Art, Science and Pigment

Aug 09, 2018, 07:02 IST | Dhara Vora Sabnani

Senior conservation scientist Dr Narayan Khandekar to talk about how studying pigments can help save art

Art, Science and Pigment
Narayan Khandekar, director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies and senior conservation scientist. Pic/Stephanie Mitchell; Harvard University © President and Fellows of Harvard College

A Pigment made from a resin applied to the exterior of Egyptian mummies is just one of the 2,500 samples from the Forbes Pigment Collection at Harvard Art Museum. Dr Narayan Khandekar, senior conservation scientist and director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums, will discuss the science of pigments and the role they play in art conservation, at a Mumbai museum today. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What is the importance of a pigment library in art conservation?
A work of art can tell many stories. One of them could be about the image depicted, another, of its place in history, and yet another about the materials the artist chose to make it from, and so on. A work of art is a series of decisions, the choice of pigments being one of them. Understanding that choice (as well as others, like the choice of medium, support, varnish, etc.) gives us a glimpse into how the artist thought, even if they are long dead. In addition, pigments can be used to date a work of art, help with attribution and authentication, and indicate what it may have looked like, if we understand how a pigment changes over time.

Khandekar mentions that the Indian Yellow has an incredible backstory, which is mentioned in recent unpublished research. Pic/Jennifer Aubin
Khandekar mentions that the Indian Yellow has an incredible backstory, which is mentioned in recent unpublished research. Pic/Jennifer Aubin

Will India’s classic fine and folk arts benefit from having a library within the country for closer, localised reach?
Absolutely. The best understanding of an artistic practice comes from its place of origin. Studying Indian art with a library of Indian reference materials makes complete sense. Harvard has an impressive collection of art from India and we are always interested in learning more about the pigments that artists here have used.

The pigments come from all over the world and some are stored in their original delicate glass containers.  Pic/Jenny Stenger
The pigments come from all over the world and some are stored in their original delicate glass containers.  Pic/Jenny Stenger

What’s an example of pigments from the collection helping revive a highly valuable piece of art?
When we studied the fading of pigments on Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals, we were able to take that information and use it to determine the duration to display and under what conditions we should display another painting by the same artist to avoid any fading.

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