The Wonderful World of Color

You probably have heard of seed banks, but color banks?  I was surprised to read about just such a collection, a pigment library at Harvard,  in a recent article on the website  The story goes something like this —

Today we have an infinite range of color choices on our computer screens.  But for most of human history, color came from pigments, and they were sometimes hard to get.  For example, finding a specific color might have meant a journey to a single mineral deposit in Afghanistan to find lapis lazuli, a rock with a brilliant blue hue, which at one time made it more valuable than gold.

Much of what we know today about pigments and how they relate to art works comes from Edward Forbes, a historian and director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University from 1909 to 1944.  He is considered the father of art conservation in this country and he traveled around the world collecting pigments so he could  authenticate classical paintings.  His collection became known as the Forbes Pigment Collection and it eventually grew to more than 2,500 different specimens, each with its own backstory.  Today the collection is used mostly for scientific analysis, providing standard pigments to compare to unknowns.  It has also been rebuilt in the past ten years to include modern pigments to help analyze contemporary art.

How important is this?  A Jackson Pollock painting was “rediscovered” in 2007.  But it was proven to be a fake after pigment analysis revealed that a specific red color in the work was actually manufactured 20 years after the artist’s death.

If you would like to know more, including the stories behind such pigments as Mummy Brown (yes, it actually came from Egyptian mummies), go to


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