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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

International Klein Blue

Updated: Jun 18

Summary:  Yves Klein Blue is a fascinating art concept, making the detective work to fully understand it both intriguing and frustrating. The composition of Yves Klein Blue is one of those mysteries that should have a complete technical explanation, but it is shielded by an amazing lack of information, and even today, the specifications of the materials used as a binder for this color are not revealed, despite being currently available for artistic use.


It should not be difficult to explain the origin of Yves Klein Blue or as it was registered with the name, International Klein Blue, (IKB) since Klein made the bulk of the characteristic powdery blue artwork starting 70 years ago.  It is not as though the materials that form IKB were from an ancient source using a formulation passed down verbally from generation to generation. They are fairly modern materials.


Ultramarine Blue Powder Pigment
Ultramarine Blue Powder Pigment


A few interesting coincidences come to light as part of the research into Klein’s life.  Yves Klein was born in 1928, one hundred years after the first synthetic French Ultramarine Blue was brought to market in 1828.  (See: https://www.syntaxofcolor.com/post/go-big-blue for the essay on Ultramarine Blue)


A chemical company named “Maison Debai-Extraits Tintoriaux merged in 1928 with Établissements Poulenc Frères (“Poulenc Brothers”), the pharmaceutical house established by Camille Poulenc and became the company named Rhone-Poulenc, which ultimately became the source of the binder Klein used for his unique paint. (Britannica – Rhone Poulene company history)


Klein selected a synthetic ultramarine Klein called “pure ultramarine blue, reference 1311,” (Various sources.) However, it merely appears to be the inventory or skew number a manufacturer was using to label the ultramarine they were selling.

The binder is the real mystery when researching IKB. Seventy years ago, Rhone-Poulenc sold a resin called Rhodopas M60A that satisfied Klien because it possessed the characteristic appearance he was seeking.  Anyone who has ever attempted to grind pigment, especially ultramarine blue, with linseed oil becomes acutely aware that the light, beautiful, powdery, soft blue ultramarine pigment turns almost black as linseed oil becomes incorporated and surrounds the pigment particles.  Ultramarine blue in oil was exactly the opposite of what Klein desired. 


Rhodopas M60A seemed to work like magic.  It allowed the pigment to retain its powdery appearance and the light hue that Ultramarine Blue possesses in dry pigment form with just the right level of sheen so that the pigment would appear to lay on the surface of the substrate and closely resemble the appearance of pastel laid heavily on sanded paper. (This is as close as one can to describe the surface appearance of IKB in words, but it is still not an exact match.) The central idea was to create a finished surface that appeared to be devoid of any binder coating the pigment. To achieve the look Klein was seeking Rhodopas M60A needed to be mixed with measured amounts of ethyl alcohol and ethyl acetate. (Christa Haiml, Restoring the Immaterial: Study and Treatment of Yves Klein’s Blue Monochrome (IKB 42) – Modern Paints Uncovered, May 2006, The Getty Conservation Institute.)


Klein was not able to achieve the desired dry powder look of IKB without hard work put in by Edouard Adam, a Paris color merchant. Adam consulted with a chemist at Rhone-Poulenc to identify both the resin Rhodopas as well as the additives that would achieve what Klein wanted. (Christa Haiml, Restoring The Immaterial…) 


Klein’s collaboration with Adam did not end with achieving a final formulation of resin and additives.  Edouard retained his interest in providing Klein and other artists with the resin mixture, and currently, it is still available for purchase. 


You can take a trip to France and visit the retail art supplier Adam Montmartre at 96 Rue Damremont in Paris, or you can go online to the “Adam e-shop” and purchase a 1-liter bottle of Medium Adam25 as well as a host of commonly available art supplies. If so inclined, (pun intended) you can even purchase a “Blue Kit,” composed of a liter of Medium Adam25, a jar of ultramarine blue pigment, and a small bottle of 95 percent alcohol.  


