An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour

By Mark Sinclair

The shelves of the Forbes Pigment Collection, based in Harvard University’s Art Museum buildings, are organised mostly by hue. The effect of this “curious chromatic ordering” ensures that the archive resembles “an installation exploring the very nature of painting”, as colour historian Victoria Finlay writes in the foreword to An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour, a new book that catalogues highlights from the collection.

Published by Atelier Éditions, the Atlas features images by photographer Pascale Georgiev of a handful of the collection’s 2,500 rare pigments and examines their material composition, providence and application.

Image at top of post: Powdered Coral. Above: Byaku Gunjo. Photography: Pascale Georgiev

In addition to documenting the history of the unique collection, the book also explores how artists have responded to colour – and made use of it in their work – and so contains chapters on red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple, before concluding with brown, black, white and metallic.

In each section, a range of bottles, tubes and vials display the corresponding hue: some reveal their pale contents through the glass, while others show bright, vibrant blocks of colour.

Violet de Cobalt. Photograph: Pascale Georgiev

Harvard’s original colour collector was one Professor Edward Forbes, the director of the institution’s Fogg Art Museum. Forbes wanted Harvard students to be able to enjoy the same range and quality of materials as their contemporaries in Europe had access to – and so decided to learn more about the construction of various international pigments, their availability and cost.

Forbes collected much of what is housed at Harvard over several years via his travels – the archive grew considerably in 1914 when he purchased a range of materials from Charles Roberson & Co. in London. He also obtained numerous samples via gifts from donors who supplied pigments from Persia and Japan, in particular, while Tate Britain and companies such as EC Pigments, Sun Chemicals and Kremer Pigments also provided examples.

Many of the colours are rare and some are unlikely to be made ever again. Finlay writes that Indian Yellow, for example, originally came from the urine of cows that had been fed mango leaves, while Mummy Brown – as the name suggests – really was collected from the mummified bodies of ancient Egyptians (and was still available in London in the 1920s, courtesy of Roberson).

Some of the colours housed in tubes and phials in the Pigment Collection are no longer used simply because they made people ill, or killed them. Titanium white began to replace the far more harmful lead and zinc whites from the 1920s onwards, while Asbestine was a white pigment made from asbestos that was in use until the 1940s.

The most famous toxic colour of all – Scheele’s Green, an emerald hue that contained arsenic – became a popular wallpaper colour in the 19th-century. That it continued to be desirable, even when it was known that exposure to it could be fatal, perhaps says something about the special allure of certain colours, Finlay suggests.

In 2005, the collection gained a new purpose when it was decided that colours and dyestuffs used by mid-20th-century artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock would be sought after (Narayan Khandekar explores Rothko’s paint mixing process in his introduction to the book), while the collection of ancient and traditional paints would also be expanded, with many new samples coming from Australia.

Malachite (polished). Photograph: Pascale Georgiev

The collection continues to acquire recent colours, such as NanoSystems’ Vantablack 2.0, a black so black that in absorbing every visible wavelength it appears like more of a void (and is licensed exclusively to the artist, Anish Kapoor) and the highly saturated YInMn Blue (from the metallic core of the molecule Yttrium, Indium and Manganese), accidentally discovered by Professor Mas Subramanian and later honoured in Crayola’s announcement of a new blue crayon – named Bluetiful.

While as its title suggests the Atlas sheds light on the workings of both rare and familiar colours, the book is also a celebration of the worlds of science and art, joined together in the pursuit of understanding and representing what we see.

An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour is produced in collaboration with the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums. An introduction to the monograph is authored by Straus Center Director Dr. Narayan Khandekar, and accompanied with a foreword by renowned British colour author, Victoria Finlay. It is available from Atelier Éditions in hardback (£48) and paperback (£33). All images are courtesy the Straus Center. See

Toluidine Toner 16. Photograph: Pascale Georgiev

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