Using Plant Prints

Wall hanging quilted with a traditional Sashiko stitch design

Printing with plants is a magical process and it can get quite addictive. Over the course of a few years I have used a lot of fabric and paper to imprint plants. I have a large stack of both. I like to be able to put these prints to some kind of practical use. Some eco-dyers make clothing with the fabric they dye, but I tend to prefer to make wall hangings.

With a stack of my recent mordant experiments, I recently made an accordion book which I can use as a resource to remember effects I have gotten from various plants.

It is a small object d’art in its own right.

One of my favorite plants to print is bergamot (also known as bee balm), which is an invasive volunteer in our garden. It has literally taken over several of our beds. Of course it is also an edible plant, from the mint family, and, as its name suggests, a supporter of bees and butterflies. It produces my favorite images, so I guess it goes to show that sometimes nature knows better what to offer the garden than the horticulturist herself.

Hello Summer!

View from our upstairs window, a swallow swooping past

This week our hemisphere tilted its maximum towards the sun. We had our longest day, which in our part of the world means that it is light from 5AM until close to midnight. From now we move inexorably towards winter again…but in the meantime, the long, languid days bring that sense of well-being that comes with the various bird songs I hear outside my window as I write this, the warm weather and all the happy travelers who come to our door.

Painting the front doors of the Maison Conti

We have had five Japanese artists staying with us this week. They have been a sensation in our town, as they seem quite exotic and attractive to the locals. The artists have been traveling around France with their painting supplies and portable stools, making many watercolor sketches. Their routine is rigorous. They were off right after breakfast, took only a short lunch break and worked again all afternoon. They made paintings in every corner of the village.

Left: California Poppy. Right: Canterbury Bells

My time in the atelier is somewhat curtailed during our busiest months, but I did manage to collect some garden flowers and eco-dye them onto paper.

View from the back window, village cat resting on the castle wall

Summer always brings a renewed interest in cooking, and dare I say, in eating. We have so many fresh ingredients and our wonderful window herb garden gets used at practically every evening meal.

Moon rising over the village

A nice bonus to this first week of summer was a full moon.

Wall Hanging

After several months, I finally finished my silk wall hanging, which I first stitched together last winter. I had bought some backing and some silk thread but did not get around to actually putting it all together until this week. I had thought I would do much more needle work on top of the ecodyed silk rectangles, but in the end, it seemed unnecessary. I quilted it very simply and put a blanket stitch around the perimeter and that seemed enough. The fabric is so beautiful, soft and shiny, that in this case, less seemed more.

I’m happy with the way it hangs in our entry.

I am ecodyeing our local plants as they come into bloom. Here is a poppy dyed onto paper.

Projects from the Garden

When spring arrives, trees leaf out, flowers come into bloom and more possibilities present themselves for work in the atelier. I am happy that nature, the garden and the studio are intertwined. I appreciate the seasonality of my projects. This week I finished sewing together squares of leaf prints, cyanotypes on cotton. They were created in April, mostly from our little Japanese maple tree. I wasn’t 100% satisfied with the results, but it shows me a path that can easily lead to other more successful creations.

It’s the time of year when our peony gives us a profusion of huge red flowers. We had several large bouquets around the house last week. Once the blossoms began dropping their petals, I eco-dyed one of them onto paper and got a very lovely print.

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!

In and Out

I am enjoying winter this year. The polar vortex we had in Europe last year has chosen another continent this time. Days speed past and frankly, when it’s sunny and warm, it almost seems as if spring is just around the corner. I do spend most of my time working on projects in the atelier. It’s the only time of year that I can count on days at a time with no interruptions or demands.

We did take a couple of days in Paris to celebrate the grandchildren’s birthdays which are just over a week apart. Emily took us to lunch on the canal which is a short walk from their house. The view from our table was onto this colorful wall.

Back at home I began a new wall hanging/quilt made with strips of gorgeous silk crepe. I had eco-dyed quite a few pieces this fall with willow, maple, berries and several other plants I gathered on a walk around our local lake.

I’ve gotten as far as sewing the pieces together. I ordered some batting and silk sashiko thread, so I have weeks of work still left to do before it will be complete.

When the sun shines, I try to have some paper ready to make cyanotypes. Despite a few snowy days last week, we still have a Christmas Rose blooming on the terrace, and snowdrops have arrived in the upper garden.

I left this image to develop in the sun for three times longer than I do in the summer. It gave me the typical bright blue cyanotype background.

Another project that has been sitting in my drawer since last fall, is a group of signatures for a book with eco-dyed boiled pages. These were all made in September. I had intended them to be completed during the time my friend Gail Rieke was giving her workshop here. Somehow that did not occur. I don’t exactly know why, but I feel somewhat intimidated by book binding and I always put off a project like this for a long while. I knew that I wanted to make a coptic stitch binding, which doesn’t require a spine. The pages are simply sewn together. I’ve never done this type of binding before, but this week I pulled all the pages out and decided the time had come.