If you are daring and wish to go forward to make a Klein-like paint on your own, the 1-liter bottle of Medium Adam 25 retails for around $80, (€74.90). However, if the cost of Medium Adam 25 is a bit too much for your budget, disregard some of the website recipes that provide a “shortcut” for making IKB when they state that using polyvinyl acetate is an acceptable substitute. A host of PVA formulations have a surface sheen and final dry look that will not achieve the creation of a powdery surface that appears to be absent of any binding agent. Also, beware that conservation literature on the treatment of a Klein painting documents damage to artworks display chunks of paint cleaving from the surface. (Christa Haiml, Restoring The Immaterial…) 


Unless Edouard Adam or a relative who oversees the art supply store has rediscovered the original source of synthetic ultramarine that was selected for use in the late 1950s, it is doubtful that the ultramarine blue pigment listed as “1311” in their current website comes from the 1950s supplier of Klein 1311 pigment.  It is probably being obtained from another pigment manufacturer.  


Artificial Ultramarine Blue is a hue described in manufacturers’ and paint makers' literature as a blue that can have several undertones.  These versions are described as greenish blue, deep blue, light blue, violet, and cerulean biases. Slight adjustments in the chemistry and manufacturing process impact the undertone that can be obtained. It is not cited as to the undertone that Klein specifically desired, but merely states that Klein sought a “pure ultramarine blue.”


From Klin’s start in the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, Klein manifests his artistic ideas spanning a broad range of expressions. Klein would run the gamut of artistic formats that explored mysticism, religious themes, abstract expressionism, avant-garde, and conceptual art. From paintings that were monochromatic entities covered entirely in IKB to slathering nude models in blue paint who then rolled themselves and/or were dragged across canvases to capture their body images, whatever intellectual construct Klein had was expressed in a wide variety of ways.


However, concerning several of his most notable works done in International Klein Blue, the outcome was a combination of materials and techniques.  Creating his iconic work was not a matter of opening a jar of IKB and applying it with a paintbrush.  These powdery, light-absorbing creations came about using a variety of rollers with different naps.  Adam reported that Klein’s favorite roller had a lambskin cover.  (Restoring the Immaterial, Haiml.)


By discussing the current source of the same materials that Klein used and a hint as to the method of application, I am not implying that anyone should go forward and try making a Klein-like painting.  I am always reticent about suggesting that anyone work with dry pigment and mediums.  Much personal protective equipment is needed to work with dry pigment. However, understanding how Klein achieved the appearance of his paint surface is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an artist.


Experimenting with a binder can have long-range consequences. Bear in mind that Klein IKB paintings have been noted as both an art handling and conservation nightmare.  Any surface that is matte with pigment sitting on the surface in a velvet-like appearance is an accident waiting to happen when the painted surface is touched, rubbed, or pressed. Any interaction with the surface of a uniform, matte, powdery paint can burnish the surface and appear as lines, uneven sheen, and shiny deformations.  Christa Haiml aptly describes Klein’s Blue Monochrome work as possessing an “unforgiving nature of the paint surface.”


Life was tragically short for Yves Klein. He died at the age of 32 in June 1962. Despite an art production life of less than a decade, he managed to achieve a significant impact on the art world.  The post-war environment in Europe was a rich breeding ground for artists like Yves Klein. He was bold and brave enough to achieve his dream of exploring the infinite. He has by no means been forgotten.  Several museums contain examples of his work. I hope you have an opportunity to see Yves Klein's artwork in person.


Syntax of Color


Note:  The conference held at the Tate Gallery in London entitled Modern Paints Uncovered, May 2006, was a wonderful opportunity to hear about the conservation of modern works of art, the history of modern art materials, and scientific research conducted on modern binding materials and pigments. It was a rare privilege to attend and witness this event.  The conference proceedings are still available to download or purchase in hard copy from the Getty Conservation Institute. Visit the website at  https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/books/modern_paints_uncovered.html

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