Today, every color imaginable is at your fingertips. You can peruse paint swatches at hardware stores, flip through Pantone books, and fuss with the color finder that comes with most computer programs, until achieving the hue of your heart’s desire. But rewind to a few centuries ago and finding that one specific color might have meant trekking to a single mineral deposit in remote Afghanistan–as was the case with lapis lazuli, a rock prized for its brilliant blue hue, which made it more valuable than gold in medieval times.
The history of pigments goes back to prehistoric times, but much of what we know about how they relate to the art world comes from Edward Forbes, a historian and director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University from 1909 to 1944. Considered the father of art conservation in the United States, Forbes traveled around the world amassing pigments in order to authenticate classical Italian paintings. Over the years, the Forbes Pigment Collection–as his collection came to be known–grew to more than 2,500 different specimens, each with its own layered backstory on its origin, production, and use.
Today, the collection is used mostly for scientific analysis, providing standard pigments to compare to unknowns. Narayan Khandekar is the director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums and the collection’s custodian. For the last 10 years, Khandekar has rebuilt the collection to include modern pigments to better analyze 20th century and contemporary art.
“People would harvest mummies from Egypt and then extract the brown resin material that was on the wrappings . . . and turn that into a pigment.”
A lot has changed in the art world since painters worked with “colormen”–as tradesmen in dyes and pigments were known–to obtain their medium. The commercialization of paints has transformed that process. “Artists today will use anything to get the idea that’s in their head into a physical form,” Khandekar says. “It could be pieces of plastic. It could be cans of food. It could be anything. We need to be able to identify lots of different materials that are industrially produced as well as things that are produced specifically for artists’ use.”
The way he describes his work researching and cataloging pigments is akin to detective work. “We use our instruments in the same way that forensic scientists do,” Khandekar says.