: blue.

Martin Bellander is a Ph.D. student in psychology at Sweden’s Karolinska Instituet. He’s also really into data analysis, and when he became aware of the weird dominance of orange and blue in movie trailers, he started to wonder how the colors of paintings have changed over time. So he decided to download pictures of paintings—over 130,000 of them—to see how their dominant colors changed between 1800 and 2000.

Bellander used websites like BBC, Google Art Project, Wikiart and Wikimedia commons to download the images, then excluded ones with vague dates and missing information. By choosing a random set of 100 pixels from each image and plotting them on a graph, he was able to see how color trends changed over time.

What he found makes it seem like the 20th century was in fact a blue period for art. But why?

“Of course the changes in color might be a results of a combination of factors,” he speculates. “One of these could of course be trends in the use of color….For example the marked increase of blue at the time of the First World War, might actually reflect a true trend in color use.” But there could be other reasons, like price of blue paint, fading of older paintings or an increase in darker colors that makes cameras register dark tints as blue.

Though Bellander doesn’t have a firm answer for the popularity of blue, one thing is clear—when it comes to present-day paintings, orange is so 1800. 

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