Gathering (and printing) plants

We have had some Australian artist friends/clients staying with us during the last week. They have been coming every two years since we first opened the Maison Conti in 2008. Wendy is a very clever illustrator, who has made some wonderful etchings over the years in our atelier. Margot encourages, critiques and runs the press for Wendy’s creations. They make a good team. We always have a lot of fun with them when they come.

On one of the days of their stay we took them on a tour of the Perche, which they had never visited. It was a glorious day with extravagant spring flowers and green fields of many shades to delight the eyes.

Such outings always give me itchy fingers, and I couldn’t help myself from collecting a few leaves and flowers along the way to bring back home to my eco-dyeing station. I was happy with my results. The color that is extracted from the plants is often such a surprise. A deep purple tulip I gathered from our own garden turned turquoise blue and a bright yellow and orange gaillardia made a deep blue impression.

We had a happy week in and out of the atelier.

Wendy and Margot admiring a typical French country shop.

May Flowers

Inspired by the season and the garden, I’m back to etching. We have an entire wall of pink clematis in extravagant bloom at the moment, as well as a lavendar wisteria which covers the front of the house. Yellow roses are in bloom and the climbing roses are budded up and waiting for their moment. Peonys and Iris’ punctuate their corners of the landscape.

After enjoying an enormous bouquet of soft violet colored lilacs in our entry, as the blooms began to fade, this branch was eco-dyed and gave a soft blue shade

May has brought some rain, wind and cold, following a glorious and sunny April.

Experimenting with Mordants

pink clematis flowers, clematis leaves and Japanese maple leaves mordanted in alum/washing soda

Over the last eighteen months while I have been experimenting with eco-dyeing, I adopted certain habits that usually work well for me. I like a routine that I can follow without having to think too hard about the steps I’m taking. My process has become natural and easy for me to quickly set up. I mix up a mordant of alum and washing soda in water, soak my plants in vinegar water and dip them in iron water before steaming them on the stove for an hour. I can be fairly certain of what the results will be with one plant or another. However, trying something new always leads to discovery, so I try to mix it up.

I’ve read a certain amount about mordanting in soya milk. This has always seemed like more trouble than it was worth to me, until I read that soya mordant generally makes the color of the plants brighter, whereas the alum mordant brings out more detail. I decided to do a little experiment to see if I could detect a difference between the two methods.

I used the same paper and plants for both techniques (pansies of two colors and a Japanese maple leaf). I dipped the plants in vinegar and iron waters as usual and steamed them together in the same bundle for exactly the same amount of time. The results were striking.

The alum mordant created a nice ghost image of the purple pansy and a very nice outline of the leaf. I like the pink color very much. The orange pansy is less detailed, but the color is distinctive.

The soya mordant certainly did give richer color and some reasonable detail as well, however the color is not absorbed into the paper since the soya leaves a slick surface. I got that marbling effect, which I describe as the color swimming on the surface. I don’t necessarily like it less or better.

The fun of eco-dyeing is, of course, that you never come to the end of experimentation!

Signs of Spring

This week our hemisphere celebrated the spring equinox. Spring, of course, represents new beginnings and marks the moment when the earth tilts back towards the sun.

Who can ignore the poetic significance of this time of year? Well, probably most of us. Still, nature doesn’t seem to care how glum we might feel about the world, it answers us with delicate wildflowers and numerous shades of green.

Here, where we live, the hours of daylight change dramatically from one season to the next. Already, in this first week of spring, morning comes a couple of hours earlier than it did just a few months ago and evening falls much later too. The birds are migrating in and singing us awake in the morning. Their enthusiasm and lust for life are inspirational.

The countryside around us bursts with new life these days. You really do have to be half asleep not to notice it and quite hardhearted not to feel something stirring in the breast.

At the moment, taking a ride through the Perche countryside is about all that is required to put me in a very jolly mood.


At the end of our week with the grandchildren, we drove to Lille to return them to their parents who happened to be there. Jos, our son-in-law, was playing in an Opera and invited us to attend. We had never been to Lille, so we appreciated the excuse for this new adventure.

Lille is the fourth largest urban area in France after Paris, Lyon and Marseilles and is just on the border with Belgium, so-called “French Flanders.” Its architecture is very much influenced by that, reminding us more of Ghent than of other French cities we have visited.

We took this photo of Zinnie next to two posters, one of the show her father is in and the other of an art exhibit at a nearby museum which we also visited. The city is full of charming cafés and shops. We stayed in the old town and did quite a lot of walking. We enjoyed both eating and window shopping.

