In my personal botany studies I’ve been thinking a lot about my own connection with plants in my environment. Fortunately our yard has a diverse range of foliage thanks to the garden loving lady that once owned the house we’re renting and I’ve had a lot of good things to study right outside my door.
In the past few weeks I’ve become interested in eco-printing, a process similar to dying but uniquely different. Essentially, if solar printing and natural dying had a baby you’d have a so-called eco-print.
The essential quality of an eco-print is that you use the natural dyes in plants to make a print onto another surface (like paper or more commonly, fabric). When you first start looking into eco-printing the majority of resources really talk about the application in fiber arts. Though I love fiber-based work, and create some from time to time, what I really wanted was the ability to recreate this effect on paper.
Threadborne offers a great tutorial on eco-printing both fabric and paper by Wendy Feldberg (with additional tutorials collected at end of main post). The site includes some good supplemental information about health and safety (super important) and is one of the best resources I’ve come across due to its uncomplicated but thorough instruction and effective photographic documentation.
Additionally, I ran across this awesome tutorial (below) for a “boiled book” that combines the basic principles of eco-printing with some more lay-person friendly methodology that makes prints much more predictable.
While many artists might adopt a purist view that adding commercial dye is a bit contradictory to the “eco” part of eco-printing (and others might argue strongly against not using a mordant to treat the paper to ensure stronger retention of plant dyes), I’ve found that the boiled book video demo is super easy and beginner friendly.
In my own exploration I really bumbled myself through everything but in the end I found myself with paper that I like so I’m happy. I’ve got more ideas about what to try but I wanted to share some of what I did as I think that it’s pretty simple for anyone with a casual interest to achieve great results without the need of a lot of specialty stuff (or a degree in fiber arts). Of all the ways I’ve seen, the instruction provided in the “boiled book” video and what’s outlined here is by far the most simplified (but results assured) way of going about this.
ECO-PRINTING THE “EASY WAY”
- Printmaking or watercolor paper (140 lb recommended) than has good sizing and can be soaked for long periods of time (fully immersed).
- White Vinegar (regular household type)
- Big pot or pan that you do not use for food… (or don’t use for food later on)
- Foliage from your garden or yard (check out some of the stuff you probably should in the lists linked further down though)
- Thread or rubber bands
- Gloves (seriously, use gloves)
- Scrap board (optional)
- Clamps (optional)
- Items that are helpful but could be substituted for anything similar (or eliminated): tub or bowl that you don’t use for food (or will not use for food later on) to put your dyed papers in before and during washing, paper towels to layer between pages to help draw out moisture, a towel to lay everything out on, a table under a fan to help dry out papers.
- Cut or tear paper down to a size that fits your pot or pan. You can curve the paper stack a little (as in a taller pot) but folding is not advised because your wet paper will be fragile and this will distress the surface and make it crumble or pill later on if you work back into it with other wet media. Also slightly curving or bending will make some areas of your paper looser and more dye will soak into this band and look weird.
- Pick stuff to print – layer these between your paper pieces. I would recommend that you use a variety of plants in between each page so that if something doesn’t work, the other items might. As advised in the video, it is a really good idea to allow plants to go off the edges so that dye soaks into the veins and around the outline of the plant. Avoid really flimsy plants like clover – they just turn smiley and gross.
- Tie your stack together with thread (or wrap with rubber bands). The video suggests using a board and clamps and this is a good idea because it keeps your papers tightly (and evenly) bound in the pot. I tried this process with and without this addition and honestly, they seemed about the same so maybe it’s not critical (although I think that I wrapped them pretty tight with thread to begin with).
- Boil some water (enough to cover your stack of paper completely).
- Add some vinegar. I added about 1 cup to about a gallon of water for my own stuff. I’d say it’s fine to eyeball it – just be generous.
- Soak your stack in the vinegar water for 15-20 minutes or so to make sure everything it really saturated and maintain a slight rolling boil.
