Sunday, 11 August 2019

Summer Art Challenge Part Five - 'Double, double toil and trouble, Fire burn and cauldron bubble.'*

One of the Slamseys Creative Summer Challenge prompts last week was 'Shake it up and do something different'. So I have been dabbling, (both literally and figuratively), in the witch's cauldron of eco printing.

While I have not gone so far as to add any of the gruesome ingredients the witches in Macbeth recommend, no 'eye of newt and toe of frog'*, thank you very much, nor indeed a 'fillet of a fenny snake'*, (whatever that may be), nor any of the other unspeakable items they list, I have indeed seen the contents of my cauldron this week 'like a hell-broth boil and bubble'* and have sometimes wondered if the smell in my own kitchen wasn't beginning to compete with the poisonous fug that must have filled the witches' cave in Shakespeare's play!

Eco printing is a relatively new method of printing onto fabric and paper which uses the natural dye substances within botanicals to create prints under certain conditions. It is as much chemistry as art. Basically, you mordant, or prepare, the fabric or paper on which you wish to print, lay leaves or other botanicals on top, bind together with string, either in a tight sandwich, or wrapped around a rod, and place in a bubbling pan of simmering water (you can also add rusty metal or bits of copper pipe to enhance and modify the colour) and 'cook' for a couple of hours. At the end of the 'cooking' period, you fish out your bundle, unwrap and reveal prints that will hopefully take your breath away!

All printing done by hand is to some extent unpredictable - you never quite know when what you are going to get in terms of definition, colour intensity, etc but this process takes unpredictability to a whole new level. There are some basic principles which will steer the direction of things but if the Gelli Plate printing I've done in the past is unpredictable in a domestic kind of way, there is a fundamental wildness to the unpredictability of eco printing that puts it in a whole new league of its own.

To get an idea of what I mean, here are just some of the variables that can (and will) affect the results:
  • the type of paper or fabric you use, 
  • the individual characteristics of your chosen botanicals - two leaves from exactly the same tree, picked from exactly the same twig and on exactly the same day may well print totally differently, for example
  • the mineral content / ph balance of the water you use
  • the material your witch's cauldron, dye-pot is made of
  • the type of mordant you use and how much
  • what you add to your cauldron to modify the colour and how much
  • what method and materials you use to bind the fabric or paper before simmering
  • how you arrange the botanicals
  • whether there is a new moon and whether you have chanted a Macbeth-style incantation over the evil-smelling brew as it bubbles!
I am not a mathematician, as anyone knows, but even I can work out that having so many variables makes the probability of ensuring any one particular result infinitely small. Do not be put off however, because, regardless of the unpredictability, it works and actually, the radical unpredictability is part of the fun.

If you are unfamiliar with eco printing, have a Google around and watch some of the videos out there for a better guide than my novice experience can give you. Mostly people seem to use this technique on fabric but you can do it with paper too and that's what I started with.

To do what I did, you need the following equipment:

  • paper cut into A4 size sheets (heavy watercolour or collage paper - 120-140 lb, or it won't survive the soaking and boiling process), 
  • soaking pots - I used a plastic cat-litter tray that I bought for paper-marbling years ago, for soaking the paper, and a plastic bucket that I use to pre-soak laundry, for the botanicals
  • alum powder - not available in a chemist or supermarket in the UK but easily obtainable from Amazon here
  • water - either straight from the tap or rainwater filtered through a coffee filter paper
  • dye-pot - I used a stainless steel, lidded roasting-pan, with a rack in the bottom, which I bought for the purpose - I don't particularly want to cook food in a cauldron I've been boiling rusty nails and indeed non-edible leaves in and the roasting pan is a good shape and size for an A5 paper sandwich. The lid is also desirable for reasons which will become clear later!
  • an old lidded glass jam jar to which you have added a selection of rusty metal bits, 250ml water and the same quantity of vinegar at least 24 hours before and preferably earlier
  • rubber gloves - alum is relatively safe as a chemical as far as I can gather but for making up the 'sandwich' where my hands were constantly in the alum solution, I felt that protective gloves were indicated
  • botanicals - leaves rich in tannin** work best. I used some alder and walnut leaves picked on a walk by the Thames earlier in the week and various leaves from the garden - smokebush, grape vine, rose leaves, virginia creeper, blackberry, silver birch, lemon verbena, dill seed-heads, myrtle, willow. 
  • I also threw in some dead red geranium head petals and some pink anemone-like flowers. I avoided anything known to be poisonous, for obvious reasons, so no 'root of hemlock digg'd i'th'dark'* nor even 'slips of yew'*.
  • two rigid panels to wrap your soaked paper sandwich in. D cut me two very nice aluminium plates slightly bigger than A5 paper from his Aladdin's cave of DIY supplies but you could use wooden boards sawn to size or a couple of small plastic chopping boards (dishwasher-proof ones that will withstand the heat of your cauldron!).
  • string
  • a fine day - the process is quite messy (and aromatic!) so being able to do some of it outside is good and I was grateful to have all the kitchen windows and doors wide open while my cauldron hubble-bubbled on the stove!
**Tannin is the substance that reacts with the iron to give definition, darkness and permanence to the images you are creating. Oaks are rich in it which is why oak apples were ground up and boiled with rusty iron to make ink in centuries past, before modern, commercial ink production processes took over. Iron gall ink, which you can still buy, I believe, is absolutely indelible. I have some oak apples I collected last year - I may boil them up next!

