Archives for May 2020

Color Stories | Pigment Collection of Unknown Origin

The most amazing Mothers Day gift ever, was given to me by my parents yesterday.  I had been coveting this collection of pigments she had purchased at a local garage sale years ago. I would sneak to take a peek of it almost every time I would visit my folks – drooling over the vibrant colors, the blown glass bottles and the beautifully hand calligraphed labels. To my utter surprise and elation ,they presented this to me yesterday and it will certainly be cherished as part of my color archive for the rest of my days.


What I know about these : Bottles 2-6 are missing. My mom took them to a local historian to see if she could find out any other information about them, but all they were able to devise was that they are most likely aged around the Pre-Civil War ear, as there are a few colors in the set that have not been produced since then.

In addition to doing further research on my own,  plan on sending some images of these, the case and what limited knowledge I have of them to the Forbes Pigment Collection at Harvard University to see if they may have more information about where they may have come from and their approximate age. They will remain forever in my safe keeping 🙂

The colors that are present in this collection include:

No. 1 – Aluminum

No. 7 – American Vermilion

No. 8 – Turkey Deep Red

No. 9 – Pyrogen Vermilion

No. 10 – Permanent Red

No. 11 – Transparent Rose Magenta

No. 12 – Thompson Fresco Violet

No. 13 – French Zinc White

No. 14 – Alpine Blue

No. 15 – Celestial Blue

No. 16 – Cobalt Blue

No. 17 – Ultra Marine Blue

No. 18 – Mauve Dry Color

No.19 – Chrome Yellow Light

No. 20 – Chrome Yellow Medium

No. 21 – Chrome Yellow Deep

No. 22 – Orange Mineral

No. 23 – Venetian Red

No. 24 – Rose Pink Magenta

No. 25 – Ivy Green

No. 26 – Swiss Leaf Green

No. 27 – Olive or Forest Green

No. 28 – Paris Green

No. 29 – Amalakite(sp) Green

No. 30 – Chrome Deep Green

No. 31 – Dutch Pink

No. 32 – Raw Sienna

No. 33 – Burnt Sienna

No. 34 – Raw Umber

No. 35 – Burnt Umber

No. 36 – Ivory black

UPDATE (05.12.2020)

Der Sarah,

Thank you for your email and the photos of your pigments. Firstly I want to say that I can’t give you as full an answer as I would like as we are working remotely and all my books are in my office, and the library is off limits at the moment.

The labels are interesting in that they are characteristic of early 20th century labels and similar to many of the ones we have in our own pigment collection from the 1920s-30s and these were widely available stationary items. The writing looks like it has been done with a nib and ink where the nib writes more widely in one direction than the other, something like a stub or italic nib, which is not unusual, it is this kind of nib that gives older fountain pens/dip pens their “character”. It is interesting to see Nu on the labels as an abbreviation of Number rather than No. I am not sure what that means but its worth keeping in your back pocket.

The jars don’t look like the manufacturer supplied containers. Many artists would buy large amounts of pigment in paper packets and decant smaller amounts into jars they would take into the studio or into the field. Two sets of jars like this belonging to Georgia O’Keeffe were sold by Sotheby’s just recently, and my conversations with the O’Keeffe museum suggest 1920s as the date for these pigments.

So it makes me think that the place in Waterford, NY may have been the home of an artists or a relative of an artist.

Regarding the date, Its hard to say exactly, but is we look at some of the pigments we find Magenta and Mauve were both discovered just prior to the Civil war (Magenta: 1859 Mauve: 1856), which support the local historian’s perspective. However there are other pigments which point to late 19th century/early 20th century as the earliest date. Permanent red can be aniline red (1907), lithol red (1899), pigment red 60 (1902). One jar in particular pushes the dated into the 20th century. A commercial process for producing aluminium was not available until 1889, and it was not available as a foil until 1910 (necessary to produce the powder). Aluminium as a powder was not available until the 1920s (it was used as a pigment on a lot of aircraft between the wars). The 1920s is consistent the date suggested by the labels.

It looks to me like you have a set of pigments that come from the 1920s. They are a lovely set. Some of the names are unusual (Amalakite Green) and may give you a clue as to the manufacturer.

Regarding a visit to the pigment collection, that is possible in the future, but how far ahead I cannot say. At the moment, we are working remotely, and we are working on possible scenarios for reopening but it could be some time. Please do stay in touch and we can plan a visit when it becomes possible.

I hope that some of this information is helpful to your understanding of your pigments. You may also find: a useful resource.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to write.




Narayan Khandekar

Director, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies

Director, Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art

Color Stories | Artist | Samson Contompasis – Buckthorn Day

This Color Story is the first submission to our Color Story Archive, and I couldn’t be more excited that it is from my dear friend and fellow artist Samson Contompasis.

