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YInMn Blue – A Painter’s Review
Test Swatches with Cobalt Blue (top), YInMn Blue (middle), and Ultramarine Blue (bottom)
In 2009, a group of Oregon State University scientists under chemist Mas Subramanian accidentally synthesized a novel blue pigment (“The Story of YInMn Blue”). There was a bit of press at the time. All these years later, we are finally seeing the pigment manufactured in quantities large enough that a few paint companies are selling small tubes of YInMn (pronounced yin-min) Blue. This has led to a new round of articles. Here is my first-hand experience with the new blue.
First, I want to clarify a few of the larger misconceptions I have seen about YInMn Blue. Is it really the first new blue pigment in two hundred years? No. Remember that Phthalo Blue was synthesized a hundred years ago. While blue pigments are one of the rarer breeds, it just is not true that new ones appear like a comet once every few centuries. Manganese Blue, another synthetic pigment, was invented in 1907 (“Spotlight on: Manganese Blue”).
YInMn Blue is also innovative in that it is supposedly nontoxic (“Blue pigment discover makes key design advance”). This is the claim of Subramanian and Oregon State University. I will note, however, that the individual elements (yttrium, indium, manganese) and many compounds that they form are known to be toxic to some degree. It is always wise to treat novel compounds with a healthy degree of caution. While paints that contain heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, and cobalt have long been widely known to be toxic, I think it is fair to say that the general public is far less familiar with rare earth elements such as yttrium and indium. YInMn Blue is positioning itself as the nontoxic alternative to Cobalt Blue. As far as we currently know, YInMn should be the biologically and ecologically safer choice. That noted, painters should continue to use normal best practices in studio hygiene.
YInMn Blue is also not cheap. I purchased a tube from a limited batch that Gamblin made at the end of 2020 that was priced $75 for a 37 ml tube. For comparison, Gamblin sells 37ml tubes of Cobalt Blue for around $20, and 37ml tubes of Ultramarine Blue for around $9. This makes YInMn roughly four times more expensive than Cobalt and eight times more than Ultramarine. Typically, when paint manufacturers replace toxic pigments with newer, less toxic pigments, often under the moniker of things like “Cadmium Red Hue,” “Cobalt Blue Hue,” “Lead White Replacement,” etc., the new paint is at a lower price point. At its current price, YInMn will never be successfully marketed as “Cobalt Blue Hue.” To some degree, the novelty and intrigue of YInMn needs to exist to justify what is actually a major price hike. Later, I will address the possibility of how this issue might change, but for now I think it is worth making clear that this new blue is not economical to use.
The first thing I do with every new pigment is test swatches. With YInMn, these were side-by-side comparisons with Cobalt and Ultramarine. As I had a tube of Gamblin YInMn Blue, I decided to go with Gamblin for the Cobalt and Ultramarine for consistency. I made masstone, undertone, and tint swatches. I was curious to see what kinds of greens I would get when mixing the blues with Cadmium Yellow Light and violets when mixing with Alizarin Crimson. I picked Cadmium Yellow Light and Alizarin Crimson mostly because they are fairly popular and common on many palettes.
The overall masstone of the YInMn is a color somewhere between Cobalt and Ultramarine. Of the two, it is closer to Cobalt in color, but slightly darker in value. In tint mixtures, YInMn went a bit grayer than Cobalt or Ultramarine. YInMn has a slightly weaker tint strength than Cobalt, though it is not as weak as a blue like Cerulean Blue. Like Carmine Genuine or Manganese Blue, YInMn is one of those colors that comes out of the tube like a fragile jewel. It muddies easily in mixtures.
YInMn is a semi-opaque color, similar in opacity to Cobalt when thick, but almost fully transparent in its undertone. The color of the undertone is a blue closer to a blue-violet than one might expect. I found the most interesting and unexpected property of this new blue to be a subtle, cooler temperature shift in the undertone. In mixtures with Cadmium Yellow Light and Alizarin Crimson, it made greens and violets that were again slightly grayer and lighter than in the same mixtures with Cobalt. YInMn dries much more slowly than Cobalt and even Ultramarine. The YInMn masstone swatches took several days longer than Ultramarine. YInMn also has a slight gloss to it when dry compared to the Cobalt and Ultramarine. I do not yet know the extent to which this gloss will go away.
