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A new color, out of the blue

The accidental discovery and creative possibilities of the first inorganic blue pigment discovered in more than 200 years.

YInMn Blue is "dense, concentrated, and highly opaque."
YInMn Blue is "dense, concentrated, and highly opaque."MAS SUBRAMANIAN

Envy the bright blue Morpho butterfly, the blue-rayed limpet, and the blue jay, endowed by nature with the ability to reflect light into varying shades of one of nature’s most elusive colors: blue. Humans may not be able to avail themselves of this neat trick, but thanks to the widening availability of the pigment in everything from paint to plastics, we can swatch test the first inorganic blue pigment discovered in more than 200 years.

Known commercially as Blue 10G513, YInMn Blue, pronounced “yin min,” was a happy accident during semiconductor research conducted in 2009 in the materials science lab of Mas Subramanian at Oregon State University. After a long patent and EPA approval process, it landed on the market in 2016. It’s been growing in popularity since.

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“Artists are very excited about new stuff, and it’s certainly been a long time since a new inorganic pigment has come on the scene,” says Ulysses Jackson, the director of research and development at Golden Artist Colors, whose custom lab makes YInMn Blue in acrylic, handmade oil, and watercolor formulations.

Its name, like its composition, is a mashup of the elements yttrium, indium, manganese, and oxygen. YinMn Blue is “dense, concentrated, and highly opaque,” according to Gamblin Factory Store’s description of its oil variety, released in 2020.

Materials scientist Mas Subramanian in his lab at Oregon State University.
Materials scientist Mas Subramanian in his lab at Oregon State University.Karl Maasdam

The thing about an inorganic pigment created in a lab from elements, several of which are rare, is that they’re not giving the stuff away, which might account why some are learning of the new color only now. “We thought the sticker price would kill the color before it was ever created,” Gamblin’s website says. But the company’s limited edition 37-milliliter tubes, $75 each and limit two per customer, sold out fast.

Artist Charlie O’Shields, who blogs at doodlewash, reports that he snapped up a 5-milliliter tube of watercolor YinMn for $14. The watercolor has been especially popular with artists for the way it settles into the paper. YInMn Blue’s pigments cluster together, creating delicate textures rather than the more typical smooth, even wash.

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Blue pigments have long been known to fade easily. But YInMn, forged at 2,300 degrees F, is very stable, making it a holy grail of sorts for artists, because it won’t fade over time. Another quality — its low thermal conductivity — makes it an ideal roof coolant.

Although chemists understand how light interacts with pigments at a molecular level, they haven’t yet cracked the riddle of how to mix chemical elements to yield a specific color. “It is very, very difficult to predict the color of the material before you make it in the lab,” Subramanian says. “We don’t know how to design a material with a particular absorption, so it is a mystery. Where the next blue is going to come from, we don’t know.”

Red may be another story. Subramanian, who has transitioned to researching new colors full time, has received National Science Foundation funding to create the next red. After graduate student Andrew Smith heated the admixture that turned blue, Subramanian told him, “Luck favors the alert mind.” Color enthusiasts everywhere hope that luck strikes twice.

Viviane Callier is a freelance science writer in San Antonio.