While painting by a river in the New Jersey Pine Barrens about 15 years ago, I picked a small leaf from under the water. Iron in the water had given it a reddish brown coating. I placed the leaf on the damp paper of the watercolor I was working on and pressed firmly with the heel of my hand. The leaf left a faint, irregular impression. I brushed the leaf with a bit of thick watercolor paint and pressed it again to the painting. The result was lovely!
I included impressions of leaves and flowers in my “river paintings” for more than a year before discovering Ida Geary’s book Plant Prints and Collages (Viking Press, 1978) on a library shelf. I was amazed: what I had been doing was in fact a long-practiced art with many variations and possibilities. For centuries, people had been making visual impressions from inked or painted plants, shells, feathers, tree bark, spider webs—even spiders, larger animals, and human beings.
Nature printing can be a complex art form or as simple as a kindergarten potato print. My appreciation of nature printing grew as I experimented and learned more about the subject.
Early uses of nature printing
When or where nature printing originated is not known, but it has occupied an elusive position at the intersection of precision and beauty, between scientific function and artistic expression. The earliest description of nature printing is found in Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus (c. 1500), along with an impression of a sage leaf. Early nature printers held botanical specimens over a candle or oil lamp until they were covered with smoke (lampblack) and then pressed or rubbed them between sheets of paper.
These nature prints, though crude, were clearly representative of the plants and could be produced by anyone. Only the work of skilled botanical illustrators was superior in showing the natural forms. But botanical illustrations in many early herbals, though beautiful, were often inaccurate, and copying and recopying by a succession of illustrators over the course of centuries introduced further inaccuracies. Students of herbal medicine studied plants solely from the pictures in herbals until well into the sixteenth century. In 1545, however, a garden was planted at the medical school of the University of Padua, Italy, so that students could study living plants. Although the new science of botany and medicine were taught as separate disciplines, the idea of physick gardens caught on, and these gardens were planted in universities all over Europe.
The invention of the printing press gave rise to the establishment of paper mills as it became clear that books could be printed on paper more easily and quickly than on vellum (prepared animal skins). After some of the paper was used to print impressions of plants, and printer’s ink was found to produce more accurate impressions than lampblack, nature printing became more widely appreciated for its scientific usefulness. As Johann Beckmann stated in A History of Inventions (1786), “These impressions . . . preserve so well what botanists call the appearance, habitus, of the plant, that they afford no small assistance towards acquiring a knowledge of many vegetable productions.” Nature prints, like pressed plant specimens, could be labeled with pertinent information and filed away for future reference.
One of the most ambitious plant-printing projects of its time was undertaken in 1733 by the German botany professor Johann Hieronymus Kniphof. His manuscript “Plants According to Their Originals or a Living Herbarium” comprised 1200 printed examples of plant life. The painstaking labor of inking and printing each plant individually required several years to complete.
Ben Franklin’s secret
The founder of Germantown, Pennsylvania, Daniel Francis Pastorius, introduced nature printing to the British colonies of America in 1684. In Philosophia Botanica (1751), Carolus Linnaeus (the Swedish botanist who originated the Latin binomial system of plant naming) mentioned an artist in America, Gustav Hesselius, who created leaf prints as botanical specimens. Other nature printers in America included the cloth merchant Joseph Brientnall, a friend of Benjamin Franklin. An advertisement for Brientnall’s prints appeared in Franklin’s publication The Pennsylvania Gazette on April 26, 1733. The apparently egotistical credit line—“Engraven by the Greatest and best Engraver in the Universe”—actually refers to God.
Benjamin Franklin began printing paper money in Burlington, New Jersey, in 1728, and he added leaf impressions to the currency in 1739. The unique qualities of leaf veining must have attracted Franklin to use plant prints to deter counterfeiters; hand engraving of the natural contours of leaf veins was easy for a trained eye to detect. On each printed note was the warning “To counterfeit is DEATH.”
