The Harvard Art Museum’s pigment collection is one of the most comprehensive in the world. Edward Waldo Forbes began assembling the vast stockpile of 2,500 samples in 1927 and is now one of the most expansive grouping of pigments in the world. It’s because of the Forbes Pigment Collection that the modern conservation movement was started. Using these formulas from antiquity, art historians can compare modern and old pigments to find out if paintings are authentic or if they have been tampered with. The formulations also became of extreme importance when it was realized that some works of art deteriorate more quickly than others because of their ingredients and chemical makeup.
It’s not surprising, given the age and number of the collection, that some of the formulations combine some very odd ingredients. Back when Vermeer painted the Girl With a Pearl Earring or Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, each color had to be mixed by hand, often using secret formulas that were passed down from artist to apprentice, and they usually included rare or unusual components. You might be astounded at how Indian Yellow is made! Check it out in the video below.