Like most artists, I’m addicted to art supplies. Let me loose in an art shop, and I can spend hours amongst the multitude of paints on offer, trying hard not to bankrupt myself.
Nowadays paint is mostly made in labs, using different chemical substances, but artists in the past made their own supplies, using whatever materials they could find—including ‘the impossibly esoteric, the dangerously toxic, the prohibitively expensive, and the perilously fugitive,’ according to writer Simon Schama (article in the New Yorker, September 3, 2018). It’s a process I find extremely interesting, although I’m quite happy to squeeze ready-made paint out of a tube myself.
Imagine then my delight when I came upon an article on the Forbes Pigment Collection, a technicolor array of more than 2,500 samples, housed at the Harvard Arts Museums. The collection was started by Edward Waldo Forbes in the early 1920s, after he purchased a damaged Renaissance painting of the Virgin and child. Hoping to restore the painting to its original brilliance, Forbes realized that he needed to understand the materials he was working with. Forbes was the director of Harvard’s Fogg Museum from 1909 to 1944, and he firmly believed in the interdependence of art and science.
Arranged according to the exploded color wheel, the thousands of shades on display in the Collection — some poisonous, others impossibly rare — are a library of more than just color. Scientists and art historians tap into the collection in order to verify the origins of questionable paintings up for auction, or work to identify the key compounds of ancient colors in order to better preserve cultural masterpieces for generations to come.
The stories behind the pigments are endless, but some particularly stand out. Here are some of the best:
Dragon Blood: The legendary pigment was purportedly gathered from dragon wounds in the Middle Ages; more accurately, its color comes from tree resin. Conservation scientists at the Collection are working to unlock the mystery of this centuries-old pigment.
Mummy Brown: Made from the ground up remains of actual Egyptian mummies, mixed with white pitch and myrrh, it was used from the sixteenth century until late in the nineteenth when supplies ran out. At the time the mummies were imported into Europe in large numbers to be used for medicinal purposes (Ugh…)
Tyrian Purple: An ancient Phoenician dye that requires 10,000 mollusks to produce a single gram of pigment, is said to have been discovered by Hercules’s dog as he snuffled along the beach. It is a secretion produced by several species of predatory sea snails in the family Muricidae, rock snails originally known by the name Murex. Being extremely expensive to produce, it became very popular during the Byzantine Empire (Ancient Greek: πορφύρα, porphúra,) where its production was tightly controlled and its use restricted to the dyeing of imperial silks. Thus a child born to a reigning emperor was said to be porphyrogenitos, “born in the purple”.
In the reds range, Crimson is produced from the dried bodies of the kermes insect, which were gathered commercially in Mediterranean countries, where they live on the kermes oak, and sold throughout Europe; while Carmine is made from the dried bodies of the female cochineal, and was probably brought to Europe during the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniard Hernán Cortés.
Indian Yellow: It was noted for its intense luminance, was widely used in cloth dyeing and was especially well known from its use in Rajput-Mughal miniature paintings from the 16th to the 19th century. Indian yellow pigment was originally manufactured in rural India from the urine of cattle fed only on mango leaves and water. The urine would be collected and dried, producing foul-smelling hard dirty yellow balls of the raw pigment, called “purree”. The process was allegedly declared inhumane and outlawed in 1908, as the cows were extremely undernourished, partly because the leaves contain the toxin urushiol which is also found in poison ivy.
Lapis Lazuli is a deep blue metamorphic rock used as a semi-precious stone that has been prized since antiquity for its intense color. As early as the 7th millennium BCE, lapis lazuli was mined in northeast Afghanistan. At the end of the Middle Ages, it began to be exported to Europe, where it was ground into powder and made into ultramarine, the finest and most expensive of all blue pigments. Its rarity and brilliant hue, as well as the difficulty and expense of the extraction process made it more expensive than gold. It was used by some of the most important artists of the Renaissance and Baroque, including Masaccio, Perugino, Titian and Vermeer, and was often reserved for the clothing of the central figures of their paintings, especially the Virgin Mary.
Artists often took risks to create their works, using poisonous pigments like Emerald Green (a toxic copper-acetoarsenite) to get the color just right; or White Lead, a pure white pigment obtained by corroding metallic lead with acetic acid in the presence of carbon dioxide. This was done in pots with a little vinegar added, which were stacked up and covered with a mixture of decaying dung and spent tanner’s bark.
The Forbes Collection is constantly updated as many artists donate new samples. It could be described as a conservator’s crystal ball: offering glimpses into the aging process for various pigments, binders, and any other materials that might make their way into a work of art. Experts also might use the collection to evaluate the legitimacy of a painting’s attribution to an artist. By analyzing the chemical makeup of the pigments used in a painting and comparing them to the known standards of the Forbes collection, analysts can determine whether the colors used would have been available to a specific artist during their lifetime, or if a pigment would be available in the region from which the painting is believed to have originated.
One example is the verification of a painting by Jackson Pollock that went on the market a few years ago. Curators were ready to assert the painting was genuine, until this lab ran tests of the pigments that were used, using pigments in the collection as a standard, and discovered that the red that was used was not available in art-making materials until 20 years after Jackson Pollock had died.
Among the collection’s newest acquisitions are samples of Vantablack, a material developed by Surrey NanoSystems in the United Kingdom which is one of the darkest substances known, absorbing up to 99.96% of visible light. It was intended for military purposes and astronomy equipment, but there is an amusing story attached to it, because the company exclusively licensed it to artist Anish Kapoor’s studio for artistic use. This caused outrage among some other artists, including Stuart Semple. In retaliation, Semple banned Kapoor from buying Pinkest Pink, a strongest shade of pink that he had developed. However, in 2016 Kapoor got his hands on some Pinkest Pink and posted an Instagram post of his middle finger dipped in it. Semple then created another shade of paint made from crushed glass as a retort to Kapoor, and later barred Kapoor from buying other products of his, including his extremely strong shades of green and yellow paint as well as a paint sold as Black 2.0, which is nearly indistinguishable to Vantablack VBx, despite being acrylic. If one wanted to buy any of these paints, they would have to sign a contract stating that they were not Anish Kapoor and didn’t intend to give the paint to Kapoor. Vanity? Performance art? You choose.
All photos Google