Cracked apothecary jars, wax-sealed test tubes, flasks with glass stoppers, old labels reading “Mummy.” Special cabinets within the Harvard Art Museums crowd with approximately 3,000 preserved color samples. Below each pigment is shelved the corresponding source material: rocks, shells, roots, insects — even a sample of said mummy. Together, the assembly constitutes the Forbes Pigment Collection, each item of which has a story and a serious place in art history.
As caretaker of this collection and director of Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Narayan Khandekar, with his staff and students, establishes standards for pigment identification that get shared worldwide. At the heart of it all is a scholar with an Aussie accent and infectious enthusiasm.
Pigment is what? And how does it differ from paint?
Pigment is a small, colored particle. It’s what gives paint its color. It needs to be mixed with a binding medium that controls the flow properties: brush-ability, drying qualities, and/or matte-ness or gloss.
Tell us about some of your most exotic pigments.
Well, there’s carmine, which comes from ground cochineal beetles that live on cacti in Mexico. Before 1856, Tyrian purple was the only purple and was very expensive, very rare. It took 10,000 murex mollusks to make one gram of pigment. When the synthetic pigment mauve became available in the 1860s, the pent-up desire turned the late Victorian era purple!
Indian yellow was dried urine from a cow fed only special mango leaves. On a research trip to Australia in 2013, we met Aboriginal artists who really value black. They use manganese dioxide inside dry cell batteries as an additional black pigment.
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