Ultramarine Blue is a bright, bold, almost electric violet-blue that is almost always granulating. It typically comes in two flavors: regular and French. French Ultramarine (or sometimes “Ultramarine Deep”) is the more granulating and violet-toned, while the regular Ultramarine is moderately granulating and a bit more medium blue. Some brands also offer a Light Ultramarine or Ultramarine (Green Shade) on the other side of the spectrum.
Let’s start by looking at Da Vinci Ultramarine Blue, a balanced medium color, and then we’ll explore the French and Green shade options as well as other brands.
Gradient: Deep, violet-toned blue through almost sky blue wash, with noticeable texture from large granulation. Gets a bit shiny in masstone; this is my only real problem with this particular color.
Opacity: I can see some slight color on the black line and would probably call this semi-transparent.
Glazing: Nice deep glaze to electric violet-blue.
Lifting: Lifts cleanly when wet (using a dry balled up paper towel) and also when dry (scrubbing with a wet paper towel on dry paint). I especially like the way the dry-paint lift came out, the combination with the granulating paint gives it a nice dimensionality on the edges.
Brand and Shade Comparison
As I mentioned in the intro, Ultramarine comes in various types:
- Light or “Green Shade” ultramarines are the greenest-toned; slightly more purple than, but barely distinguishable from, Cobalt Blue (PB28). They also tend to be the least granulating.
- Middle Ultramarines, typically just called “Ultramarine Blue,” are usually moderately purple-toned and moderately granulating.
- French, Deep, or “Red Shade” ultramarines are the purplest and usually the most granulating.
Here’s a big comparison of several I’ve tried, including some Cobalts for comparison:
Light Ultramarines (most green-toned; slightly more purple-toned than Cobalt):
- Winsor & Newton – Ultramarine (Green Shade) [not shown above]: low granulating
- Da Vinci – Ultramarine (Green Shade): low granulating
- Holbein – Ultramarine Light: low granulating
- Schmincke Horadam – Ultramarine Finest: not granulating
- Daniel Smith – Ultramarine Blue [not shown above]: moderately granulating
- Da Vinci – Ultramarine Blue: moderately granulating
Deep purple-toned blues (but not as purple as PV15 Ultramarine Violet):
- Daniel Smith – French Ultramarine: very granulating
- Holbein – Ultramarine Deep: very granulating
- Winsor & Newton – Cobalt Blue Deep (PB74): very granulating
- Da Vinci – French Ultramarine Red Shade: very granulating
- Mission Gold – Ultramarine Light (PB29) – Actually quite a violet-toned and granulating version
- Mission Gold – Ultramarine Deep (PB29, PV15): very granulating; mix with Ultramarine Violet
Here are several brands shown together.
Here’s some more detail on specific brands’ offerings.
Da Vinci – Ultramarine (Green Shade) & French Ultramarine (Red Shade)
Da Vinci offers no fewer than 3 separate Ultramarines.
French is the most granulating and red-toned; Green Shade is the least granulating and theoretically most similar to Cobalt, although I don’t find it as green as Cobalt, or significantly different from middle Ultramarine Blue in hue. I think Ultramarine Blue (right), the one that I showcased above, is the best of this bunch.
Daniel Smith – French Ultramarine
Daniel Smith offers 2 Ultramarines: Ultramarine and French Ultramarine. I have a lot more experience with French, as it is the ultramarine I started with – it’s in the Daniel Smith Essentials set that was my first artist-grade watercolor set.
I struggled with this color as a total newbie. As a French or Deep ultramarine, it is very granulating and violet-toned, and makes grayish colors with yellow (instead of the expected green). Now I like French ultramarine, when its unique qualities differentiate it from other colors I have like Cobalt, but at first I couldn’t appreciate it. I really think DS should consider putting the regular (non-French) ultramarine in the beginner set.
At any rate! As a French ultramarine, this is nice, but my problem with it is that it tends to flake out of the pan. I don’t have that problem with other brands.
Holbein – Ultramarine Deep & Ultramarine Light
Holbein has two Ultramarines: ‘Deep’ (more purple/more granulating, like French); and ‘Light’ called ‘Light’ (more green/less granulating).
Deep is very similar in hue and level of granulation to Daniel Smith’s French Ultramarine.
Light is much brighter, lighter, less purpley, and less granulating. Still slightly granulating especially in masstone. Similar hue to Cobalt (though Cobalt is still a bit more green).
I like that these ones don’t get shiny in masstone (a problem that the Da Vinci offerings can tend to have), but I find them slightly dull.