- Add a cap full of dye (or a little bit of a powdered dye packet) in whatever color you prefer. The video shows the use of indigo powered dye. I used black RIT liquid dye (1 cap full).
- Keep covered and continue to keep at a rolling boil for 1 to 1.5 hours (or longer).
- When done, put on gloves and take the stack out, drain it, and allow to cool a bit.
- Using gloves, cut off the thread or rubber bands and discard.
- Start taking each sheet up and gently pull off the plants and discard.
- Gently rinse off any remaining plant matter/dye from paper but be super careful not to rub the surface so that you don’t disturb the fibers for future use.
- Lay flat to dry. As I was rinsing my sheets off I layered them between paper towels so that some of the moisture would be removed. This helped when I went to lay them flat on a towel on a table under a ceiling fan and they only took a few hours to finish drying out.
- Enjoy the fruits of your labor. Make all the things!
Some notes: I used Reeves BFK (in tan, cream, and white), blue Pescia (a printmaking paper), and Arches (all 140 lb papers) and they worked great. I would avoid cheep watercolor papers (or anything less than 90 lb) which may only be sized on one side as they will be less likely to withstand the whole process. I tried to sandwich my first stack of papers between mat board and it started to flake apart and while this worked to keep my papers together tightly it was not fun.
There are obviously some things that could be harmful to you (plus your children and pets) if cooked inside your house. Don’t just assume you’ll be okay if you don’t know for sure what kinds of plants you’re using.
Ideally, only do this in a space with good ventilation that is not around your family and pets. However, if you’re like me all you have is your kitchen and this means you’ll want to be careful to be more conscientious to be safe.
I haven’t found a list that explicitly states “don’t boil this stuff when you are trying to make eco-prints or you’ll die” but I did find some good lists of common backyard plants that are toxic. These list specific parts of plants that are poisonous and logic leads me to believe that you probably don’t want to boil these components in your kitchen and then spend 2 hours breathing in are emitted from the “soup”.
Additionally, do research and learn what other eco-printers use and have success with. For example – I see all over the web that people use dandelions, peonies, rose leaves, and oak leaves when doing home dying so I know these are safe to use.
- Common toxic or poisonous backyard plants that might need to be avoided.
- 13 pretty harmful plants that might cause you issues.
- Still more plants that can hurt you and your kids.
I don’t want to freak anyone out or deter you from trying this out or anything but this is not something to be taken lightly. Please be careful with pets and small animals in your house. Just think about the whole canary in the coal mine scenario – your pets will not need as much exposure as you will to feel bad. Even though I checked out all the plants I used in my own experiments I still felt pretty nauseated from the smell of my boiled concoctions and was careful to air out the house throughout the process to keep my pets from being in danger.
I followed the above directions for my first batch of small pieces of paper. They turned out great and I was so excited to reveal and rinse each piece. Peonies and rose leaves achieved some of the best results for me.
The second batch had paper that was twice as big – I (unsuccessfully) tried to steam these in the oven inside a make-shift steamer with a foil baking tin, drying rack, and turkey bag. Epic fail.
This process really just dried stuff out so in a last ditch effort I soaked the stack in some faucet-hot vinegar water for about 5 minutes and then curled and pushed the whole stack into the remains of the first batch and boiled for 45 minutes. At that point I was tired of the smell and said it was enough. But it still worked out!
There really wasn’t much difference between the success of the first (well planned batch) and second (what the hell) batch so just I’d recommend just throwing yourself into it. The addition of the dye really helps make sure that you get some visually stunning results even if you’re not working with ideal plants and don’t have pre-treated papers.
I did order some alum to use as a mordant in the future – I want the actual plant dyes to be more obvious in the finished product and this seems to be one way to obtain this effect.
I’m really excited to make stuff when my finished pieces. I’ll report back about their light-fastness and water-resistance once I start using them.
Have fun (but please be safe and don’t die)!