Tuesday 20 August 2019

Summer Art Challenge Part Six - Witch's Brew #2

Two of the final Slamsey's Creative Summer Challenge prompts last week were 'develop' and 'same time, same place'. which fitted rather neatly with my plans to revisit my eco printing experiments.

Emboldened by the success of my first attempt, I thought I would try the process again with some different paper and with slightly fewer leaves on each page. In my enthusiasm, the papers in the first attempt had been a bit crowded, which resulted in too much going on in some of the resulting prints, I felt. I also wanted to try out some different leaves - oak and witch hazel for example, both of which are high in the tannin required to give a good image.

A slightly thinner paper sandwich took up less room in my roasting cauldron which also allowed me to add in a piece of my broomstick(!) around which I had tied some pieces of white calico, layered with leaves to see what would happen on fabric as well as paper. I used exactly the same process as I used the first time, soaking my substrates and botanicals in alum solution and adding my jar of rusty iron bits, soaked in vinegar and water.

The paper prints came out beautifully - less busy than the first set and with very clear, defined images with a good amount of colour, especially from the witch hazel. But the fabric was a bit disappointing. As I said to Anne, less like artistic prints and more like rags someone has used to clean their bicycle-chain!

Part two of this second experiment was to add some extra colour. The colour palette of eco prints is quite cold, especially with the addition of iron to the cauldron. The iron helps to give the images definition but it does add a certain melancholy darkness and I wanted to see if I couldn't brighten things up with a dip in some kind of natural dye bath.

I liked the idea of adding blue but blue in the natural dye world is a tricky customer and after some extensive research, I reluctantly came to the conclusion that setting up a woad vat, activated with stale urine, was not a flyer. Indigo dyeing too, is quite complicated and I wasn't interested in the easier-to-obtain shades such as browns or yellows. Pink, however, was another matter. Of the available options, I chose good old fashioned cochineal, the original pink food colouring. As you probably know, cochineal is made from bugs. In particular, the females of a species of beetle which feed on a variety of S American cactus. The beetles absorb the red colourant from the cactus and are harvested, dried and ground up to make the vivid pink dye. Slightly off-putting though the process sounded, it seemed feasible and, as cochineal is food-safe, it was compatible with operating in a domestic kitchen where food, as well as dye, is prepared.

Taking a deep breath, I ordered some dead critters through the post. A wee jar of desiccated cochineal beetles arrived and I duly ground a couple of teaspoonfuls up with a pestle and mortar.

I then simmered them in filtered rainwater with a pinch of cream of tartar, strained them and repeated the process with fresh water another three times, to extract as much colour as possible. If last week's efforts had felt slightly 'witchy', this certainly did. The resulting liquid from each 'extraction' I collected up in my roasting pan and added my paper prints in loose pages leaving them to steep at 30˚C for 30 minutes and then raising the temperature to 80˚ C for another 45 minutes.

Boiling dulls the colour apparently, so a thermometer and a watchful, witchy eye is required on the proceedings. Carefully removing the pages from the dye batch I was thrilled to see how much colour they had taken and how much variation there was. The residual iron left in the prints had pushed the pink cochineal colour towards purple in places.

Some pages had absorbed more colour than others but, all in all, I thought the results were fabulous. Go, cochineal beetles!

Encouraged by the advice on the Interwebs to save the used dye for reuse, I carefully poured it into a cleaned milk carton, (labelled it, to avoid anyone getting an unpleasant surprise when making a cup of tea!), and stored it in the fridge. It will keep for about a week apparently. The following day I thought I'd see what it might do to my cheerless fabric prints. And lo and behold it performed its magic again! In place of my bicycle-chain-cleaning-rags, I had some rather beautiful, subtle prints on gentle pink backgrounds - enough colour to transform but not so much they looked garish.

The pink colour brought out subtleties of the images both on the fabric and the paper that were not obvious previously. I was especially thrilled to see that the rose leaf prints on paper now had a colour not dissimilar to the fresh leaves giving the print an alive quality that I really liked.

I've used some of the printed fabric and paper to make covers for some new homemade sketch books. I need a new book for recording the avenues opening up ahead and developing my witch's brew possibilities!

Sadly the Slamseys creative Summer Challenge ended on Friday but all the posts and prompts are still on the Slamseys Journal site here. Do have a look - there's nothing to stop you participating now or any time in the future you feel your creativity could do with a boost.

Both this year and last year, I've found it's moved me on creativity-wise in exciting directions I could not possibly have foreseen and has just been the best fun.

Thank you so much Anne.

E x

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.

