In 2009, researchers at Oregon State University discovered YInMn Blue—the first new blue pigment identified in 200 years—while developing materials for use in electronics. Led by chemist Mas Subramanian, the team quickly realized that it had stumbled onto something significant.
“People have been looking for a good, durable blue color for a couple of centuries," Subramanian told NPR’s Gabriel Rosenberg in 2016.
Eleven years later, in May 2020, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officially approved the punchy pigment, which is far more vivid than cobalt or Prussian blue, for commercial use, as Coatings World reported at the time.
The government agency approved YInMn for use in industrial coatings and plastics in September 2017, but because testing for consumer use is far more rigorous, commercial paint manufacturers and artists alike faced a far longer wait. (To help color enthusiasts cope with the delay, Crayola introduced Bluetiful, a crayon inspired by the pigment, that same year.)
“We had to tell many artists we could not sell them the material and would let them know as soon as we could,” Jodi L. O’Dell, head of community relations at Golden Artist Colors, tells Artnet News’ Sarah Cascone.
Now that the EPA has given its stamp of approval, the pigment is finally available for commercial use, with paint retailers such as Kremer Pigmente in Germany and Golden in the U.S. offering YInMn Blue products. A dry powder version has yet to be approved for public consumption.
Mark Ryan, a marketing manager for the Shepherd Color Company, a pigment manufacturing business that obtained a license to sell YInMn in 2016, tells Artnet News that “[t]he art world likes it because of the color.”
Industrial companies, meanwhile, like “it because of what it can do in terms of environmental regulations for building products.” (The pigment reflects most infrared radiation, keeping it, and by extension the building exteriors it adorns, cool.)
Named after its chemical components of yttrium, indium and manganese oxides, YInMn absorbs red and green wavelengths while reflecting blue wavelengths to produce a bright blue color. The unique hue, which is a hybrid of ultramarine and cobalt blue, fills “a gap in the range of colors,” art supply manufacturer Georg Kremer tells Artnet News.
He adds, “The pureness of YInMn Blue is really perfect.”
People around the world have gravitated toward blue, which was the first man-made pigment, for millennia. Given the difficulty of extracting blue from natural sources, artists throughout history have had to create synthetic blue pigments. Prior to YInMn Blue, the last commercially manufactured, inorganic blue pigment was cobalt, which was discovered in 1802 and first produced in France in 1807, according to My Modern Met’s Emma Taggart. Cobalt is poisonous if consumed in large quantities; it doesn’t reflect heat well and tends to fade over time.
“[YInMn Blue is] really an exceptional blue, because it reflects heat more than cobalt blue, it’s really stable and it’s a really great color like lapis lazuli,” Subramanian told NPR.
Since discovering YInMn Blue, Subramanian and his colleagues have continued experimenting with potential pigments. In 2019, reported Jes Burns for Oregon Public Broadcasting, the team created hibonite blue, an intense variation of cobalt.
Both rare and expensive, YInMn Blue is only readily available to American consumers through Golden, which sells the pigment on a limited, custom-order basis, and the Italian Art Store. A small family business based in Maine, the company sells 1.3-ounce tubes of the paint for $179.40—six times more than its most expensive tube of acrylic paint. (Other manufacturers, including Gamblin Artists Colors, have deemed the costs associated with creating YInMn Blue too high to mount large-scale production.)
“From what I can tell,” Italian Art Store’s Gail Fishback tells Artnet News, “most of the customers are buying it out of curiosity and for bragging rights.”