One especially nice feature of Lille for me was their daily open-air book fair, selling old and new, paper and hardback books in the portico of a beautiful building off the Grand Place, the heart of old town.

We took a train ride to Roubaix (the terminus of a famous French bike race Paris-Roubaix, known as The Hell of the North due to the cobblestone roads of Roubaix) where we visited the Piscine Museum, built in a repurposed art-deco indoor swimming pool. It was absolutely spectacular, one of the loveliest museums I have ever visited. The pool has been preserved, although reduced in width. It is surrounded by the original tiled dressing rooms and shower stalls, stripped of the hardware. Some of them are glassed off and used as display cases for the pottery collection which surrounds the pool and some lead to other galleries where there are paintings and drawings. We spent most of our time around the pool area.

The pottery collection was very effectively displayed around the pool which had the ceramic Belle Epoch decorations of the original building still intact.

Picasso, Matisse and Chagall all created whimsical pottery pieces and the Piscine has a nice collection, next to many other contemporary ceramic artists.

The main event of the weekend, was attending Trois Contes (Three Stories) at the gorgeous Lille Opera house. It is a contemporary work commissioned from Gérard Pesson, an award-winning French composer. Jos was asked to narrate the third section and to play a non-singing role in the second section.

The Lille Opera house, built in the early twentieth century is an icon of the city. It is quite grand. Emily, the children, Rick and I shared our own box in the second loge.

The first act was a retelling of the Princess and the Pea, with several variations.

The second act was a luscious enactment of a story called Proust’s Overcoat about a man who collected Marcel Proust artifacts after his death. The scenery was incredible.

The third act, with Jos as narrator, retold the Edgar Allan Poe story The Devil in the Belfry. It was quite magical. To see a short preview, you can go here.

The whole weekend was a very pleasant interlude.

Quinn riding through the streets of Lille on Jos’s new folding bike.


Here in France kids go to school for long days and don’t finish their academic year until July, but they also get lots of vacations. In the winter they have a two week vacation, one of four such big breaks during the school year. It is often the grandparents that are on duty during these days, as most parents work. In our family it is no different. This time the kids went to camp for one of the weeks and stayed at the Maison Conti for the second one.

Drawing in the atelier is always part of the week’s activities, of course. Here the kids made a “museum book” which involves folding an 11 X 17″ paper into eighths and cutting up the middles leaving the last pair of rectangles attached. The paper can then be folded in various ways to make a book. They decided to create a “choose your own words” story.

Zinnie spent one day making suitcases for one of her dolls. She painted some boxes and tied on handles.

We also like doing science experiments. This one shows how atmospheric pressure works. You put a candle in the middle of a plate, you pour in some colored water, then light the candle. A cup is put over the candle, which puts it out, and soon the water begins to rise in the glass.

Another one involved having one glass filled with hot water and another glass filled with color water. One is colored blue, the other yellow. When you put the hot water on top of the cold water, the waters do not mix, but if you put the cold on top the the hot, they immediately mix together.

The week was mostly rainy and gray, but we found one afternoon when we could go to the lake, a favorite outing. We always play “Pooh Sticks,” the game Winnie the Pooh liked to play on a bridge with Piglet. Everyone drops a stick on one side of the bridge and races to the other side to see whose stick emerges first.

Sand castle building is also a long tradition. There are lots of nice sticks, rocks and leaves around for decorations.

Forts have been very elaborate in years past. This time Quinn made Mont Saint Michel.

Town and Country

We got out of the house during the last week and had a little adventure, starting in Paris. We have had a few weeks of sunny warm days, which makes me feel like I’m in Portugal or California, rather than winter in gray Paris. We noticed, in fact, that the temperature here was warmer than in the Bay Area. While we were in town, we took an afternoon to head to one of our favorite movie theaters on the canal, The Quai de Seine to see Vice. They have a nice restaurant where we ate before the show. Even on a Thursday the place was crowded with people competing for a place in the sun.

We took a pleasant walk along the banks of the canal and up and over a bridge where we got a panoramic view of the canal.

On Friday we drove to the Loire Valley to see our friend Nelly who has a house in Beaugency, an attractive village right on the banks of the river.

The Loire is the longest river in France. Of course, some of the best wine in the world is grown in this valley. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the kings of France relocated from Paris to the Loire Valley and many towns, like Beaugency, grew up to accommodate the French court. There are hundreds of castles dotted along the banks of the river and the little towns are elegant and grand.

Nelly took us to an annual book sale in a neighboring town on Saturday morning. She’s been telling me about it for several years, so I was very happy to go. We both found some nice old books for a few pennies which I put to immediate use in a new bird collage.

