Crushed beetles, burnt peach stones, cow urine, and ancient tsunami-tossed spruce cones may sound like the start of some mystical tincture, but you won’t find these rattling around the junk drawer of a dabbling sorcerer. No, instead, you’ll find this odd assortment of ingredients hanging on the walls of some of the world’s most famous museums! These are just a handful of the ways we’ve managed to capture some of our favorite colors (red, black, yellow, and blue, respectively) for thousands of years.

Do you have a piece of clothing you bought simply because you adored the color? How about a favorite photo? Or painting? Or room in your house? While you, and I, and our favorite contemporary artists can go to the store and stare at a wall with every color we could ever desire, someone a few hundred years ago had to travel to a cave at the northernmost tip of a lake to find just the right red, break off a chunk of whatever substance they find, grind it, mix it, and then create their masterpiece.

It’s a scavenger hunt of color that has gone on all throughout our history, marking our time in hues. So, to see the lengths we’ve gone through to bring color into our homes and hallways, we’re visiting one museum whose walls are lined with 2,500 specimens, ranging from rocks to mummies. (Yep. Mummies.) And as a special treat, we’ll head out on a hunt for pigments on the coast of the Pacific Northwest with one man who’s using natural pigments to do more than just make his beautiful paint.

Image: Jars of Blue Pigments

Harvard Art Museums’ Pigment Lab.
Photo by Caitlin Cunningham.

First Stop: A Collection of Over 2,500 Pigments!

People have gone some serious lengths to find exactly the color that they want over the years; even feeding cows just mango leaves and drying their urine to create the coveted Indian Yellow. And there’s no place you can see this more clearly than at the Forbes Pigment Collection housed at Harvard University, where over 2,500 of the rarest pigments are being preserved!

Lined up neatly along their walls are thousands of pigments derived from anything you can imagine, and well, some things you probably can’t—like the bandages of Egyptian mummies. But other than just being a beautiful walk through the history of our relationship with colors, is there another use for protecting all of these pigments?

For a closer look inside, and why these colors are so important to keep around, we’re turning to our friends at the wonderful channel, Great Big Story in this fantastic video!

You can find more brilliant stories from around the world by exploring the other pieces from Great Big Story we’ve curated, here! Or, head over to their YouTube library to dive in further. You never know what treasure you’ll discover there! 

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Download in the Apple and Google Play stores.

Now, would you like to go on a hunt?

Scott Sutton, an artist based out of the Pacific Northwest, is tracking the pigments of his region, matching creations myths from local tribes to modern maps, and even looking up typhoon records to find brilliant colors for his paint! By doing this, Scott has found a way to connect his art directly to the land it represents. And we get to see how he’s learned to capture even the rarest pigment there is, blue!

Join in on his adventure in this great film from Buck the Cubicle, titled Pigment Hunter.

You can find more inspiring stories of people out there living life on their terms over in Buck the Cubicle’s Vimeo library or website!

And check out Scott Sutton’s work on his website here!

“Colour is as variable and evanescent in the form of pigment as in visible nature.” —Walter J. Phillips

Every pigment points to a time and place in the history of humanity! Just think of how incredible it would be to stand in a room filled with that much history. Or be able to see the natural world around you as an ancient pigment hunter did!

If you can, I urge you to go for a walk and see what colors are around you! Rust on old pipes? Colorful rocks? Ash? Take photos of them and then, at the end of your walk, scroll through and check out all of the colors in your own neighborhood!

Want to see how the creative collaboration between scientists and artists is creating beautiful art and cleaning up the environment? This project is extracting beautiful pigments from the toxins that flowed from an old mining shaft and into a local waterway. Check out their story with this article!

9 minutes

Turning Pollution into Paint: A Kickstarter Success Story!

Here's an update on a project we featured two years ago when it was still a primordial concept. Now it's an inspirational story with all the elements of the best kind of progress!

Read More

“If one could only catch that true color of nature – the very thought of it drives me mad.”
– Andrew Wyeth

If you’d like to see a few of the rare pigments people have collected, check out this photo gallery from The Guardian from an exhibition in Melbourne, Australia!

While we’ll never be able to truly capture the brilliant colors we see when we look into natural spaces, using these natural pigments gets us pretty close!

Just like Scott Sutton used pigments from the riverbed salmon swim through to create his print of the fish, the pigments around each of us are unique as well. In fact, you will probably find that the red in your backyard is an entirely different shade than what your friend found in another state, country, or continent.

So, could there be a painting that holds elements of every country in the world? Created with paints made from the colors of our homes, all together on one canvas?

What would that look like? If someone has made this, please let me know! And hey, maybe it could be you. If you’d like to try your hand at collecting your own pigments and creating your own paint, click those two links to explore how!

Pigments and colors have held a giant place in our human history—you’ll find them wherever we’ve been.

To explore the history and cultural representations of some of your favorite colors, check out this article next!

7 minutes

The Surprising World of Color

How much do we know about these various wavelengths of light that are constantly bouncing off the surfaces around us?

Read More

Stay open to new possibilities! You never know, maybe there’s a brilliant blue color forming in an old spruce cone beneath you right now.

  • Sam

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”  —Albert Einstein

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  1. Great Big Story. “This Man Protects the World’s Rarest Colors.” YouTube, 2020, Accessed 9 Apr. 2020.
  2. Buck the Cubicle. “Bucking Awesome: Pigment Hunter.” Vimeo, 7 Apr. 2020, Accessed 9 Apr. 2020.

Sam has written and edited hundreds of articles since joining the EWC team in 2016. She writes about topics from the wonders of nature to the organizations changing the world and the simple joys in life! Outside of the EWC office, she’s a part-time printmaker, collector of knick-knacks, and taster of cheeses.