Colour is something we take for granted. Pencils, paint, printers — you name it, we have a way of producing any shade or hue we want (even the evil magenta). Hundreds of years ago, such conveniences either didn’t exist or weren’t easy to come by and so, we had to get creative.
And creative we were. In fact, the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies in the Harvard Art Museum has its own repository of rare colours, sourced from some rather unique places.
How unique exactly? Director Narayan Khandekar (formerly of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum) is happy to explain:
It can be beetles that come off a cactus, it can be the dried urine of a cow, little insects that grow on a oak tree, a chunk of lead that’s soaked in vinegar, it’s truly amazing.
Yes, you read that right: urine.
Take Indian Yellow, which Khandekar states the museum has “an entire ball of”:
This is a pigment that’s made from the dried urine of cows that have fed only on mango leaves.
Apparently the Center has 2500 pigments available for public viewing, including “Mummy” and “Dragon’s blood”. Going by the description of Indian Yellow, perusing the museum’s wares sounds as much an olfactory sensation as a visual one.