The Library of Rare Colors

The Library of Rare Colors


I work with computers
and digital video a lot, which means that I think of color
in terms of light, in terms of amounts
of red, green and blue. Someone who works with print
might think of color in terms of combining inks,
cyan, magenta, yellow and black. A physicist might think in
terms of the frequencies and wavelengths of the light, but there is a very
different way to look at it, through the chemistry and compounds
that make up colors. Inside those buildings,
the Harvard Art Museums, is the Forbes Pigment Collection. – The pigment collection was put together by Edward Forbes, who was
the second director of the museum. He had been buying works of art and in doing so he discovered
that the dealers in Italy were seeing American collectors
as something of a mark. What he decided is that if you understand
what a work of art is made of, what the original materials were
that an artist used, then you can tell original from restoration,
original from fake. And so what he did was
start buying pigments to use as standards for the
analysis of works of art. Knowing that it was visible to the public
meant that I needed to make some sense of what we have as a collection. So what I did was take a color wheel,
open it out, have yellow in the centre and we go along one way to blue,
along the other way to red, and purple at each end. So we have unique colors
along the top, we have duplicates of those colors, which are chemical duplicates,
but not actual color duplicates and then underneath on the
bottom shelf we have the raw material that
makes up the colors above. In effect, what we have are the materials
that make up paint next to each other and then if people look
at the galleries below, they can actually see what artists can do
with these raw materials. If you think about iron oxide for example,
hematite, but as it forms in the earth, those slight additions that the earth adds
into the hematite deposits allow it to look slightly different, so we have 60 different
samples of hematite. Each of those is a slightly different
shade from the other. These pigments are not
used for restoration. We use them only as standards
for analyzing samples from works of art. By analyzing the materials,
we can understand the thinking process and if the artist
is no longer alive, it’s really the closest way to having an
interview with the artist. It’s also great for teaching. We can show the students
how pigments change. They not just fade, but
some pigments darken. It’s like Vaseline, but 80 years old. It doesn’t last forever. Vermillion, red lead will turn black
on exposure to light. You can see how it started. And then other pigments like eosin,
which Van Gogh used a lot, will fade and give an
entirely different impression of what the painting was to what
it looks like now. And so for security, we don’t
have the public in here. Some of the pigments are toxic,
so we don’t want people touching them, playing with them. So pigments are made of mercury, they’re made of cadmium,
arsenic and so on. The oldest white pigment is lead white. It’s made by taking lead metal,
putting it into a container with vinegar. That container is buried in cow dung, so out of manure you get the most
pure beautiful white pigment. That’s been around for
hundreds and hundreds of years. People used it as makeup. Lead white is toxic in the
way that lead is toxic. We have mummy brown. It has been used probably
since the 17th century and it’s made up of Egyptian mummies
that have been ground up into pigment. Indian yellow is an interesting pigment. It’s made by feeding
cows mango leaves only and collecting the urine
and drying the urine. What you see on the screen
depends on the limitations of what the computer screen can depict. So videoing them,
putting them into the digital format, doesn’t replicate the color. There is innovation and people are
developing new ways to depict colors. So for example, Mas Subramanian developed
a blue pigment called YInMn Blue. He discovered it by accident. It’s very stable and it’s the first inorganic
blue pigment that’s been invented for a couple of hundred years. There’s been a new black
that’s come onto the market, which is Vantablack, which stands for
Vertically Arranged Nano-Tube Arrays. What you have is a forest of very tiny tubes
and light will go into that. It will bounce around inside the tubes
and then get issued as heat. It’s a beautiful velvety looking surface
that doesn’t bounce any light back. Chemists produce more and
more pigments every year and I think that we’re going to see
pigments depicting colors that we never thought were possible. Every day somebody is coming in here, taking a pigment out and using it
as a reference. This was beautifully
arranged when I installed it. It took me like four months
of lining everything up and it’s all a little
higgledy-piggledy now, so you can tell that
we use it all the time. It’s not an historic artifact, it’s something that we rely
on to do our work properly. – My thanks to everyone at
the Harvard Art Museums. Pull down the description
for more about them and more about the pigment collection.

100 thoughts on “The Library of Rare Colors”

  1. I realised, after filming this, that it feels a little weird to have my introduction outside the Museum and the interview inside. But I'm weeks out of Boston now, so it has to stand!

  2. Good thing that's not in California — it could become the most colorful toxic cleanup site in history after the big one.