After the swatches, I made a series of three small paintings, each putting the blue through its paces. The first painting was a view from the studio window of an open, blue sky; the second painting was a still life that included ribbons of blue painter’s tape; the third was a portrait of a model with a blue dress. All three paintings used a limited palette of YInMn Blue, Cadmium Yellow Light, Alizarin Crimson, and Titanium White. All were quick, alla prima paintings.
View from the Studio
The first painting was a view from my studio of the rooftops and trees under a late afternoon sky in winter. The sky is a wonderful cold blue, and a color already quite close to YInMn Blue. I played with scumbled undertones as well as more opaque and thicker application. Some Titanium White and Alizarin Crimson mixed in with the blue was needed to get this color. The cold and gray neutrals of winter trees were no challenge to mix with YInMn, unsurprisingly.
Still Life with Painter’s Tape
The still life with blue painter’s tape was both a hit and miss for me in terms of color. Overall, I found the cold grays, with accents in blue, blue-green, light lavender, and a contrasting yellow-orange to be a harmonious combination of colors. I painted by the window on an overcast day with cool and weak light. This palette, and this blue, embodies that kind of dull, winter daylight. The problem with YInMn is that it simply cannot capture the color of blue painter’s tape. The actual tape is much more saturated and a bit more blue-green. It just so happens that blue painter’s tape makes its way into my paintings from time-to-time, and I previously would rely on Cobalt to match it. Perhaps this is a very specific consideration, though. Does anyone else put the painter’s tape into their compositions?
Portrait with Blue Dress
Finally, we have the portrait with the figure in a blue dress. Serendipitously, the blue of the dress at times came quite close to the masstone of YInMn. I was also curious how YInMn would work with flesh tones. Putting blue into flesh tone mixtures neutralizes the warmth of the color, but critically we often need blues to only do this in subtle or gentle ways. Blues like Prussian Blue or Phthalo Blue are not subtle and are difficult to mix with flesh tones. By contrast, YInMn, with its low tint strength, is quite easy to mix. I have no complaints here. Though I did not work with a palette of earth colors to paint flesh tones, I suspect YInMn would probably work well with them.
Would I recommend that painters buy this color, assuming you can actually find a tube? Well, I would say yes, but in a very conditional way. If you are simply curious and interested in working with a new color, then yes, go buy a tube. If you are someone who wants a blue that is similar to Cobalt, but slightly less blue-green or less toxic, and price, tint strength, or drying time is of no real priority, go buy a tube. The people who should not buy a tube are those who simply cannot justify the price. I imagine that the current buyers of YInMn are early adopters and pigmentologists. The next likely category of buyers, those who want a nontoxic version of Cobalt, will probably only appear once YInMn approaches a price equal to or less than Cobalt.
Finally, truly widespread use will only happen once the paint approaches the same price point of blues such as the economical Ultramarine. Whether this happens or not is an open question, though it appears YInMn has industrial applications far beyond fine art (“The Story of YInMn Blue”). This is always good news for painters, as affordable colors are usually the pigments that much larger industries use in bulk. A good example of this is the particularly cheap color, Titanium White. Its pigment, titanium dioxide, is used for any number of industrial and commercial applications – so many applications that the fact that is it used in fine art might as well be an afterthought. Perhaps YInMn will have a similar trajectory.
I hope that this review of YInMn Blue has helped de-mystify and de-hype the new color. For me personally, I do not have plans to purchase any more YInMn until the price goes way down. I will probably continue to experiment with it as an alternative blue for the niche on my palette that is usually occupied by Cobalt. The cool undertone, as I mentioned earlier, is probably the most unique characteristic of the color and I want to work with it in glazing. If you have used it, feel free to share your experiences with me. What is YInMn particularly good for? Are you simply adding it to your palette or is it knocking out another blue?
“The Story of YInMn Blue.” Oregon State University. https://chemistry.oregonstate.edu/content/story-yinmn-blue. Accessed March 6, 2021.
“Spotlight on: Manganese Blue.” Winsor and Newton. https://www.winsornewton.com/na/articles/colours/spotlight-on-manganese-blue/?v=3e8d115eb4b3. Accessed March 6, 2021.
“Blue pigment discover makes key design advance for future durable, vivid pigments.” Oregon State University. https://today.oregonstate.edu/news/blue-pigment-discoverer-makes-key-design-advance-future-durable-vivid-pigments. December 16, 2019. Accessed March 6, 2021.
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