I also tried an experimental cyanotype technique which involves introducing water onto the negative and over-developing the image.

Design Challenge

This week was my daughter Emily’s birthday. The last time we saw her she mentioned that she would like to have some kind of art work for the wall above her bed. To surprise her, I got to work on something to fill the bill. I decided to make a wall hanging from linen with cyanotyped birds. The weather has been so beautiful the last couple of weeks that conditions were excellent to create lots of blue birds. I could print all morning long for days at a time without a cloud passing by to obscure the sun processing.

I printed out various sizes and varieties of birds onto transparency to use as my negatives. I also made positive versions as well, so that I could make white birds on a dark ground and dark birds on a white ground. I discovered quickly that photographic images of birds were not as pleasing as simple abstract bird shapes, so I colored in all the bird details with a sharpie.

I also tried tea dying some of the cyanotyped images, which I never really attempted before. It involves mordanting the cyanotype in sodium bicarbonate and then soaking the cloth in a strong tea bath. It worked very well.

But I decided I wanted the finished piece to be monochrome. I made lots of various images and then tried to piece them together in a pleasing way. I didn’t have an ultimate plan. It was a process of moving things around until the individual images came together in some kind of cohesive or logical whole. At last I came up with a design that seemed to work for me, although it’s really hard to look at something on a table which is ultimately destined to be on a wall. I never feel fully confident with my choices.

I arranged the cyanotyped bird images on top of some hand dyed blue cotton fabric which I sewed together on the machine. It was much easier to look at the collage on a blue background than on the white paper template I had begun with. I decided to sew the birds to the blue cotton, allowing the background to show through in spots. I pinned it all down and sewed the birds by hand.

Once it was all together I began to think about doing some sashiko stitching on top to dress it up, but ultimately decided it would detract rather than add to the total. I also tried placing a few spots of color here and there, but determined that the blue was better on its own. So even if I was still a little uncertain, we made stretcher bars and stapled the finished piece on to them. The wall hanging is about 5′ X 1.5′. Once it was all completed, I felt disappointed. Something about it just bothered my eye.

I decided that it had something to do with the placement of the large while rectangles. I tried adding a few scraps and very soon found a simple solution that seemed much more pleasing to my eye. By adding just two small blue pieces, the design suddenly seemed much better to me.

Of course stitching those two pieces on was quite difficult since it was already stretched onto the wooden frame. Rick and I had to stand one on each side and pass the needle through one stitch at a time.

There must be a design principle here, but I couldn’t articulate it.

In other news, we have begun doing our spring cleaning… spring really does seem to have arrived here. These days it’s like being in Portugal or California in mid-February, completely unusual for our part of France. Rick helped me hang my basket collection from the downstairs kitchen ceiling, something I have wanted to do since 1983 when I saw a photograph of Martha Stewart’s restored Connecticut Farmhouse kitchen in Entertaining.


I have made several collages this winter, some of which I have posted here. My friend Nelly has given me a lot of old documents which are often hand written with beautiful calligraphy and I collect collage materials from other sources as well. I especially like antique papers and maps.

One of my clean up projects in early January was to take my large collection of decorative papers and separate them into categories. Maps in one basket, documents in another, music and colored papers in their own piles. I used to have them all together in a huge heap and I would spend more time trying to find something than in making.

Lately I have gone onto to find some papers to replenish my collection. It is possible to get something quite special for very little money. It seems that old documents, maps, stamps, postcards and letters exist in great profusion in this country. I was especially thrilled to find this document for sale for 1€. It is from 1792, which was actually during the years of the French revolution! When it arrived in the mail I discovered how well preserved it is and also how gorgeous the paper is. I suppose I will have to find something very special to make with it, if I can bear to use it at all.

Other papers I acquired aren’t quite so old, but I was able to find some attractive invoices with nice stamps. I like to use columns of numbers and signatures in my collages as well. They can be quite effective.

Knowing my fondness for old materials, my son-in-law in California found me an antique stamp collection book and some great old tags. He had no idea that I have an enormous collection of stamps, and this little book has made it much easier to see.

Several years ago when my friends Gail and Nelly were visiting, I found this stash of antique gummed labels in a brocante (antique store). The owner was asking a small fortune for them and wouldn’t negotiate. Gail was kind enough to split the lot with me. I find them so attractive. I have used them sparingly since.

Our week at the Maison has been exceptionally mild. This time of year I enjoy both the sunrise and sunset. During the summer the sun comes up very early and sets very late, but this time of year the daylight and darkness are in balance. It won’t be long until the vernal equinox.