  3. So does bright cyan and magenta as bright as yellow exist or not? So far all magenta inks are quite red biased or dark, and cyan inks are always azure, can get close to cyan by mixing white with phthalo green to get bright aqua green, and adding a bit of diluted phthalo blue into that to get a cyan that's roughly 65 saturation, but I can't get any better than that, and it does poorly in magenta mixes.

    Cmyk just isn't enough, I always need aqua green to make up for cyan screwing up green mixes, and there just seems to be a hole in bright blue-violets altogether due to no bright orchid existing.

  4. Very interesting. As photography and printing are in my wheelhouse i work in rgb, cmyk etc. I know about colours and pigments but i never realised they'd A) keep a "backup" of them and B) that backup would be a colour matched version and a chermical twin which isn't necessarily the same colour! Will have to dig deeper now!

  5. What maniacal person thought to grind up dead people for pigment?! That sounds like the callous luxury of a hedonistic sadist

  6. It must be about as close as the concrete gets to actual pure philosophy.. how is the visual presentation of what we see created.. awesome

  7. This is always interesting to see how people used to solve problems, you wonder how they figured out the lead white, or the feeding mango leaves exclusively to cows

  8. That's a very good video, Tom – it achieves your objective (I imagine) very well. Much credit to you and your editor and audio mixer. I understand your concern about the introduction: 0:29 is a bit long for an establishing shot. A general shot of the Harvard Art Museum towards the end of your introduction would help (I'm sure the Museum could supply a rights-free still image). If you wanted, you could also crop your introduction shot at suitable points in post-production to provide additional emphasis for what you are saying. But the key to the video is what you reveal inside the Museum, and the interview and example colours fit together perfectly. Bravo!

  9. Getting the Indian yellow pigment by feeding a cow just mango leaves and boiling it down into powder is just a misconception. I’m surprised this pigment expert doesn’t know it..

  10. 1:43 "They can see what artists can do with these materials"
    >sees shattered vase as a "sculpture"
    >sees shapeless, colorless piece of marble
    >sees a rock
    >just a rock someone picked off a hill
    WOW IM REALLY IMPRESSED GOOD JOB ARTISTS

  11. It is a shame this section of the museum is closed to the public. I personally think that it shouldn't be, I understand about the toxicity of some of the pigments… – I have handled pigments while studying as ceramist, just the process of preparing the pigments, is "magic". The resins, The oils, turps and for some pigments benzine. I think it should be more common knowledge since artisans and artists able to use the pigments are dying out.

    Thank you for opening the doors to the library of rare colors. Very interesting.

  12. I used to custom match paint colors manually (as opposed to using a color sensor and having a computer make the formula) for a couple paint stores and i fell in love with it! this collection is absolute heaven!! wow, i can only imagine the colors my monitor cant show accurately….

  13. Hi Scott, I am an artist and have studied and painted for decades. One idea for a video is working out what an artist's colour vision is by the pigments used. An example of this is J M W Turner not colour blind and John Sell Cotman. John Sell Cotman may have been colour blind. Great videos. Kind regards and greetings from Africa.

  14. What a pitty that it is not possible to reproduce the true pigment colors through a video like it is not possible to reproduce sound produced by ultra high quality audio units.

  15. Omg does YouTube change your spellings!!?? The thumbnail says "color" and "favorite" but the video title says "colour" and "favourite"!!

  16. I love this video. Though I also love seeing that several of the colors aren't necessarily rare, but probably produced from different batches. Rather surprised more of the Cadmiums and Cobalts didn't have the toxic mark on them.

  17. Anybody here after his two drums and a cymbal video popped up on their recommended? Lmao love this kind of interesting and education stuff

  18. And then you realise that because this is a video you're watching, it is not a completely accurate representation of the colors they see in those jars. You'd have to be physically present to see for yourself. Added to that, everyone sees colors slightly differently. 🙂

  19. In the video the curator mentions how chemical pigments & light affect the colours over time. It makes me wonder how they know what the original colour actually was.

  20. This is great. I love obsessing about pigments. Ultramarine Blue (PB29) can be made in a lab way better than it could back in the day, and is purer, stronger, and cheaper. I wish you spent a bit of time looking at the Pthtalos and Quins though. Especially quin gold, which is now discontinued. 🙂

  21. Weird that I can still be wowed by these colours even though I know my laptop screen has terrible colour! Cerebral upscaling ftw!

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