Schmincke Horadam – Ultramarine Finest
The least-granulating ultramarine I’m aware of. This is a ‘light’ shade, similar to Holbein’s Ultramarine Light.
This one is interesting. It’s listed as non-granulating by Schmincke. As you paint it down, it looks like it has a typical amount of granulation for a light ultramarine, but it dries less textured (though not as smooth as, say, Phthalo Blue).
Like most Schmincke watercolors, I found this one a bit finicky; hard to rewet or mix without overdiluting. I think I just dislike the binder that Schmincke uses. It’s also relatively weak in tinting strength, so I find it hard to mix effectively.
Schmincke also offers two more standard ultramarines, which I have only tried in dot cards; the French appears to be extremely granulating.
Winsor & Newton – Ultramarine (Green Shade)
WN offers two ultramarines – French and Green Shade – of which I’ve only tried the Green Shade.
On the bottom, I compared Holbein Ultramarine Deep to this color to Da Vinci Cobalt Blue (PB28) to show where it falls on the spectrum from most purpley-and-granulating to least. To my eye, it looks more similar to the Cobalt Blue, only very slightly purpler, with very slightly more granulation.
Color mixes here are basically the same as other Light Ultramarines. I found it interesting what a pale sky color it made with Phthalo Blue (third from the bottom on the second column). The granulation floats and the Phthalo Blue becomes pale behind it, but it’s so fine that it’s hard to even tell that it’s granulating; it just makes the Phthalo Blue look pastel, almost. Very cool.
Shinhan PWC – Cobalt Blue Hue
I tried this because it is listed as containing only PB29 but looked quite cool (green-toned) from the swatches, so I thought it might be a really nice Cobalt replacement. When I painted it out, I did find that it was quite green-toned, but it also doesn’t look or handle like a single-pigment PB29, like, at all. In fact it looks and handles just like a mix of PB29 and Phthalo Blue GS. I think the label is a lie.
Winsor & Newton – Cobalt Blue Deep
WN also offers a PB74 Cobalt Blue Deep, which is not an ultramarine but which I think looks a lot like a French ultramarine, with a purpley tone and lots of granulation.
I may make another post all about this color, but I thought it was worth keeping in the mix as a potential French Ultramarine alternative. It’s more expensive though, so you’d have to like it better.
I have done these with a ‘deep’ or ‘French’ ultramarine; light ultramarines may mix differently. (See below for a detailed discussion.)
You can sort of get pale greens with a lot of mixing, but mostly the blue floats above the yellow giving the impression of simultaneous blue and yellow (but not green). Great for skies.
Monte Amiata Natural Sienna
The violet-toned deep Ultramarine acts more purple than blue with the yellow-toned sienna, going grayish-khaki hues rather than green. Textured, high-granulation mixes that never get very dark.
Transparent Pyrrol Orange
TPO has a muting effect on the Ultramarine, while Ultramarine turns TPO into a bright brown. Very near neutral gray in the middle.
(Personally, I didn’t find the Ultramarine very “magical” on this smooth paper, though I know that Liz Steel gets great results with Ultramarine on this sketchbook.)
Transparent Red Oxide
A wide range of granulating grays, browns, and blue-gray shadow colors. These ones can be made quite dark.
The orange-toned earthy red of the DR Perylene Maroon both dulls the Ultramarine and makes it purpler, for very dull purples. With more Perylene Maroon, it creates a reddish-brown.
Potter’s Pink is the only pigment I know that consistently floats over a deep Ultramarine! The combination looks like a muted purple.
A lovely bold range of purples from two purple-toned shades.
What’s that? Even bolder purples? PR122 magenta is similar to PV19 rose but slightly more purple-toned, so its purple mixes are even more vivid. This is the best combo I know of for really bright purples.
Phthalo Blue (Green Shade)
These colors look similar (especially in the photo), and they are indeed similar values and both blue… the Phthalo is just a lot greener and the Ultramarine is purpler (and granulating). The mix is a medium blue with light granulation, similar in hue to Cobalt Blue (but with a staining background that Cobalt Blue doesn’t have.) A nice sky mix.
Another nice sky mix if you get the balance right, with more capacity to be greenish.
A bold sky or tropical ocean gradient, mixing to a middle blue or separating into ultramarine flecks on a backdrop of turquoise. Very granulating when diluted or on the right paper.
Reasonable nontoxic alternative to Cobalt Turquoise, though the opaque white ingredient smooths the granulation and can create some chalkiness in the mix.
