Discover Harvard’s Collection of 2,500 Pigments: Preserving the World’s Rare, Wonderful Colors

If mod­ern paint com­pa­nies’ pre­ten­tious­ly-named col­or palettes gall you to the point of an exclu­sive­ly black-and-white exis­tence, the Har­vard Art Muse­ums’ Forbes pig­ment col­lec­tion will prove a wel­come balm.

The hand and type­writ­ten labels iden­ti­fy­ing the collection’s 2500+ pig­ments boast none of the flashy “cre­ativ­i­ty” that J. Crew employs to ped­dle its cash­mere Boyfriend Cardi­gans.
Pigment Collection

Images by Har­vard News

The benign, and whol­ly unex­cit­ing-sound­ing “emer­ald green” is —unsurprisingly—the exact shade legions of Oz fans have come to expect. The thrills here are chem­i­cal, not con­ferred. A mix of crys­talline pow­der cop­per ace­toarsen­ite, this emerald’s fumes sick­ened pen­ni­less artists as adroit­ly as they repelled insects.

Look how nice­ly it goes with Van Gogh’s rud­dy hair…

Van Gogh Harvard

“Mum­my” is per­haps the clos­est the Forbes col­lec­tion comes to 21st- cen­tu­ry pig­ment nam­ing. As Harvard’s Direc­tor of the Straus Cen­ter for Con­ser­va­tion and Tech­ni­cal Stud­ies, Narayan Khan­dekar, notes in the video above, its mush­room shade is no great shakes. The source—the resin used to seal mum­mies’ bandages—is what dis­tin­guish­es it.


The collection’s crown jew­el is a rich ball of mustard‑y Indi­an Yel­low. This pig­ment comes not from maize, nor earth, but from the dehy­drat­ed urine of a cow sub­sist­ing exclu­sive­ly on man­go leaves. I’m drawn to it like a moth to the liv­ing room walls. I’m sure Ben­jamin Moore had his rea­sons for dub­bing its urine-free fac­sim­i­le “Sun­ny Days.”

pigment_vault India Yellow

The images above, save the Van Gogh paint­ing, comes cour­tesy of by Har­vard News. The video above was cre­at­ed by Great Big Sto­ry.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Ink is Made: A Volup­tuous Process Revealed in a Mouth-Water­ing Video

The Art of Col­lo­type: See a Near Extinct Print­ing Tech­nique, as Lov­ing­ly Prac­ticed by a Japan­ese Mas­ter Crafts­man

Watch the First 10 Sea­sons of Bob Ross’ The Joy of Paint­ing Free Online

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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Comments (3)
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  • R.M. Steenhorst says:

    L.S. Non of the pig­ments that where shown in the lit­tle movie are unknown to me. Prob­a­bly every­one who has deep­er inter­esse in paint wil know them too. Per­haps not the recipe that was fol­lowed to make pig­ments, but its quite easy to find the. Vic­to­ria Fin­lay wrote The Bril­liant His­to­ry of Col­or in Art, an inter­est­ing book for those who like to know more about the his­to­ry of pig­ment en col­or.
    Fur­ther­more, most pig­ments are avail­able at any pro­fes­sion­al art sup­ply shop. The some­what tra­di­tion­al man­u­fac­tur­ers are still pro­duc­ing col­ors with clas­sic pig­ments. Goto exam­ples like Wind­sor and New­ton, Lefranc et Bour­geois, Old Hol­land (dutch name Schevenin­gen oliev­erf) These man­u­fac­tur­ers are nev­er shy about giv­ing deep­er infor­ma­tion about their prod­ucts. Beside the bio­log­i­cal chem­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge about col­or, their cul­tur­al, eco­nom­i­cal, emo­tion­al mean­ing has been thor­ough­ly stud­ied by John Gaga, British art his­to­ri­an, pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam
    So there is a lot more to say about pig­ments and col­or
    Rob Steen­horst

  • Mark McKee says:

    Ok, so yes, I have been long inter­est­ed in paint and pig­ments, and hav­ing been around the block a few time, have no small knowl­edge of my beloved medi­um.
    But the Har­vard Col­lec­tion is no less impres­sive. and that intro­duc­tion lament­ing the mod­ern habit of droll col­or names was enough to set the hook.
    No prod­uct name­drop­ping required.

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