Soon after the introduction of paper, artists were applying chalky colored grounds to create metalpoints and tinting the surface of paper for ink and chalk drawings. The earliest European papers are white or cream or ivory, depending on how one sees them. The earliest drawing on a piece of blue paper, blue through and through, is a drawing in Dresden (detail below). The drawing is by Giovanni da Modena, who, most notably, painted frescoes in Bologna’s San Petronio. It’s dated to around 1410-20 and has been gone over, or reinforced, by later hands. Still, there’s a lot to the drawing. It’s on a single piece of paper, measuring 460 mm across, which makes it extraordinarily large.
Ceninno Cennini was writing his manual for artists shortly before the Giovanni da Modena drawing was made, and speaks at length about carta tinta, but not about dyed paper. His method for tinting paper blue, what he termed carta di tinta indica involves mixing white with indigo, 2 fava bean size lumps of indigo. Indigo, as it sounds, was imported from India, and had been since antiquity. The Giovanni da Modena drawing’s blue also comes from indigo. Other sources of blue dye available then came from the woad plant and litmus, made from lichens. The earliest blue paper might have come from ragged blue clothes, and dye a later refinement.The photograph just below is of two blue overalls hanging to dry in a nearby piazza, and it would be nice to think that their ancestors were recycled into drawing paper. Synthetic indigo was introduced by Adolf Bayer in 1880.
Carta azzurra is most associated with Venice. Vittore Carpaccio was an early user of blue paper. Albrecht Dürer took up using blue paper for his drawings during his 1505-07 stay in Venice and is credited with introducing the paper to artists over the alps. The Venetian printer and publisher Aldus Manutius was the first to print books on blue paper. Blue paper, really any colored paper, is often used with two media, such as black ink and white liquid heightening, or black chalk with white chalk heightening. The blue is the middle value which the dark and light play off. Since it’s such an appealing color for drawings, artists everywhere have used blue paper.