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Forbes pigment collection at Harvard

June 21, 2019 — Harvard Art Museums’ Pigment Lab. Photo by Caitlin Cunningham.
June 28, 2019 — Harvard Art Museums’ Pigment Lab. Photo by Caitlin Cunningham.


A HISTORY OF COLOR: AN AUDIO TOUR OF THE FORBES PIGMENT COLLECTION

www.harvardartmuseums.org

Those glass vials contain some of the more than 2,700 samples of pigments — colored particles mixed with material that binds them together — linseed or walnut or safflower oil, or eggs. Tada! Colored paint. 

The Forbes Pigment Collection gives conservators, preservationists, artists, art historians and serious art fans a chance to see, analyze, imitate the precise colors used by various painters. Collection curator Narayan Khandekar says it’s a chance to “have a conversation with the artist” even though he or she has been dead for centuries.

Van Gogh’s 1888 Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin (left) and Emerald Green in the Forbes Pigment Collection.

Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum; Harvard Art Museums/Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies

Van Gogh used emerald green for this self-portrait. Bright, great to look at. “The trouble is that it’s toxic,” says conservation scientist Khandekar. “It’s made from arsenic.” Mixed with copper, it produces this gorgeous color. 

Khandekar says there’s speculation that when the British exiled Napoleon to Saint Helena, they covered the walls with emerald green wallpaper, perhaps to slowly poison him when humidity released particles into the island air. Nobody knows for sure. But as we say in journalism, never let facts get in the way of a good story.

It’s remarkable how many nasty ingredients go into making some of the most beautiful colors: bugs, urine, manure. 

Bugs first. The cochineal insect. Lives on cacti in Mexico and South America. Ground up, its shell makes an incredible bright red color. Your lipstick, your makeup, your Caravaggio has cochineal dye in it.

The deep red color carmine is derived from an acid that cochineal insects produce to fend off predators.

Desiree Martin/AFP via Getty Images

According to Khandekar, “it was the second largest source of wealth (after silver) for the Spanish empire.” 

Urine from Indian cows (yes, you read it right) was pay dirt for painters like J.M.W. Turner, Thomas Gainsborough and Georges Seurat.

Harvard Art Museums/Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies

They and so many others used Indian Yellow — thanks to Asian cows that were only given mango leaves to eat. The color’s not made this way these days. Mercifully. 

Which brings us to manure. Again from cows. “They do pigments a great service, don’t they?” observes Khandekar. There wouldn’t be Lead White without them. Again, toxic. Again, used in cosmetics. Again, not made this way now. You’ll have to listen to this link on the Forbes’ new audio tour, to hear where the manure comes in. 

Look (as Joe Biden would say), we can’t just end with unpleasantries. So here’s a perfectly proper blue in a Botticelli from the Harvard Art Museums’ collection.

Botticelli’s The Virgin and Child (left) and Ultramarine #4 (Lapis Lazuli; Genuine) in the Forbes Pigment Collection.

Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum; Harvard Art Museums/Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies

That Ultramarine Blue was made with crushed lapis lazuli, probably mined in Afghanistan. Botticelli used it six centuries ago. Old, but not that ancient as pigments go. The cavemen used charcoal and ochre pigments. Which shows how important creating art has always been to who we are as humans.

“These guys were out there hunting, gathering, trying to stay alive,” Khandekar says. “And yet they still found time to make art.” 

  • As reported by NPR’s Susan Stamberg, October 29, 2020


Two dogs in situ

I always love it when I can see where my work lands, in this case

a smaller gliclee reproduced from the very large original oil painting

“Two Dogs”.

(29×72 inches if I recall correctly.)

Thanks for sharing, Deb! 🙂


leaping into 21st century documentation

Big project nearing completion during this Covid isolation period.

Remember these slide carousels?! The slides in this carousel are

from my talk at Montserrat College of Art many years ago,

maybe in 1999…

All those piled in the boxes have since been tossed.

Some 600 images in all have been digitized by a wonderfully professional

service called Everpresent here in the Boston area.

Thank you Sally Seamans for the recommendation.

I chose the highest resolution option with descriptive labeling.

(Some of the slides had labels with descriptions typed on

a typewriter, then glued on with rubber cement. This was

pre-Sharpies and self adhesive labels. Dinosaur technology

all around!!)

So happy to have had this project behind me.

It had been on my to-do list far too long.



12 koi in Maine

12 Koi – oil on panel- 24 inches square

When I first posted this on social media a few years ago,

it was an instant hit.

I think people saw the joy I had while painting it.

Playlul – colorful – energetic.

Now it has landed on the wall of my good friend in Brunswick.

We recently re-connected after meeting during our college years at

Skidmore fifty years ago. (OMG)

(neither of us can recall how we met since she’s

a class behind mine, we lived in different dorms and had different majors) .

We could kick ourselves for waiting so long!

It’s such a treat when dear friends also become collectors 🙂

#lindaholt #koipaintings#oilpaintings#koi

koi with waterfall 9

Koi with Waterfall 9
40×30 inches
oil on canvas

This was a lovely surprise amid the Covid-19 virus swirling about.

The Beth Urdang Gallery in Boston just sold this painting.

Currently en route to its new home in California.

The client had visited Beth’s gallery in January.

Perhaps sheltering in place has made some of those bare walls

un-bearable?!

🙂


5 Koi 20

having fun with some new koi

one of the biggest challenges is editing the photographs for this blog.I seem

to have to choose between accurate red-orange-yellow warmth

over blue-green cooler colors.

Difficult choice at best.

It’s worse when I shoot the paintings in the studio as in the case with this

one.

24×24 oil on canvas

this looks nothing like the actual painting!

The actual colors are sensuous orange and vermilions and subtle

ultramarines.

But, this is the best I can do for now. 🙁


Portrait of Rip

Rip – oil on panel – 8×10 inches

Rip

Such a cutie pie!

My niece commissioned me to paint this sweet pup from photos she sent me

last December. She and her family had spent an amazing Thanksgiving at

her friend’s gorgeous farm in North Carolina . To thank him for his

generosity, she wanted to give him something special – Always a challenge

for someone who has everything. Enter me. I did the same for a family

who were our gracious hosts for Christmas dinner and vacation in Hong

Kong two years ago.