Monday, January 12, 2009


NATURE PRINTING - using natural objects to create unique prints

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This post is the third in a series explaining how a particular work of art or a group of works was created.
Nature Print, ©2009 C.J.Peiffer

What is Nature Printing?

        This is an art form that can be done by adults or children (of about grade 5 and up with adult supervision.) Nature Printing takes no particular artistic skill, but it does require a sense of composition and some planning to create successful prints. According to master printer Robert W. Little, “What a nature printer needs most is a combination of curiosity and patience.”
        Nature Printing is actually an old process perfected in Japan and called Gyotaku. When my high school biology teacher Robert W. Little (now deceased) retired, he visited Japan and started to make nature prints on paper. In 1972, he was one of only three foreigners admitted to the special association for nature printers in Japan, the Gyotaku-no-kai.

        Little published 2 books on the art. I have one that I purchased when it was first published in 1976. All quotes by Little on this post are from this book.
        Although his books are no longer available, I found several other books on the subject ---see the end of this post.
       Nature Prints are monoprints or monographs, i.e. one of a kind, not reproduced in a series as are many fine art prints. Even though I use a method that makes two prints, each will be slightly different, and thus, still monoprints.
        Little explains that a Nature Print is “a reproduction of nature made by applying ink to an object of nature, placing this object on highly absorbent paper, and reproducing an image... by carefully applied pressure of the fingers. The procedure is not as simple as it sounds, but neither is it difficult.”

Detail of a fish print by Christopher M. Dewees
What can be printed?

        Leaves, flowers, and thin-stemmed plants are commonly used, however one can use any natural object. Although usually done with plants, one doesn't have to use plant materials. I have seen prints using snakeskin, rough wooden boards, seaweed, shells, insects, sea horses and other small marine animals. In fact, the art was originally used in Japan to record game fish by creating prints from the actual fish.
        For a beginner, oak or maple leaves work well because they are fairly flat and durable. More delicate materials, like flower petals, require subtle handling.
        I particularly like the effect with Queen Ann's Lace, but almost anything that is fairly flat, or can be flattened, works ---and it works best with fresh plants because they are pliable and not brittle.

Relief prints or collagraphs using some natural elements:

        Non-natural objects can be combined with natural materials. However, the resulting prints will not be “Nature Prints” anymore, but will be relief prints or perhaps collographs (printed collage materials) that use some natural materials. Be careful of what objects you choose to combine with natural items. The finished piece will need visual harmony. Grabbing any old thing to place with the natural items might create disharmony ---but of course, that could be your objective.
        Some things that might go well are: burlap or other textured fabric, mesh, metal washers, popsicle sticks, a woven mat ---if arranged in such a way to seem to belong with the natural items. Most likely, items that have been inked and printed will be stained and need to be discarded.


        Nature Prints can be made on a variety of absorbent papers and fabrics. Newsprint (the blank paper used for newspapers) works very well, but it ages quickly and becomes yellow and brittle. It will work well for experimenting, but not for finished prints.
        Oriental papers (often called rice paper) and parchment work well. The best paper is fairly thin and not stiff, so it will give a little around your objects without ripping. Experiment with what you have to see what works best.

Detail of "Gethsemane" by Robert W. Little

        Little seems to have either painted some of his paper for a more interesting background, or he might have rolled ink onto the paper and allowed it to dry before printing his plant materials. He also seems to have used some ink splatter to add interest to his finished prints.

Detail of "Some Say the World Will End in Fire" by Robert W. Little

        Oil based or water based printing inks can be used. Water based inks are much easier to clean up and the prints dry quickly. Oil based inks are more permanent, but more difficult to clean; solvents and protective gloves are needed, and the prints take longer to dry. One needs to use oil based inks or other permanent inks if one is printing on fabric.
        Although I have not tried them, I understand one can use watercolors, tempera, acrylics or oil paint instead of printing ink.

               Materials you will need:
                         Plastic grocery bags to hold plants while gathering them
                         A variety of fresh plant materials, not more than two
                              days old
                         Old magazines to press materials until ready to use
                         Waxed paper to use between pages to keep items fresh
                         Something to use as weights (heavy books, rocks, bricks)
                         Work area, preferably a table
                         Brayers, soft rubber rollers ---the kind used for wood cut, 
                              linoleum cut, or other relief printing. You need one for 
                              each color of ink you are using. SOFT rubber is 
                         One extra brayer or a wooden spoon (or your fingers)
                         Printing inks (see above)
                         A variety of papers (see above)
                         Something to roll the ink on: glass sheets (with edges 
                              taped to prevent finger cuts) or plexiglas sheets, or old
                              vinyl trays. When I taught school, cafeteria workers
                              saved trays with broken edges for the art department
                              for this purpose. As long as the flat part of the trays 
                              were smooth, not cracked or broken, they worked well.
                         If you use oil based inks: rubber gloves, solvents
                         Newspapers to cover your work area
                         Tweezers, preferably scientific equipment, not eyebrow 
                         Newsprint for experimenting
                         Toothpicks or dissecting needles (with wooden handles) 
                              or large sewing needles
                         Access to a sink, soap, paper towels, rags, for clean up
                         Trash bags
                         Space to lay wet prints to dry, or a clothes line and 
                              spring-clip clothes pins to hang them

The Process:

        There are several methods that can be used to create these prints. Some people paint one side of the plant objects with a brush and make only one print at a time. With my method, two prints can be created at the same time.
        This is how I create mine, two at a time. I am explaining this as if printing a leaf, but the method is the same for other items.

