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12 Dec 2016   admin

The Harvard Library That Protects the World’s Rarest Colours

Harvard University is renowned for its library collections, but one in particular is rather more colourful than most. Compared to mouldy stacks of monochrome printed textbooks, the Forbes Pigment Collection gives the impression that its thousands of small glass jars are filled with ground-up rainbows.

The collection began with the twentieth-century globetrotting of Edward Forbes, who wanted to catalogue the pigments used in classical Italian paintings and tell cunning fakes from genuine masterpieces.

Whereas today, colour is almost entirely digitised, it was formerly the preserve of colourmen who would source exotic and sometimes bizarre pigments from around the world. Some of these sources are no longer available, such as rare minerals only found in conflict zones and the brown resin used to stick down the wrappings of ancient Egyptian mummies. 

Some of these pigments were poisonous, while others were just noxious, being comprised of poisonous metals or crushed beetles. All of which adds an extra frisson to the Collections main work of maintain a colour catalogue against which or questionable pigments can be compared.

While a sharp eye is required to compare different pigments, much of the Collection staffs time is spent using rather more scientific means to analyse and understand the key compounds in a pigment compounds that can reveal its origin, properties and even its age.

Techniques such as Raman spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, gas chromatography, and electron microscopy are employed to map out the precise chemical composition of a pigment. Why go to these lengths? Well, particularly in the art world, the provenance of a painting can mean the difference between a multi-million-dollar price tag, and the rubbish bag.

A rediscovered Jackson Pollock painting was proved to be a fake back in 2007 when the Collections technicians proved that one of the pigments spattered on the canvas was in fact only created some 20 years after the great abstract expressionist painter passed away. The colour in question is known as Ferrari Red, and presumably potential buyers were accelerating away from the auction house once the painting was proven to be a rip-off.

Curators at the Forbes Pigment Collection delight in telling the stories behind some of their more unusual colours when theyre not busy rebuilding the Collection so that it remains relevant to the analysis of twentieth-century and contemporary art.

How about cadmium yellow, a vivid canary colour made from toxic metals and once used in Lego bricks? Or dragons blood, which disappointingly comes from a type of palm, rather than a large fire-breathing lizard?

If you wore make-up today, or had a cheese sandwich for lunch, the chances are that youve used pigments derived from the Brazilian lipstick plant. It produces annatto, a dye used in cosmetics and dairy products.

With new colours being discovered all the time, the Collections work remains very relevant. If you ever wondered what a world without colour would be like, consider Vantablack a new nanotube-based black that is so dark, the human eye perceives it as a hole.





12 Dec 2016   admin

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