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Friday, 7 June 2013

Pigments and Solutions

I pledged to share my research as part of my current Arts Council project; the only thing I’m finding is that now I’m well and truly immersed in exploration, it’s become difficult to know what exactly is useful and worthwhile to share!

The freedom to experiment has encouraged me to dabble with materials and processes all over the place, but I seem to keep returning to recurring themes. Yet again I find myself attempting to extract the ‘essence’ of various things; all of them objects with a capacity for being imbued with any amount of personal significance. This week the objects have been flowers. I’ve always been interested in capturing the soul of things. My Fabric of Life project was a series of portraits of people from my local community, painted upon fabric which they had donated.

This could have been an old item of clothing imbued with deep emotional significance and memory, or furnishing fabric remaining after the redecoration of a home. Clothes, furnishings, fabrics and patterns provide unique clues to the identity and personality of their owner. By using fabrics with a past life within my painted portraits I desire to capture a depth of substance and facets of character which paint alone cannot describe.

In addition, clothes and furnishings are transient by nature, but once captured and preserved within an artwork they attain a new level of permanence. I think this is what has also interested me about flowers; they often mean so very much (think of wedding bouquets and the Victorian’s language of flowers LINK), and yet their existence is so incredibly fleeting.  But what if I could extract the essence from a flower and preserve it forever?

For me as a visual artist, an object’s essence is definitely made up of its pigment or colour. Surely if each species of plant and flower is unique, this must mean they contain their own personal series of pigments within their leaves and flowers? In this way, I suppose the colours extracted from a particular plant species to be some kind of unique fingerprint in a combination specific only to that one species.

So how to find out? I remember extracting chlorophyll from leaves in high school chemistry lessons; mushing leaves up in a beaker filled with solvent or alcohol. This seemed as good a place as any to begin.


I mashed up leaves and blooms in acetone first, then repeated the process using surgical spirit and alcohol (vodka). Varying quantities and concentrations of pigments were obtained as a result. However the colours were pretty disappointing, being neither strong nor bright. I decided that more research was needed.


Websites on natural dyes and dying were my next useful source of information, advising to boil the plant material in water for an hour and then let stand overnight at room temperature to extract the maximum amount of pigment. I tried this but once again wasn't impressed by the results. Further improvements were still required, and so I contacted my collaborative chemist for assistance.

Apparently there are three main methods of successfully extracting pigments from plants: the acidic method, the alkaline method and the alcoholic method. Of these I intend to try only the second two, as the acidic method involves boiling hydrochloric acid; something I don't think is very advisable to try at home! The alcoholic method can be easily done by boiling the plants in a solution of alcohol (I intend to use surgical spirit). The alkaline method is similar, boiling the plants in a solution of sodium carbonate. The chemist has assured me this is a fairly benign process as long as I have adequate ventilation. A variation of the alkaline method can also be done using a solution of sodium hydroxide... this is otherwise known as caustic soda- I won't be boiling that in a hurry!

Watch this space for the results... I'm off to the hardware store now for my supplies.

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