Last year Samson messaged me, excited after learning about my dive into natural pigments and color – as he was hiking in one of his favorite locales here in Upstate, NY during the beautiful transition from Summer to Autumn. He came upon a source of color and had to tell me about it …. I will let him tell the story in his words …
Buckthorn Day.

I remember when i first saw that Sarah was starting to publicly announce that she was taking on, which has already has proved to be monumental, the Narrative Terrains project. It immediately engaged me. When that seed was planted it didn’t force me to look at closer at the things around me, but rather I was given the opportunity to consider finding new things to help Sarah along this projectoral journey.

While walking through some of the blessings of upstate NY, Thacher Park. A plant i never would have taken notice or consideration of now jumped out at me like black ink on white paper. Turned out it was in fact an Indigo rather than black… but this otherwise innocuous plant now had a new purpose. The thing that drew me to it was the deep black/blue of the berries on this plant. I grabbed one of the berries and burst it between my fingers and this deep staining violet/blue streaked across my finger. I immediately texted Sarah to inform her i must take her to this location to harvest whatever these things are. It was towards the end of a hike so i only remember it in this one certain area.

In quick fashion as not to miss the chance to harvest whatever these things were. In my hurried explanation i didn’t properly illustrate what exactly it was we were hunting just that it would be wildly useful to Her cause.

The day came where we met to take this micro adventure to seek out this blueish berry. Upon our arrival we quickly walked to the area that i remember seeing this plant. Unbeknownst to me, it was actually all over the top of the cliff but i only previously remember it in only one spot. The day before Sarah was researching this plant called Buckthorn, low and behold, the plant i excitedly wrangled her to a cliffside for was in fact, Buckthorn. Very excited and with a little longer reach i was able to harvest fallen berries within arms reach of the fence while Sarah collected fresh specimens.

The Narrative Terrains project has helped me pay closer attention to what my surroundings are made of just in case i have to make that hurried text once again when there is an exceptional deposit of what would to most be considered a pile of debris, a weed, a plant that could only blend into and be part of a bigger backdrop, but to Sarah could be the key to unlocking a new development in their creative journey.


Common Name: Common and glossy buckthorn
Scientific NameRhamnus cathartica & Frangula alnus
Origin: Eurasia


The buckthorn species are deciduous shrubs or small trees that can reach heights of 20 feet. Their main stem can grow up to 10 inches in diameter, but is more commonly 1-3 inches in shrub form. Leaves are dark-green and oval with toothed margins and distinct upcurved veins. Common buckthorn typically has 3-5 pairs of leaf veins, while glossy buckthorn has 8-9. The twigs of common buckthorn are tipped with a spine, a characteristic that distinguishes it from glossy buckthorn. Small, round, black berries ripen in the fall and serve as the primary spread mechanism for this species.


Buckthorn is adapted to a wide variety of site conditions and may be found along forest edges, right-of-ways, in canopy openings, and open forested wetlands. Common buckthorn is most common in dry sites, while glossy buckthorn prefers moist soil.


Buckthorn grows in dense thickets that crowd and shade out native shrubs and herbaceous species. Severe infestations may limit the regeneration of native tree seedlings.

NYS Threat Ranking Assessment Score = Very High, 81.00 (common) & High, 74.00 (glossy)


Small plants can be managed using mechanical techniques such as pulling or digging, while large plants and extensive infestations are most efficiently treated with herbicide. Glyphosate and triclopyr based products can be utilized for foliar spray and cut stump treatments.

Source : Adirondack Park invasive Plant Program


Forays With Wild Clay

Left to Right | Wild Clay vessel with pigment and earth sealed with milk glaze and fired in the fireplace, Wild Clay vessel with pigments and earth fired in fireplace, Wild Clay vessel with pigments and earth awaiting it’s time in the embers.

I have begun to experiment with some 11,700 year old wild clay that I sustainably harvested along the banks of the shallows of the Hudson River. Crusted with slip, iron oxide pigments and Earth from Schoharie NY – they were first fired in my fireplace transforming their structure and color. To seal and protect them from the elements, they were then sealed with a thin coating of Cow’s milk and heated on high in the oven – the colors deepening as it warmed, the house smelling of caramel sweetness.

This wild clay is a bit tricky to work with – as you wet it to shape it, it wishes to slip between your fingers, becoming more fluid, defiantly refusing to maintain it’s man made form – it was a lovely lesson in balance. That we humans should not always force our will upon this land and it’s gifts. When I allowed the clay to take it’s shape organically, when I worked together with it to find that compromise – to allow it to be, while gently working with it in transformation – it all came together and took form. However, not in the way that I initially intended, but in a way that was even more beautiful, that changed my relationship, perception and intent of it.  I was able to create something I could use in harmony with the Earth and it’s gift – though the lesson the Earth taught me during this project – may have been the more precious gift after all.