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.

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.

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.

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.