Franklin kept his technique for preparing printing plates from leaves a secret. The politician and scientist Cadwallader Colden, a confidant of Franklin, writing to a London printer regarding nature-printed currency, portrayed Franklin as “the most ingenious in his way without question of any in America. As printing is this man’s trade . . . I do not think my-self at liberty to communicate it [Franklin’s method] without his consent.” The method remains a mystery.
Botanists and herbalists experimented for the next hundred years to duplicate Franklin’s molds as a means of printing botany books illustrated with nature prints. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the technique had evolved to allow the production of countless prints from an original plant impression cast in metal. In the wake of stormy patent disputes, beautiful volumes of herb prints were created for the general public, especially in Germany and Great Britain.
The need for nature printing as a means of identifying plants diminished with the invention of halftone printing in 1866 and fell into disuse with the later development of color photography. Nevertheless, it continues to be useful for creating art, decoration, and personal herbals.
Printing your own
An interest in herbs led me to plant a small herb garden near my flower bed a few years ago, and I recently began a printed record of plants from that garden. I attempt to capture their special qualities and include them in compositions with other plants. It’s an ongoing project which grows with the garden.
Nature printing is a simple process; you needn’t be an artist to produce accurate images of plants. In 1687, J. D. Geyer described the process and claimed, “This is certainly an excellent method, and extremely useful to those botanists who have no artistic talent, as by these elegant means they can prepare an herbarium themselves.”
An inked or painted herb pressed onto paper reveals a delicately veined, life-size image of itself. With some practice, this simple method can produce lovely prints for display, for decorating stationery, or for creating a personal journal or herbarium.
Collecting and preparing plants
Choose healthy specimens on a dry day after the dew has evaporated. Cut 3- to 6-inch sprigs or leaves for easy handling and put them immediately into plastic bags (just a few sprigs in each bag) to keep them from wilting. Bring them inside and begin immediately to flatten them.
Thick telephone books make good plant presses. Lay sprigs face down on a page; use separate pages for different plants. Herbs such as mint or rosemary may need to have a few leaves removed to reduce their bulk. Stack two or three heavy books on top of each phone book. Small sticky notes make good labels for identifying the herbs in your phone book.
Fresh specimens can be used with any of the printing methods described below; they should be pressed just long enough to flatten them. This might take an hour or as long as two days, depending on the thickness and moisture content of the specimen.
Dry specimens are brittle and will crumble when you try to ink them with a brayer (ink roller). There will be occasions, however, when you’ll want to used dried specimens. Press the specimens for at least two weeks, then check every few days until they’re completely dry.
Japanese kozo paper (Shuji Gami) is similar in cost to newsprint but gives better results and lasts longer. Soft printmaking papers such as Rives also work very well. Neutral-pH (acid-free) papers or papers with rag content will not yellow and become brittle with time and are good for finished work, but you may want to practice on inexpensive kozo or newsprint.
What You’ll Need
Assemble all materials when the day comes that you are ready to print. If you’re using a paper that comes in a roll, tape the edges to the work surface to hold the paper in place.
• Pressed plant specimens
• Printmaking or other paper of your choice
• Flat work surface
• Sheet of glass or flat glass dish
• Flat brushes or brayer
• Palette cups (shot glasses or a styrofoam egg carton will do)
• Flat or round brushes
• Plant sprayer
• Paper towels
• Mild liquid hand soap
Ink can be applied with a soft rubber brayer or a flat artist’s brush. I use Graphic water-soluble ink and water-soluble vehicle (see Sources, page 73). These are as easily handled as oil-based ink but can be cleaned up with water and contain no solvents (and thus no fumes).
Brush application: Brush a pea-sized bit of ink back and forth on a glass sheet or dish until evenly distributed. Lay the specimen on the sheet, underside up. Begin at the center of the plant or leaf, following the veins, and lightly brush outward until an even layer of ink covers the underside of the specimen. If the ink seems too stiff and tacky, thin it with a small amount of vehicle or a few drops of water.
