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!

Staying Home

The past week dished up rain, fog, and blue skies with temperatures ranging from cool to frozen. I spent the entire time at home, only venturing out as far as the post office down the street. We had no visitors, no clients, no interruptions. I suppose for some people that might sound a rather depressing description of a week of one’s life, but for me it was just the right thing and an unusual treat. I spent almost every waking moment in my atelier, which has been reorganized for the winter. I managed to accomplish quite a few projects.

Early in the month I had organized all my beautiful papers. Before then I simply put everything into a big stack and whenever I wanted something, I had to paw through a huge basket. Now I have decorative papers in one basket, maps in another, old documents in a third. It makes it so much easier to see what I have to work with. I have been wanting to do some more little collages. Last year I developed a technique which pleased me. I start by cutting pieces of paper into a design, in this case a series of birds.

I glue them down with PVC glue, paint the backs with glue as well and allow them to dry. Then I run them through the press on top of etching plates, using a damp piece of paper which enlivens the glue and adheres to the paper. The etching plates make a nice emboss around the images.

I made two of these composite bird images. The glue is archival quality so once they come together, they remain fast.

I was also able to finish a tapestry I have been working on, made from some of my eco-prints. I sew the scraps together by hand, and then add a classic sashiko pattern on top with special sashiko thread, a little finer and tighter than embroidery thread. The pattern I used is made with rows of offset circles which create a four petal flower design. I recently discovered a very cool turquoise specialty pen which is used to draw a pattern right on top of the fabric. When finished you simply spray the pen lines with water and they magically disappear without causing drips or stains of any kind.

On sunny days I made various cyanotype products. Since the sun is at a low angle this time of year I had to triple my exposure times.

Another revelation this week occurred when Rick tried to sharpen my prismacolor pencils. I have a large collection and I really enjoy using them, but I can never keep them sharp. They wear down instantly and when trying to make them sharp again, the very soft lead breaks more often than not. We’ve tried hand sharpeners which are laborious and usually minimally successful as well as xacto knives, which work only marginally better. Rick found a new electric pencil sharpener this week, called an Office Pro and something about it makes the task fast and effective. I have never had my caddies of pencils filled with such sharp ones.

I took advantage of them in my daily journal. I have been wanting to develop my watercolor/prismacolor drawing skills this year, it’s one of my resolutions. It just got a whole lot easier!

Another resolution for the year is to add more variety to our meal planning. I found a few recipes this week that allowed us to add some new tastes to our repertoire. I am not an enthusiastic vegetable consumer, but if I could have them prepared as wonderfully as this dish, called Sesame-Soy Cabbage Stir-Fry, I would eat a lot more of them! It involves several quick steps. First you fry up the spices; ginger, garlic and red pepper flakes, removing them from the heat after infusing the oil and putting them aside (so they are not over cooked). Then you fry up the harder vegetables; the carrot, pepper and onions, giving them a few minutes head start before adding bok choy, green onions, snow peas and cabbage, one vegetable at a time, cooking for a minute or two before adding the next. At the end you add back the aromatics, some strong chicken or vegetable stock and a bit of soy sauce and finally some corn starch. Voila! A fabulous tasting mélange. It was even delicious the next day cold for lunch.

One morning I woke up to a blazing sunrise which was beautifully reflected in the windows of the castle behind our house. All in all, it was a very gratifying week!

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.