Project Case Study: The Pumpkin Spice Series

Hello, Happy Autumn Equinox, and welcome to my first blog post! Join me on the reflection of the development of a very fitting series of drawings for the season: Aromas of Pumpkin Spice.

We see it coming every fall, some eagerly awaiting its arrival; Pumpkin Spice. A mini project in its own right, for almost a year I envisioned a series focusing on the chemical aromas of pumpkin spice. It came as I was developing the piece Citrus Aroma: Limonene. It was the tail end of winter season as I finished that piece, thus the pumpkin spice season was starting to finish its course. Limonene, and in essence Pumpkin Spice, was inspired by research into flavor chemistry. The textbook “The Flavor Matrix” had the most influence in the development of the initial citrus series, and through the butterfly effect led to the creation of the Pumpkin Spice series.

The Beginning

Image: Clove | Eugenol

The first step in every one of my pieces is research, a lot of research. One of the first things I learned upon investigating pumpkin spice is, traditionally, the spice is a combination of four individual spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove (some mixes also include allspice). I wanted to find the main aromatic compound in each of the individual spices, usually found in the essential oils. Two of them were straight forward: cinnamon and clove (cinnamaldehyde and eugenol respectively). Ginger was a little less straight forward; a handful of aromatics are attributed to its flavor and aroma, with the main ones shifting depending if the spice is fresh or roasted. Since pumpkin spice is usually made of dried ginger I choose to go with zingerone which results from cooking down the gingerol compounds. These gingerol aromas are most pungent in fresh ginger, along with zingerberene (and these would more fitting in a series related to sauteed dishes). Another compound I could have considered are the shogaols, but ultimately the title “zingerone” seemed far too fiting to pass up. Nutmeg was the trickiest. Sabinene, which I settled on, is the main aromatic found in nutmeg essential oil, but studies into its absorption find it to be undetectable, replaced by several other main compounds in the oil. The educated guess, reached after a lucky encounter with a biology professor, is that sabinene is similar to other bio-available compounds and is broken down by enzymes in the body.

After selecting the molecular structures, I drew them out. For the sketches, I drew a rough draft of the molecule to figure out its visual weight, and thus its placement on the page. For the “molecules” themselves, taken heavily from the molecular structure models, I happened to be at Michael’s a few months before and spotted a stencil for different sized circles. Oh my lord, was that a game changer for drawing the circles for the molecules. Before I was using things like quarters, dimes, or anything round of different sizes. With the stencil, I could be a lot more precise and even a bit mathematical in the sizing of the different atoms. The colors were the most fun of the while piece. I researched the colors associated with each spice both naturally and aesthetically. Pantone has a color named after each spice; even Wikipedia has color descriptions for each stage of the spices natural life. The individual chemicals, in their pure state, even have associated colors or no color at all.

I had a plan, so all that was left was to dive.

The Execution

Image: Citrus Aroma: Limonene

I decided to follow the theme of Limonene. I wrote out most of the research I learned in the background, and then erased most of it, leaving more of an impression of text. It is a time consuming effect. Then I decided on the placement of the plant line work. Luckily I have a lot of plants with similar looking leaves to use as a reference for the actual plants. The placements varied, as the visual eight of the structures with the text differed between each piece. Then I erased the pencil guide lines while putting down a light color pencil base.

The final pieces were completed with Prismacolor pencils and graphite pencils on Bristol paper. I initially wanted to do something smaller, using a mixed media approach. But they didn’t give me the same satisfaction that using color pencils for a larger piece achieve. The larger size made more of an impact as well, and allowed me to introduce the background text to allude to the hours of research and reading I did for each piece. I chose color pencils because, personally, I missed the sense of accomplishment that comes with a completed piece. I wanted to remind myself of what I am capable of doing with some color and line work.

I considered applying a more multimedia execution of the pieces, maybe building up the background with wet on wet watercolors. But I decided that I didn’t have the time to properly experiment/execute those applications (the series was to be submitted to the Resident Holiday Exhibit at Gallery-One, and were due the following morning upon their completion). 

Some Challenges

Image: Nutmeg | Sabinene

One challenge I ran into involved the size of the pieces. I didn’t check for frames before picking the paper size, and selecting frames was more stressful than it needed to be. I believe I over thought it at first, debating if I wanted to have them be the same size or not, etc. In the end, I picked the same set of frames, for consistency as they are a series. I almost trimmed them too much, borderline having a panic attack before realizing they were just right for the mats that came with the frames.

Time was also an issue. I quickly figured out how to estimate how long it would take to finish these particular types of drawings. Doing four in a row allowed me a chance to track the average of how long it took to complete each step. After figuring out that average, I realized I didn’t give myself quite as much time as I should have to complete each drawing. I ended up in a very tight crunch; the Monday before I had to turn the pieces in I had roughly 15 hours of coloring to finish. Needless to say, it was a very long Monday. I started coloring at 9:30 in the morning and finished at about midnight.

To Wrap Everything Up

Image: Ginger | Zingerone

To touch on some of the design elements; the composition of the drawings are set in such a way that the molecular structures are front and center. I almost think of scientific illustrations, here the diagram is laid out pretty nonsensically, but these pieces take more artistic liberty than the replicative properties of an illustration. Unlike the molecular models that use black, white, and red for the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen bonds, I chose to use more variety of colors. Attention will show though that there is logic to the madness; each atom is colored based not only on what it is but is affected by what it is bonding to. These colors are a means to translate how the electrons may be behaving between the different bonds. The proportions of the atoms themselves were given very special attention. The ratios were roughly calculated based on their atom radii (with artistic tweaking).

Final Thoughts

Image: Cinnamon | Cinnamaldehyde

This series is certainly one of my favorites, and not just because I loved pumpkin pie as a kid. I found learning about the nuances of these particular aroma chemicals fascinating. One of my favorite parts of doing these series was learning about all the corresponding colors and the plant spices themselves: if you ever feel like going down a rabbit hole, the history of these individual spices is a complex and interesting one. My personal favorite of the four pieces is “Cinnamon | Cinnamaldehyde”; I just love how all the colors came together.

Do you know someone that loves Pumpkin Spice? Be sure to share this work with them, and I would love to know which Pumpkin Spice piece is your favorite, and why! Is it the colors, a personal memory, some piece of information you know that I didn’t mention here? I would love to hear what you think!

Thank you for reading, and Happy Autumn Equinox!