1. Gather plant materials the same day or up to two days in advance. Beginners should choose fairly flat items such as leaves. To keep materials fresh and flat, place them between pages of old magazines and place something heavy on top (books, rocks, bricks.) You might want to place sheets of wax paper over and under items in a book. This helps to keep them fresh.

2. Roll a thin, even film of ink onto a glass sheet using a soft ink roller. Roll it both vertically and horizontally for even coverage. The ink should have a small texture and sound sticky as it is rolled. If it results in long streaks, there is too much ink on the sheet. Make sure the area covered by the ink is larger than the size of your leaf. 
   Beginners should print one leaf at a time. (Below these steps, you will find recommendations for printing multiple items at a time.)

3. Carefully place a leaf on top of the rolled ink, then using the same roller, roll ink on top of the leaf. 

4. Lift the inky leaf with tweezers or lift and edge with a needle, and place it on one piece of paper, then put another sheet of paper on top. If you do not want to waste paper on beginning experiments, use newsprint for both sheets of paper, or one piece of newsprint or newspaper on the bottom and a good piece on the top.
   The reverse of some objects may not print well, a shell for example. If you are making only one print at a time, instead of two, make sure to place the veined sides of leaves up (or the 'good' side of any object.)
   The sticky ink will usually prevent a leaf from moving, but the stems sometimes move causing a double or blurred image. With younger children, you might want to cut the stems from the leaves before printing.

5. Use a clean roller on the top sheet of paper to transfer the ink. Use a gentle touch. If you are using an object that is more three-dimensional, be careful when using a roller to transfer the ink onto the paper, if you press too hard, the paper may tear.
   If you don’t have a clean roller, you can use the back of a wooden spoon to lightly rub on the top sheet of paper.
   For adults or children with patience, the best way to transfer ink is with the fingers. You can feel the leaf through the top sheet of paper and can thus concentrate the pressure where you need it, on the veins, for example.  Experiment to discover the pressure level necessary to transfer your ink.
   With fingers, it is best to work from the center outward and with small circular motions.
   If you place one good piece of paper under the objects and one on top, you will end up with 2 prints. One will be the top of the leaf and one the bottom, which is more interesting with the veins. On some plants, it doesn't matter ---both look equally good. And of course, one print will be a mirror image of the other.

Nature Print, ©2009 C.J.Peiffer

6. Separate your paper from the plant materials. Carefully pull the plants from the paper with tweezers. Start with the stem, if there is one. If you have difficulty pealing them from the paper, try getting under a corner of a plant with a toothpick or needle.
   One problem with Queen Ann’s Lace and some other plants, is that little bits o the flowers stick to the ink. You may need to lift them from the glass or from your print with tweezers. You might need to clean your glass sheets and start over with fresh ink occasionally.

7. Place prints flat on a table with printed sides up or use spring-clip clothes pins to hang them on a line to dry.

Using plant materials more than once:

        Sometimes plants can be used again. If you use them right away, you could roll a different color on them and some of the first color may also transfer, so be sure to choose colors that will mix well, for example yellow and green or two shades of the same color.
        If they cannot be used another time, discard them and use new materials.

Printing more than one object at a time:

        One can print one leaf or object at a time, waiting for the ink to dry before printing another on the same paper, or one can roll the ink on several leaves or plants, arranging a pleasing composition, then place the paper on top and transfer the ink. If you use water-based inks, the ink could dry while rolling out more ink for other plant materials, so you need to work quickly.

        I recommend placing the objects in an orderly fashion, so that, for example, the stems seem to come from the bottom center, or simply the bottom. Prints with haphazard placement are not as successful. With younger children, I recommend having them lay the plants out on a sheet of paper the way they want to place them before they are inked or printed.

Examples of completed Nature Prints: 

        I scanned two prints that I created on the same day using three colors of ink (gold, brown, and rust) printed on white absorbent printing paper. I created  the designs above and below as demonstrations for my 8th-grade students. To illustrate the many options, I digitally changed the ink colors and/or the background colors here so one can see a few other possibilities of ink and paper choices.
(Unless otherwise noted, all prints and text: ©2009, C.J. Peiffer)
You may reproduce the TEXT portion of this post, for educational purposes only.

Note: I am unfamiliar with the following books.
Please read descriptions and reviews before ordering.


Diane said...

So glad you found me through my blog. Your write up is absolutely wonderful. I may use it when I teach nature printing. I'm a retired Montessori preschool teacher - I had my 3 to 6 years olds successfully print leaves. I just love printing leaves on paper and fabric. The Nature Printing is having their annual workshop October 15th - 20th. I'll be teaching gelatin printing. It's a wonderful group of folks. Your teacher, Robert Little, is mentioned all the time! Perhaps you might join us in the future.

sarah kaminsky said...

I was a family friend of a member of Robert W. Little's family and have some of his original works. I was wondering if you know of any others that may be for purchase. I love his work.

CJ said...

Sarah, So sorry it took me so long to respond. I am inbvolved in 3 big projects that are eating all of my time, so I haven't even checked my blog for weeks, let alone failing to post anything for months.

I have no knowledge of who might have Little's prints for purchase. I have been working on my high school reunion and one of my projects is creating a private blog for our classmates. In it, I want to include info on faculty members, so I managed to find someone who was involved in a nature printing society that Little co-founded. I knew Little had died, but I didn't know when. Anyway, that man gave me more info than I needed. You might be able to find some info on their site, or use the oontact info there to find some prints for sale:

They may know who he left his estate to, and that person may have some of his prints.

I clicked on your name, hoping I could find a website or email address to contact you directly, but I could not, so I hope you check back to find my response.