The most important part of the art of painting is usually left out of the equation. We go to museums and galleries to see the finished work, but many painter’s fame and fortune rest on the unseen and unheralded “chemist”. The persons or person who made the pigments. This is still the case. You do get what you pay for. Cheap acrylic and oil looks cheap and a tube of red cadmium from a limited edition produced in France can go for 150 dollars or more. And that’s a small tube. These small batch pigments are discovered through painstaking research and field studies and it is an art form in an of itself, a skill passed down from generation to generation.
The Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard Art Museums has a collection of over 2500 pigments collected from all over the world by former Fogg Art Museum Director Edward Forbes. He had a personal collection of paintings and saw that many of the colors where fading after centuries uncovered in the sunlight before we knew better than to expose them to UV rays. Most of the collection was gathered prior to WWII and is the go to source for art restorers and museum curators.
Francesca Bewer remarks in her book A Laboratory for Art: Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum and the Emergence of Conservation in America, 1900-1950 that he then began a passionate exploration into the process of how paintings were made. This interest led to collecting the materials needed for the preservation of fine artworks alongside his own collection of early Italian paintings.
“Every time he traveled he would bring things back with him,” Senior conservation scientist Narayan Khandekar told WBUR. “And these are Japanese pigments and binding media that were collected in the 1930s. And we have one of our prized possessions, this ball of ‘Indian yellow,’ which is made from the urine of cows fed only on mango leaves.”
You can see an electronic directory of these materials through the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s Conservation & Art Materials Encyclopedia Online (CAMEO) database here.