It’s really not so hard. You simply need to make a cover, put in holes for the stitching and put holes into all the pages. I made a template to be sure that the holes were in the same location on every page and used an awl to punch them in. Rick got involved, as he is very good with projects like this. He is much more precise in his measurements and I am happy to have his help and patience.

Through a YouTube video, I learned how to make the coptic stitch that holds the book together. Rick took over and finished the binding for me. I was pleased with the results. I have a few other pages waiting for the same treatment.

The other escape from the atelier during the week was into La Ferté-Bernard. I captured a sunny image of the most popular restaurant in town, the Marais, which is open every day of the year. La Ferté is our local “big town” where we do our weekly grocery shopping. It features prominently in Daphne du Maurier’s novel The Scapegoat. If you’re not familiar with her, I recommend her to you. She is the author of Rebecca, and The Birds, both made into movies by Alfred Hitchcock. She was British but had a family connection to this part of France. She wrote another interesting book called The Glass Blowers which is set during the French Revolution and features our own little village of Montmirail.

Some Vagaries OF Eco-Dyeing

Eco-printing is a recent development in natural dyeing. As far as I’ve been able to discover, it was originally developed by an Australian textile artist and stylist named India Flint. On her website she takes credit for inventing the technique, but being a generous person, she has also shared her process widely, and there are now many practitioners, including myself. Basically the process involves taking leaves, flowers and other plant parts, rolling them up in fabric or paper and then steaming or boiling the bundle to extract a print.

One of the pleasures and goals of these prints is to bring out the beautiful natural colors of different leaf varieties, (which may have limited relationship to the actual color the leaf appears to be in nature). Many leaves print brown, so getting more unusual shades is a constant motivation for continued exploration.  I can never look at a leaf in the same way I used to do. I’m always wondering what new color result I will get if I put it into a pot. No new leaf is safe from my pruning shears!

If you search for images of eco-prints, you will see many examples of ones made from eucalyptus leaves which give a bright red color. For an eco-dyer, this is the top of the mountain. The results are just spectacular. But every single one of the bright red eucalyptus leaf prints seem to be from an Australian artist. I can not duplicate that color with either Californian or French eucalyptus leaves. And if you know anything about the history of the eucalyptus tree in California, which was imported in the late 19th century from Australia (where it is was known as the gum tree), you will be aware that it is one of those hopeful but naive experiments that turned into an environmental catastrophe. So it is no wonder that California leaves do not preform the same as native Australian ones. The trees themselves, a source of excellent hardwood in Australia, adapted in a totally different way to their California habitat. My friend Jen, from England, has told me the same is true for her experiments with English eucalyptus leaves. That red color eludes us. Above, you see my best results for French eucalyptus leaves, a nice yellow, but far from the extravagant color India Flint and her fellow countrywomen can achieve.

Still, the beauty of eco-prints is that they describe a place, and each place is different. It is for the artist to discover the treasures of her own location. So I hunt for leaves close to home and find my own interesting colors.

My garden is full of columbine, an old fashioned flowering plant I’ve been partial to for years, so it was natural to try steaming some of those leaves. In fall 2017 the color came out a lovely orange. This spring I was anxious to have the same result so when the plants began to emerge I put them in the pot again. But they did not yield the pretty orange,  not in the spring, not in the summer and not even in the fall of this year. Jen told me that word is  there was much less tannin in plants this year. Ah the mysteries of nature!

So to get my bright color fix, I turned my attention towards berries.

Virginia creeper berries were the source of many richly colored eco-prints I made in late September, as the berries were first beginning to appear. I loved the way that the blue color swam all over the page creating a large block of blue.

I tried some black berries I found in our local forest as well. I liked the results very much.

In November when I spent some time in Paris, I found another source for the Virginia Creeper berries. I brought them home expecting to get much the same results as I had in September. But that was not the case. No matter how many little bundles of berries I put onto my paper, they printed as individual points of color and never turned into large blocks as they had in September.

My latest experiment came last week when I discovered that the honeysuckle plants on the fence outside our house had grown berries. What color would they produce?

As it turned out, honeysuckle berries are not very generous in releasing color, but the leaves are a different story. The big surprise for me was that when I boiled a couple of pieces of paper, each with the branches in the same batch, for the same amount of time, clamped between the same boards, in the same steam bath, they came out completely different from one another.

The only difference between the two was the kind of paper I used. On the left is a print made on a piece of bristol, on the right, watercolor paper. The leaf color is certainly absorbed much better into the watercolor paper, but the colors of leaves and berries is rather more subtle and interesting on the bristol.

Eco-printing is curious and unpredictable. Because one can never really count on a particular outcome it remains for me a source of endless fascination.