These pigments no longer come from colourmen. Instead, they are sent in by companies or by independent pigment experts. (One man, a former Sun Chemical employee and author of a tome on pigments, sent a cache of powders he’d stumbled upon in his garage.) And there are still focused projects that bring in new pigments. For example, the Forbes Collection added 25 traditional Australian ochres several years ago—a project that demonstrates how the study of pigments can sometimes re-write art history.
For many years, historians believed that the introduction of Australian art centers in the 1970s had radically altered the working processes of
bark painters. Instead of grinding their own natural pigments, the thinking went, these native artists started to use commercially produced materials like acrylic paint and Belgian linens provided by the institutions. “Some people consider this a real divergence from the tradition that was going on before,” Khandekar says. But after analyzing a range of bark paintings, the researchers discovered that Aboriginal artists were in fact using silver roof paint likely sourced from the keepers of a nearby lighthouse as early as the 1920s. In the 1940s, they were making black pigments from dry cell batteries (even though naturally-occurring black ore and charcoal were also available).
“What that says is, if the color is available, the artists will use it,” Khandekar notes. Rather than disrupting traditional Aboriginal bark painting techniques, the introduction of art centers offers “just one more example of these innovative artists adapting to what’s available and using it for their own practice.”
Historic it may be, but the Forbes Collection deals as much with the future of artworks as the past. It could almost be described as a conservator’s crystal ball: offering glimpses into the aging process for various pigments, binders, and any other materials that might make their way into a work of art.
Harvard’s museum scientists have advised working artists ever since Forbes’s tenure, when the U.S. government approached the Fogg in 1935 for help with its newly-founded Federal Art Project (FAP). Officials wanted the murals and other works created using federal dollars to stand the test of time, but it was often difficult for them to distinguish between low- and high-grade paints. Gettens helped to launch Boston’s Paint Testing and Research Laboratory, which functioned from 1937 to 1941, analyzing paints for their durability and quality. Many of these tests still exist today in what is known as the Gettens Cabinet—an 80-year-old, wooden filing cabinet tucked away on the fourth floor of Harvard’s art museum. Each drawer is hand-labeled and full of paint samples, some of which have been aging for more than half a century.