In May, this column asked why so many of today's painters and photographers picture nudes, and the answer seemed to be that these artists had simply run out of ideas and wanted to make the news anyway. Case in pointlessness: photographer Spencer Tunick who has the habit of capturing on film thousands of men and women in their altogether. Last month, he seemed to feel the need to do more than present plain nakedness. This time, he painted his models blue.

In a project called "Sea of Hull," a reported 3,500 volunteers wearing nothing but pigment posed in a crouch facing away from the camera in England's Yorkshire city of Hull. And to Tunick's credit, his take doesn't look like blue bottoms. They come across like a rolling sea. Clearly bent on giving substance to his nudes, Tunick told the Guardian there were four meanings in his picture. It's a commemoration of the city's history with the Hull River; it's a nod to the colors in marine paintings at the city's Ferens #Art Gallery; it's a reminder about climate change; and, in his words,  "It's the idea that the bodies and humanity is flooding the streets. So there are many ways you can think about it."

Shades of meaning

Colors have significance beyond the visual and there are varying ways to think about blue. The shade is known to affect mood and is used therapeutically for emotional ills. And even though the shade is most frequently viewed as a symbol of the intellect, the sight of people’s rear ends, cast in the color of water or not, doesn’t bring to mind the intellect.

Showing true colors

Of course, there are those who may think it silly to give weight to pigment as any kind of language; yet through the ages people in many lands do. How else to explain colloquialisms like seeing red, green with envy, feeling blue and yellow coward. The tricky part is that meanings can vary for any one color, depending on time and place. For instance, while blue is recognized as a high-minded and spiritual shade (Virgin Mary and Jesus are said to have worn blue garments, and in Central Europe, it’s the shade of fidelity), in Germany it’s tied to drunkenness, probably because the noses of heavy drinkers turn blue. And in England and the U.S., blue is not only linked to mild depression, but it’s also used to symbolize all things risqué, as in “blue movies.”

Post script

This column was glad to credit Tunick’s effort to say something significant with his work, but sad to say, it turns out that painting people’s backsides blue for the camera wasn’t his idea after all. The local gallery commissioned the work. One more thing: It’s not clear where the idea for Tunick’s next project came from, but he has solicited 100 women to strip and allow him to snap them en masse at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 17 – their backs to the camera presumably.