Anyway, moving on, here's the method I used on Thursday:

Soak the paper for about an hour and a half in a solution of 1 tbsp alum dissolved in 2 litres of lukewarm water.

Soak the botanicals also in alum solution for the same period. I used 2 tbsps of alum dissolved in 4 litres of water.

At the end of the soaking period, remove a sheet of paper and fold gently in half to make an A5 size. Open out again and start layering your soaked botanicals onto one half of the paper.

Fold over again and continue layering one folded sheet on top of another.

You can layer botanicals between the folded pieces as well as within them, resulting in prints appearing on both sides of the paper. Stack them neatly as you go. Do not discard the alum solution soaking water.

Bind your paper and botanicals into a nice firm sandwich using your rigid plates on the outside and plenty of string. Leave a long end of string to help fish your boiled 'sandwich' out when it's finished 'cooking'.

Place your tied up 'sandwich' into the roasting pan on top of the rack. Add the contents of your jar of rusty metal (metal bits and liquid) to the pan.

Top up the pan with your reserved alum solution and carefully transfer to the stove. (You do not need to 'make the gruel thick and slab'*!) Clap the lid on.

Open the windows and, if you have one, switch on your extractor fan. Heat until simmering and leave to simmer for about two hours. The smell is er, interesting! I didn't think it was too bad to begin with but by the end I was pretty glad to see the back of it!

So, believe me, you will be glad of that lid to prevent too much of the smell escaping!

At the end of the cooking period. Take the pan outside again. Tip most of the cooking 'liquor' down the drain and fish out your 'sandwich'.

Leave alone until cool enough to handle, (no need to 'cool it with a baboon's blood'* thank God!'), then gently unwrap and discover what's inside. This needs to be done while everything is still wet as, once dry, it's difficult to remove the leaves without damaging the paper. Make sure you have somewhere to lay out your wet sheets. I laid the pages out on our old plastic garden table which has a perfectly smooth surface and is easy to clean before and after.

You may well need to rinse the paper to remove all the plant material. A garden hose turned on a low setting and gently sprayed over the pages worked well here. Be careful - the wet sheets are fragile and tear easily, even if you are using heavy quality paper.

Once rinsed (and admired!), leave to dry flat. After leaving outside in a warm breeze to dry off for a few hours, they are dry enough to be collected up and to finish drying inside, spread on a thick layer of newspaper overnight.

Admire again the magical results of art, fluke and chemistry! Finally, call up your black cat, don your pointed witch's hat and ride off on your broomstick, cackling happily to celebrate, or alternatively, failing availability of cat, hat and broomstick, 'be bloody, bold and resolute'* and pour yourself a large gin and tonic to toast your efforts!

It's fascinating seeing how the images print on both sides of the paper in contact with the leaves so you get pairs of almost-mirror images. Almost-mirror because they are not identical - the upper surface of the leaves prints differently from the underneath surface as you can see in the following pairs of prints.

This pair is smokebush (bottom left), silver birch (middle right), virginia creeper (upper left) and rose leaf (upper right). In the second pic, left becomes right and vice versa

The next pair are alder leaves.

And this pair is from walnut leaves which are very tannin-rich and produce this wonderful vivid yellow.

The next pics are sections cut from slightly less good bigger prints. This one is a spray of rose leaves.

And this one is blackberry leaves on the left and rose leaves on the right.

This is a grape vine leaf.

And this is one of the anemone-type flowers; the only recognisable flower image they produced in the whole batch. Not nearly as clear as some of the other prints but recognisable nonetheless.

I have no idea really what made what colour other than the walnut leaves clearly produce a strong yellow. The purple colour may come from the dried up geranium petals which donated colour but no shape, I think.

The overall palette is quite moody and muted but there is much more variation than I expected and much more overall colour than I dared hope for so, all in all, I feel rather pleased and will have another go shortly.

Happy Sunday afternoon!
E x

*All the quotations are from Shakespeare's Macbeth Act IV. Scene I.


  1. What fun! It's amazing how you can get such different results with the same leaves. It would be interesting to try it through the year as I imagine spring leaves would give different results to autumn ones.
    You certainly shook it up!

  2. These is artfully magical! These works of art would be so lovely framed and placed on the wall in a grouping.


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