I had the happy occasion a few years ago to discover paper chromatography. When and where I learned of it, I don't remember. Then I learned of its use in separating leaf pigments. This technique is very useful for revealing to students the colored molecules present in leaves that give them their colors at different times of the year.
Separating the pigments in a leaf (or pine needle or presumably any plant matter) consists of pulverizing the plant matter (mortar and pestle works nicely) and soaking the pulp in an alcohol like ethanol or isopropanol, found in vodka and rubbing alcohol respectively, if you don't have access to a chemical supplier. Methanol (wood alcohol) doesn't work as well as those two. Soaking for about an hour is long enough, then you can stand up a piece of paper in about 1/2 inch of the solution against the side of the vessel (paper towels or drawing paper work well). Capillary action will draw the alcohol and pigments up into the paper. The pigments will separate into colored bands depending on size and other factors. Once the alcohol has evaporated, you have an interesting set of bands that fade into each other.
Upon doing this for the first time with leaves, the painter in me couldn't help but notice that the strip of paper I'd used had an uncanny resemblance to a landscape. The different colors had an unmistakable quality that suggested tree lines, horizons and the effects of accumulated atmosphere nearer the bottoms of hills and mountains. This realization delighted me to say the least, in addition to my present and growing fascination with the multiple pigments that made up the color of any one leaf. The experience was multifaceted and profound on a small scale. This led me to intentionally exploit chromatography to produce an overtly landscape quality. I did this by scaling up the procedure larger pieces of paper in a primarily horizontal orientation. Additionally with certain micro-landscapes, I would use only one leaf type or color (sometimes only red maple as in the second picture from the right above).
This experimental journey has heightened my curiosity about the potential of using other plant material and pigments, such as flowers. The possibilities afforded by increasing the scale of these experiments also excites me. I'd like to see how large I can make these (22x30 inches for instance, the standard size of printmaking paper) to see what if any material limitations there are to the process.
Finally the issue of light-fast-ness comes to mind. Inevitable the sun will take its tole on the color as well as the oxygen in the air. The pigments in leaves have always been transitory, recycled from season to season. By trying to fix and preserve them I'm reminded of the constant flow of energy and matter around me and the inevitability of thermodynamics. My appreciation for the beauty of trees has taken on another dimension, the unintended result of micro-revelations. A page within a page of the Book of Nature.
J0hn Hunter Speier
Recent work, and explorations of techniques, aesthetics and poetics.