Why do Japanese red-and-blue pencils so often incorporate these two particular shades? Why not scarlet, carmine, ultramarine, or cobalt blue? In the case of vermilion, it’s easy to answer: the pigment was available from ancient times, and was the orthodox “red” to the primary black of sumi ink in East Asia. Even today, personal seals are stamped in this particular color. Western manuscripts also make heavy use of this pigment: in fact, the use of vermilion is so pervasive across cultures that we might ask why Western pencilmakers don’t use vermilion more often.
(Splashes of vermilion in manuscript fragments, McGill University Library)
(Modern vermilion ink, and a calligraphy textbook written in the medieval bicolor scheme of black and vermilion)
The case of Prussian blue is more interesting. I recently came across this paragraph in Sarah Thompson’s catalogue for the exhibition of the ukiyo-e master Hokusai that just ended at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (yes, I live within driving distance of Boston but didn’t get to see it. *sob*):
One major source of inspiration for the Fuji series seems to have been the introduction of a new pigment to the printmakers’ palette, the synthetic color known to the Japanese as Berlin blue and to Europeans as Prussian blue. Invented in the eighteenth century, the pigment had already been known in Japan for some time, but when the Chinese as well as the Dutch began to import it, the price dropped sufficiently to make it practical for use in prints. Around 1830 there was a craze for “blue-printed pictures” (aizuri-e) done entirely, or almost entirely, in shades of blue. (p.21)
This exciting new pigment, which did not fade easily, got Hokusai started on the series that he became most famous for: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. (There are actually forty-six pictures in all.)
The first designs in the series were printed almost entirely in shades of blue, to capitalize on the fad for the newly introduced pigment. A little later, when the public had become accustomed to the new colorant, additional colors were used for subsequent designs in the series, and for reprints of the earlier ones. (p. 21)
In other words, Prussian blue made a pretty sensational entry into Japan. One of the major appeals of Hokusai’s art is surely the dramatic and abundant use of that particular color: the most famous picture in the series (and at the same time arguably the most recognizable image in all of Japanese art), The Great Wave off Kanagawa, is practically awash in Prussian blue.
However, it would be simplistic to argue that Mitsubishi and Tombow chose Prussian blue as their standard just because it was Hokusai’s signature color. According to stationery journalist Tsuchihashi-san, the answer is more prosaic: when the Mitsubishi 2667 was first produced in 1914, it was still difficult to manufacture bright, vivid colored cores for pencils, and therefore Prussian blue had to stand in for a brighter blue. Perhaps they chose it over other blue hues simply because the pigment was cheap and easy to handle. But I’d still like to think that Prussian blue lives on because of this small but very real connection to the nineteenth century, when it, however briefly, ruled the world.