Brayer application: Squeeze a pea-sized bit of ink onto a glass sheet. Roll back and forth with a soft rubber brayer, adding some vehicle (not water) if necessary. The ink will be very tacky. Roll in one direction and then another until a very thin, even film of ink coats the sheet. Place a fresh pressed specimen on the glass, underside up, and roll carefully from the middle to the edges of the leaf or sprig until a thin, even layer of ink covers the specimen.
Proceed to the instructions for printing.
This is a little more demanding than the ink method. Dampened printmaking paper gives the best result with watercolor, but if you’re using newsprint or kozo paper, skip to step 2.
1. Layer sheets of paper between paper towels dampened with a few squirts from a plant sprayer. Place this “sandwich” of layers between plastic sheets or in a plastic bag. The printing paper will absorb moisture while you prepare the paints. Ideally, the paper should be evenly damp but not glistening with moisture.
2. Squeeze a small amount of tube watercolor paint into a palette cup. Add a few drops of water and mix with a brush until the paint is the consistency of heavy cream. Put a small amount of mild liquid hand soap into another cup, add a few drops of water, and stir.
3. Place the specimen on the glass sheet, underside up, and brush a very thin coating of soap mixture onto it to help the paint adhere to the herb.
4. Brush paint onto the specimen, beginning in the center and brushing outward, away from center stem. You will need to work a little faster than with ink because watercolor paint dries more quickly.
1. Carefully lift the specimen by the stem with tweezers, transport it to the prepared printing surface, and lower it carefully onto the paper, underside down, being careful not to smear ink on the paper. This can be a bit tricky, and you’ll probably need to use your other hand or a piece of stiff card to support part of the specimen while you position other parts. Cover the specimen with any thin paper, newsprint, or soft paper towel.
2. Press your left thumb (if you’re right-handed) with care onto the center of the stem or leaf to anchor the specimen. Then, with the thumb and fingertips of your right hand (if right-handed), feel the designs of the plant, and press from the center outward to the edges of specimen. Press, lift, and press. Do not rub, as this may cause the plant to shift and smear the ink. Stems blur easily: press the leaves first, the stem last.
3. Inspect your print. Slowly remove the covering paper, then grasp the stem of the specimen with tweezers and lift it straight up and off the print. If the specimen sticks to the covering paper, grab the stem with the tweezers right through the top paper and lift the paper and specimen upward together.
Examine your print with a critical eye to ensure that your next attempt will be even more successful.
Heavy-looking with little detail: Too much ink or paint.
Spotty and/or pale: In the ink method, pressure or ink distribution was uneven. In the watercolor method, paint was too thin or too little was applied, paint dried on the specimen before it was printed, or paper was too dry (unless you’re using newsprint or kozo paper).
Smears or blurs: Insufficient care in handling, or shifting of the specimen. In the watercolor method, paper may have been too wet.
Hints for better prints
In the beginning, try just one color; experiment with multiple colors and color mixing after some practice.
Try inking the specimen on both sides and making two prints at the same time.
Clean hands and tweezers frequently to avoid unwanted spots on your print.
After specimens have been printed and the ink or paint on them has dried, return them to the telephone book to be used again. Many plants can be printed 5, 10, even 20 times before they begin to deteriorate. Fragile plants, and especially flowers, can be printed only once or twice and are more difficult to work with than sturdier plants.
Clean brushes and brayers immediately after use to keep them in good working order. Watercolor paint will dry in its palette cup, but a few drops of water will soften it within 10 to 20 minutes. Leftover ink on the glass sheet or dish, if covered with plastic wrap, will stay fresh for later use.
Bounty paper towels will not leave texture marks on your print.
Any one of the companies below can supply what you’ll need for herb printing.
Dick Blick Co., PO Box 1267, Galesburg, IL 61401. Catalog $3.
Graphic Chemical and Ink Co., 728 North Yale Avenue, Villa Park, IL 60181. Catalog free.
Daniel Smith, Inc., 4130 First Avenue South, Seattle, WA 98134-2302. Catalog free.
In the 12 years since she completed a very thorough art education, Laura Donnelly Bethmann has been teaching and producing art in various media. She lives and works on the fringe of the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey with her husband and two daughters.