In Insight

Tucked away in the Harvard Art Museums are eye-popping glass vials filled with some of the rarest pigments on Earth. Fast Co Design shares that the vault of pigments, called the Forbes Pigment Collection, contains over 2,500 pigments from across the world that chemists and historians use to learn more about how artists have used materials through centuries.

And now, this stockpile is receiving an encyclopedia that will document the history of the collection, and of color itself. In this volume, An Atlas of Rare and Familiar Color, each chapter is devoted to a different color of the rainbow and has an essay about the color’s history along with photographs of each pigment. Senior conservation scientist Narayan Khandekar, who curates Harvard’s recherché colors, utilizes the pigments to do scientific analysis of artwork to determine how to restore them or to inspect if they are fakes.

Although there are thousands of rare colors in the Harvard Art Museums’ vault, Fast Co Design highlights seven pigments and shares the crazy stories behind them:

YELLOW MADE FROM COW PEE — “The story goes that people in the village of Mirzapur in Bihar, India, would feed their cows mango leaves, and then collect their bright yellow urine and turn it into a dye,” writes Fast Co Design. To find out whether this was myth or fact, art historian Victoria Finlay traveled to Mirzapur in 2001 and noticed a mango orchard where buffalo grazed. Narayan Khandekar’s father also mentioned how mango trees used to grow wild everywhere, making it further conceivable that villagers noticed cud-chewers’ pee turning bright yellow post mango leaf consumption. Additionally, a recent chemical analysis of the ball of raw Indian yellow revealed that there are animal and plant metabolites in the pigment, adding more scientific evidence.

A BLUE MORE EXPENSIVE THAN GOLD — Ultramarine blue was mined in the northeastern mountains of Afghanistan in the 14th and 15th centuries, and because it was hard to acquire, it became more valuable than gold. Khandekar says that people would use the brilliant blue on altarpieces to show off their piety and their high social status. However, the ultramarine market came crashing down in 1826 when a chemist discovered a cheaper, synthetic version.

12,000 MOLLUSKS GAVE THEIR LIVES FOR 1.4 GRAMS OF THIS PURPLE — Tyrian purple is made by squeezing a liquid out of a specific gland in the murex mollusk, which turns red and then purple when exposed to the sun. Similar to ultramarine, the mollusk goo was costly and a marker of high social status.

REVENGE OF THE MUMMY BROWN — Khandekar explains that people sought to recreate the beautiful, rich brown that old masters like Rembrandt and Titian used in their paintings. The obsession with this brown led to crushing mummy bodies to make pigment. Yet as far as chemists and Khandekar know, no paintings have been identified that used mummy brown — there are only samples and stories.

COCHINEAL RED: A PRIZED COMMODITY OF THE SPANISH EMPIRE — When the Spanish colonized Latin America, they discovered that natives crushed the cochineal beetle into red pigment. And while this rich red did bring aesthetic pleasure, it also brought the Spanish Empire enormous wealth — it was the second most profitable commodity for the empire after silver. “Today,” writes Fast Co Design, “Peru exports more cochineal than it did when the Spanish Empire ruled. It’s used the world over to color lipstick, red velvet cake, and even Strawberry Frappuccinos.”

FROM LAB TO CRAYON — The collection also features modern colors like YInMn Blue: a synthetic inorganic blue pigment discovered by Oregon State University professor Mas Subramanian in 2009.

A TOXIC YELLOW IN YOUR LEGO — Not all pigments are good to have around the house, including cadmium pigment, which was used in many yellow-colored children’s toys such as Barbies and Legos until the 1970s. The use of toxic pigments dates back to the ancient world where cinnabar—a red color derived from mercury—was used as a cosmetic. And be sure to not take any beauty tips from Queen Elizabeth I, as her iconic white face foundation was created using vinegar and lead.

To read more about the stories behind these rare colors, go to Fast Co Design.

Photo: Matija Mestrovic via Unsplash

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