Series of granulating teals with ultramarine floating above viridian.
What Others Say
About DS Ultramarine Blue (not French):
Ultramarine Blue is my fist choice for a blue in any medium. It is a warm blue, i.e. it has a purple bias rather than a green bias, so will mix to make lovely purples. It will also make great greens, though not as bright as a cool blue would produce. It works as a single blue in a limited palette as it can be cooled with a touch of a cool yellow or phthalo green to create a cool blue.Jane Blundell, Watercolour Comparisons: Ultramarine Blue
This is probably the blue I used the most [in the Petrified Forest], as it granulates and also separates when mixed with other colors, which made a lot of amazing and unpredictable patterns.Claire Giordano, Petrified Forest Residency: Favorite Colors
My Review of Ultramarine Blue
I initially didn’t like Ultramarine Blue because I found its granulation difficult, and found it perplexing that so many other artists and palette-building advisers seemed to consider it a staple color. At one point I felt almost triumphant in building palettes without it. But over time, I’ve come around to liking it (although I still don’t consider it a staple color for me personally).
- Ultramarine Blue is a gorgeous color unmixed, especially the shocking near-purple masstone of the French variety. I just like to look at it.
- I’ve grown much less intimidated by / more interested in the unexpected effects of granulation.
- I’ve gotten better at color mixing, so I’m no longer alarmed when Ultramarine Blue doesn’t mix vibrant greens.
- It makes unparalleled purples.
- It makes wonderfully balanced, earthy, granulating grays with an earth orange, like Burnt Sienna or Transparent Red Oxide (note: so do Indanthrone and Cobalt Blues.)
I realized I loved Ultramarine Blue when I did a series of three iterations on the same sunset in different color palettes, and somehow, Ultramarine Blue was the only color that made it into all three!
Ultramarine Blue is at home in a wide variety of color palettes and art styles, making it a hugely versatile paint that I am only now learning to give it credit for. It’s great for everything from realistic landscapes to wildly bold neon palettes – and it’s a keystone color in my Neon Palette!
Because it gets fairly dark, Ultramarine Blue can mix a wide variety of values. Dark blues can really be load-bearing paints in a palette for mixing up all your darker values, including blacks/grays and shadows. I typically use Indanthrone Blue as my default dark blue/dark color mixer, but Ultramarine Blue is another great choice.
Ultramarine can also be helpful for skies. Blue skies get more purple-toned at the zenith, and Ultramarine Blue can provide the right hue. I initially disliked it for skies because I think of skies as being smooth, not textured, but mixing Ultramarine Blue with a smooth blue such as Phthalo Blue can mitigate the appearance of texture and mix a much more realistic hue than either paint alone can achieve. (Another one I love for skies is Cobalt Blue, but it doesn’t get quite as purple as Ultramarine, so I sometimes need to add a bit of Ultramarine anyway, or a bit of violet or rose, to get that purpley tone at the top.)
You could argue that a person doesn’t need all three of Ultramarine Blue, Indanthrone Blue, and Cobalt Blue since they overlap in various ways. Personally I struggle to choose, so they often all end up on my palette! But if you have only room for one, Ultramarine Blue is probably the most versatile.
If you have to choose between the three flavors of Ultramarine Blue, I think the medium one – usually just called Ultramarine Blue – is more versatile. (Some brands with two options may call this ‘light’ to distinguish from ‘deep.’) Since I often have Cobalt Blue on my palette, I will sometimes tend to go for the French/deep Ultramarine Blue to distinguish it more. The green shade is a good pick if your aim is to get a close to Cobalt Blue as possible in a cheaper nontoxic paint; but I personally feel that green shade is not quite Cobalt and not quite Ultramarine in a way that doesn’t generally satisfy me.
On my palette: Typically, yes!
Favorite Overall Version: After trying various versions, I’m selecting Da Vinci Ultramarine Blue as my overall pick! It’s the middle of their three offerings, and I think it offers the best of all worlds. It’s easy to rewet, and I love the rich, bright, violet-toned color it gets in masstone – that’s classic Ultramarine Blue to me.
Favorite Light Version: WN Ultramarine Green Shade is my favorite near-Cobalt/near sky shade, and I find it the least granulating as well (less so even than Schmincke’s Ultramarine Finest).
Favorite Deep Version: Either Mission Gold Ultramarine Light or Ultramarine Deep (which is a mix with PV15) are wonderfully bold, violet-toned and granulating. I find them very similar to each other.