Thursday Salute to Originals: Physical Pigment Library

Most designers seem to instinctively gravitate towards black, white and gray (honestly, what doesn’t look good in one of these hues?). But for those of us with a passion for color – or the science behind it –  there’s a place where you can be completely surrounded by all the brilliant hues from famous artworks, antiquity, and locations around the world: the Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums.


The concept, conceived over 100 years ago by Edward Forbes who became entranced with understanding the creation of color and artworks as a whole, has now grown into a collection of 2,500 different pigments. Each physical sample is separately housed in glass bottles and viles, and then categorized in an elaborate database structured on the color wheel.



But don’t get ahead of yourself; this isn’t some craft store with a bunch of different acrylic paints to choose from or a glorified Pantone swatch book.  The Forbes Pigment Collection is touted as a “Laboratory for the Fine Arts,” documenting, cataloguing, and preserving  physical samples of rare, iconic, extinct, and even poisonous hues known to mankind.

One color in the library called “Indian Yellow,” was used in Georges Seurat’s pointillist paintings. However, the hue is no longer attainable as the pigment is derived from the urine of cows fed only mango leaves, and the practice has since been outlawed.  Another color, a vibrant Emerald Green used in one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits, is also housed in the collection. It is considered extremely dangerous as its fumes are highly toxic and can be potentially deadly.


A specimen labeled Ultra Marine is pictured from the pigment collection of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies housed inside the Harvard Art Museums at Harvard University. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

There are even pigments from the middle ages and beyond. One piercingly intense blue made from crushed lapis lazuli stone mined from Afghanistan’s quarries was prized more than gold and utilized in medieval artworks.


For collecting, documenting, and conserving the physical building blocks of the vast world of color, we salute Edward Forbes and the Forbes Pigment Library. We’re sure one trip into this museum would inspire even the most anti-color designer to feature some of these vibrant hues in their next creation!

Sources: This is ColossalMark Mahaney, Harvard Gazette