Making transluscent leaves for a diorama

This leaf was made from scans of the front and back of a leaf adhered together.  Good, except there is nothing to keep it from curling.

This leaf was made from scans of the front and back of a leaf adhered together. Good, except there is nothing to keep it from curling.

I started working at the Peabody Museum in 1988 and one of the first things I did was to replace a red osier shrub and a willow branch in the foreground of the Shoreline diorama.  I worked for two years creating these two plants.  I was apprenticing with Ralph Morrill, who had started work at the Peabody Museum in 1924, had built the foregrounds of all of the Peabody dioramas, and was, at the time, 88 years old.  I vacuformed sheets of leaves that I had collected from local plants.  the process was to paint a thin layer of plaster on the leaf, thin enough not to deform the shape.   (see “Artificial Plants” by George Petersen, Curator 1958/3, pp. 12-35 for a comprehensive overview of methods) From those plaster molds, I made large master molds with numerous leaves that I took to a vacuform fabricator.  The result was approximately 50 clear acetate sheets of vacuformed leaves.  Each were cut out of these sheets, tapered wires glued to each to make a leaf stem.  Shrink wrap tubing was attached to the wire to give it bulk.

The clear leaves were then painted with lacquer paint on front and back to mimic the color of the real leaf.  Each of the leave’s veins were then painstakingly painted.

This is an example of the Red Osier leaf I produced in the early 1990's

This is an example of the Red Osier leaf I produced in the early 1990’s.  Note that you can’t see the shadow of my finger behind it.

The leaves were wired together to make twigs.  The twigs were wired together to make branches, the branches were wired to the central stem.  All joints were waxed and painted.  The effect is remarkably lifelike and I proudly installed the new plants into the diorama, removing the old plants made with wax and paper leaves that were now curled.

Willow leaves produced in 1945 showing the curling that paper/wax leaves undergo over time.

Willow leaves produced in 1945 showing the curling that paper/wax leaves undergo over time.

I went on to other things, but in February 1995, Ray deLucia, a retired diorama artist from the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, was hired to help me renovate the Shoreline diorama.  Ray asked me whether I had made the plants and I answered yes.  He then said, they are fine, except for one thing.  He said they are opaque and they look plastic!  Real leaves are transluscent-light shines through them.  I immediately saw that he was right and felt like I had been punched in the gut!  When I did the work, I had known that I was supposed to keep the paint thin while painting, but it doesn’t take much paint on the surface to make a leaf go opaque.  In the case of both the red osier and the willow, the underside is lighter than the top side, so each side needed paint.

Ever since, I have wanted to work on this idea of transluscency in making leaves for plants.  I have come to recognize that any paint on the surface tends to diminish the translucency quickly.  If I can find some way to get the color intrinsic rather than extrinsic, I will be able to get what I’m looking for.  I finally have some down time and I am starting to work on some ideas.

One idea came from work I did on a full size model of a giant Carboniferous dragonfly, Meganeuropsis.  The entmologist I worked for explained that the vein patterns in dragonflies are distinctive and should be correct on the model.  Not only that, but the veins follow the ridges and valleys of the wings which are also species specific.  There are good fossil impressions of the wings, so the vein patterns are known.  I tried many ways to make the vein patterns and finally decided on using “Gerber” printouts of the veins and embedding those into the clear epoxy casting resin casts.  I found I had to lay down a thick layer of vaseline first into the mold, press the vein pattern graphic down into the vaseline so it would be held in place, and then pour the epoxy over that.  Here is an example of what I arrived at:

Meganeuropsis wingI wondered if I could do something like this with the leaves, so I have started to experiment.  I collected red osier leaves, made plaster molds and have started vacuforming individual leaves to play with.  Here are some photos.  I am going on vacation for two weeks, but when I return, I am going to pick this back up and update the blog on my progress:

Plaster mold of a red osier leaf and a vacuform cast from it.

Plaster mold of a red osier leaf and a vacuform cast from it.

Gerber printouts

Gerber printouts

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