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.

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.