Thursday 8 August 2019

Summer Art Challenge Part Four - Ink One, Stitch One

The Slamseys Creative Summer Challenge prompts at the end of last week and beginning of this were 'sharing', 'self portrait' and 'reflection'. I think I blurred the boundaries of each of them rather mercilessly but here's my interpretation of them anyway.

It started with the rather unfortunate stain I managed to add to my new art journal cover when using Caligo Safewash relief inks for the first time. If the ink was unintentionally indelible on fabric, then perhaps I could use it intentionally so? Anne has clearly had successful results using these inks on fabric and so have others, so, armed with plenty of newspaper, rubber gloves, a large bottle of washing-up liquid and with my art journal safely out of reach, I had another go at confronting my inky nemesis, this time sharing out the prints between paper and fabric. The colours of these inks on paper, I have to say, are absolutely spectacular - luminous and with a wonderful translucent quality, that the water-soluble ones just can't compete with.

Equipped with an array of seed-heads from the garden including some dill (which has produced a lot more seed than leaf this year) and some dried-up grape hyacinth husks, I set to.

The paper prints are gorgeous in a simple kind of way - very three dimensional and as I say, luminous in colour. The fabric prints less so. What was luminous and subtly translucent on paper was dull and flat on the cotton, calico fabric. Disappointing. Perhaps I could embellish them somehow? After cautiously touching one, some hours after printing, and a luridly turquoise green thumb later, it was clear that they were still seriously tacky and would need several days' drying time. Irritating, when I wanted to get on and improve them straightaway. I pegged them up and left them to it.

The fabric prints in the pic below are done with my poppy seed-head rubber stamp and have come out more clearly. They are, however, still tacky almost a week on, which is frustrating.

All in all, however, apart from managing to transfer quite a lot of blue ink to my face, resulting in a marked (but fortunately temporary), affinity to a woad-painted, ancient Briton and liberally coating the sink in oily blue and green stains, I had avoided staining too much else - success in part!

I liked the idea of transferring some of my print images to fabric though and while the printed fabric dried, I thought I'd spill out some of my earlier images onto fabric as well as paper.

One idea led to another and I thought may be I would make a tea-cosy out of a load of small linen scraps left over from making some aprons and napkins a few years back, with an embroidered panel of lavender on the front.

Not quite enough lavender with just three stalks...

Better with five. And better still with some tiny glass beads sewn on to represent a light misting of summer rain.

The fact that the day's prompt was 'self-portrait' made my idea seem a bit off-beam initially but then I thought that what was emerging was actually,  not a bad representation of the person I am, in a funny sort of way. We're all living patchwork pieces of context, experience and genetics, after all.

A patchwork tea-cosy was the first thing I made entirely by myself when I learnt to sew - a present for my mother who kindly overlooked the cosy's many flaws and peculiarities. I wrote about the inspiration for it and the making of it here if you're interested.

This one looks a bit more business-like but it too has a few quirks to it, such as the random piecing of the back where I got in a muddle about what square went where but only realised when it was too late to restitch it. A reminder of my all too characteristic impatience, I fear!

However, fuelled with enthusiasm and the fact that I had cut more little squares than I needed for one tea-cosy as well as the fact that the printed fabric still wasn't dry, I made a second one. This time with a teasel head and an accompanying bee. I stitched the spiky teasel stalk a bit long so this cosy had to be more square-shaped. But it will still suit the recipient's tea-pot so no worries.

Fortified by tea from under a lavender-embroidered-cosy-that-acts-as-a-self-portrait ...

... and a few more days' interlude, I returned to my printed fabric panels. The Gelli plate printed fabric now seemed dry and ready to be washed and pressed. Laundering has improved the handle of the printed fabric but they look as uninspiring as they did before. Faded. And not in a good way. Side by side with their paper equivalents, they are a poor reflection of their luminous paper sisters, as you can see.

Disappointing, as I say. But may be they could be embellished by adding stitches to the ink?

I've only embellished one so far - the rather sorry-looking print of grape hyacinth husks. I cut out silhouette shapes of the seed-heads in tiny scraps of left-over fabric and appliqu├ęd them just to one side of each printed seed-head image so that the original print works as a kind of shadow.

And with the addition of a few flat, iridescent beads it was starting to look a good deal more interesting.

I wonder whether I have not so much embellished the original print as obliterated it. But whether embellished or obliterated, it looks a great deal better!

I may have a go at the other prints similarly but I have another project up my sleeve in response to yesterday's prompt of 'shaking things up with something totally new' so they will have to wait their turn!

As I said at the beginning, I am conscious I have blurred the boundaries and definitions of this week's prompts rather shamelessly. (I never was much good at following instructions!) But it's been an interesting and absorbing voyage of discovery nonetheless.
E x