Winter Sun

While a sunny summer day is nothing to scorn, and sun on a spring or fall day is sweet, a sunny winter day offers something even more special than in any other season. Perhaps it is the clarity of the light, the crisp long shadows or simply the relief after a week of overcast skies to see the crystal blue above us again. This week we have had several sunlit days. My heart has been positively singing, which I attribute to the cloudless skies, although I’m sure my ginseng morning energy boost drink probably helps a lot too.

We took some nice walks into the woods, through allées I have never actually been down before (probably because we had to trespass) and saw some pretty ruins.

As usual I collected some leaves along the way. I really can no longer go past a plant without having a good look. I still don’t know all the names of my local vegetation, but because of my new interest in eco-dyeing, I am learning. Anything that opens my eyes wider to the world around me is okay by me. I notice myself noticing and I like that.

There are various “recipes” for making eco-prints from plants. On YouTube you can find many ways to go about it. I experimented with a lot of them until I found the technique that worked best for me. Basically it involves scouring my fabric first and then dipping it into a mordant of alum and washing soda mixed with water for a few minutes. I put my plants into a bath of vinegar and water and afterwards into a bit of iron water. I wrap the plants in the fabric then steam it for an hour.

I did get a lot of bleeding when I followed this procedure last fall, so when I read something entirely new that suggested that soaking leaves in water for several weeks might solve this issue, it got my attention. Since my terrace was full of fallen leaves, I gathered them together at the end of December and put them in a big pot of water to soak.

During this week I tested out the new technique. My rose branches, for instance, were none the worse for wear after their extended soak. The theory is that the breaking down of the cell walls allows the color from the plant to release more easily and thus create more of a leaf outline rather than a pool of color. I arranged roses, berries and a few wisteria leaves onto a piece of cotton which had been dipped in iron water and allowed to “cure” for a couple of days.

This procedure involved boiling the bundles in plain water for 45 minutes.

After less than an hour, I lifted the steaming bundles from the pot and allowed them to cool. Then I unwrapped them.

The roses made a nice print, it’s true, although I don’t think the results were extraordinarily different than my usual technique. The berries printed as usual and the wisteria hardly printed at all.

I did think this little leaf and its branch printed very much more richly than usual. Of course it all goes to show, as I have already discovered, that each leaf variety responds differently, and the time of year can profoundly influence results. The nice thing about eco-dyeing is how much more there always is to discover about it.

Cyanotype

I started making cyanotypes about five years ago. It is an antique photographic technique that creates blue prints. It’s a very easy process that involves mixing a couple of chemicals together and painting paper or fabric with the photo sensitive concoction. Once dry you can either make an arrangement of objects, like plants or feathers or use a digital negative to place in contact with the photo sensitive material, press in a glass frame, leave out in the sun for a few minutes and then develop with water.

For the first few years I worked only on paper but last year I began to make cyanotype images on fabric which I use in my eco-dyed tapestries.

Last month Daniel sent me an article about a exhibition at the main branch of the New York Public Library entitled She Needed No Camera to Make the First Book of Photographs about the British botanist, Anna Atkins who used cyanotypes 175 years ago to catalogue seaweed and algae off the coast where she lived. I loved the idea of using cyanotype as a kind of natural history record of local plant life. I decided that I would make a few cyanotype images each month for a year and chronicle the plants that live in our garden. Here’s what I have so far:

I began in November with a few prints of late fall flowers from our terrace garden. The faithful cool weather pansy is a local favorite throughout the winter.

The Campanula were still alive as we had not yet had our first frost.

I like the cyclamen as they have semi-transparent white petals which produce a kind of x-ray effect.

December images were a bit more of a challenge since we didn’t have a sunny day until mid-month, and even then the sun is very low in the sky and not strong enough to create the deep blue color you get at sunnier times of the year.

We do still have daisies in bloom.

I was surprised to find a sweet pea branch still alive. It’s not typically what one would expect in December, but there it was, with all it’s attractive curly-qs.

The Daphne is already budded up. It is the first plant of the year to bloom in February. It is interesting to observe how soon it starts to prepare for that.

Have a very pleasant holiday season. I will resume the blog in the new year.