Step by Step Eco Printing on Paper
Summer is in full swing in my garden, so that means I’m eco printing on paper all the leaves and flowers I can lay my hands on. I’m stock piling printed papers and fabric to make books during the barren winter months. Over the weekend I posted a video on Instagram showing me unwrapping my steamed bundle and I got a lot of questions, so I wrote this post to show you how I did it.
Please note that I’m not an expert on eco-printing and there are many wonderful books out there by folks who really know what they’re doing, such as India Flint’s Eco Colour. I’ll just show you what works for me.
Step 1: Mordant the Paper
I dissolved 1 teaspoon of aluminum sulfate in a cup of hot water, then added it to 2 gallons of cool water. I tore 2 full sheets of Rives BFK paper (175gsm weight) into smaller pieces and soaked them in the solution for 2 hours (but often I do it overnight).
Step 2: Prepare Bundle
I gathered leaves and flowers from my garden. Some botanicals work and some don’t work – just experiment with what’s available where you live. I used maple, dogwood and red oak leaves; leaves from shrubs, such as smoke bush, hydrangea and sand cherry. I had good luck with thread leaf coreopsis and some interesting but blurry prints from delphinium flowers (below)
I layered the botanicals with the pre-treated, still wet paper, added a piece of corrugated card board on the top and bottom of the bundle and used binder clips to hold it all together.
Step 3: Steaming
I have an electric turkey roasting pan set up on my back porch so that I can make these prints whenever the mood takes me. I place a brick in the bottom, so the bundle doesn’t touch the metal because it will burn. I add a couple inches of water and heat until the water is simmering. Then I place the clipped bundles on the bricks and weigh them down with more bricks. I steam it with the lid on for 2 hours, checking the water level periodically so that it doesn’t run dry.
Step 4: Reveal the Prints
I remove the bundle using a heat proof glove and allow to cool for an hour. I carefully remove the clips and unpeel the layers. I like to do this while it’s still wet because if you allow the leaves to dry, often they will permanently stick to the paper. Here’s a video of the unveiling:
If you have any questions, feel free to ask below. I’ll do my best to answer them or point you in the right direction.
July 22, 2019 @ 3:28 pm
Wow, Ali! This looks wonderful. I’ve been wanting to try this for awhile and this is the perfect inspiration. My garden is in full bloom so there’s lots to work with. Can you tell me what Rives BFK paper is? What type of papers work best (weight wise]. Thanks for the video reveal. Beautiful.
July 22, 2019 @ 8:58 pm
Hi Sharon – Rives BFK is a printmaking paper. I used a white version with a weight of 175gsm. It’s available at all the big online art supply stores. Be sure to share what prints you can get from your garden!
July 22, 2019 @ 4:17 pm
Yes, BFK paper is new to me too. It looks like it comes in different weights – 280 gsm down to 115 gsm? What weight would you suggest? Also, did you use white, cream or cream-white (colors available at Blick’s). Approximate size that you tore a sheet into? Are the sheets wet when you do the layering or do you need to dry them before adding the flowers? Love the look! Thanks for this great video!
July 22, 2019 @ 9:00 pm
Hi Pat – great questions. I used the white BFK in the 175gsm weight. I tore into strips that measured approximately 4″ x 11″ and the paper needs to be wet when you add the botanicals. Hope that helps.
July 23, 2019 @ 8:28 am
Thanks so much for posting! Aluminum sulfite can be bought in a hardware store? An art store? Secondly, I have those big lobster pots and a portable electric burner. Coudn’t I use the lobster pot and the burner? Eager to try this and hope what I have will work!
July 23, 2019 @ 8:40 am
Yes, I was wondering if I could steam on oven too.
July 23, 2019 @ 9:53 am
Thanks so much for the info and the inspiration. I will give it a try! Your generous heart and sharing spirit make this world a warmer and better place.
July 25, 2019 @ 2:13 pm
Thank you for your kinds words 🙂
July 23, 2019 @ 10:48 am
July 23, 2019 @ 12:31 pm
This is very interesting. You have a lot of dedication to this process and it has wonderful results!
July 25, 2019 @ 2:12 pm
Thank you Gina!
Mary Ann Hickey
July 23, 2019 @ 5:02 pm
I like your video, the steps are very clear. I’ve tried this before, once by submerging and simmering in water with alum and another time by painting the solution on the paper first and then steaming in a kettle over a hotplate. I like the second method better, less mess and the paper doesn’t tear when you peel the layers apart.I do not understand what gsm stands for. I am accustomed to using paper with pound rating, such as 140 lb. watercolor paper. Can you enlighten me? Thanks, Ali. I always enjoy your posts.
July 25, 2019 @ 2:12 pm
Hi Mary Ann – gsm is the metric version of lbs for paper weight. Here’s a handy conversion chart: https://moscow-printing.com/PaperWeightConversion.html
July 24, 2019 @ 6:20 am
This looks like a heap of fun. Thank you for sharing. Will have to have a think what I could use to steam some paper in.
July 25, 2019 @ 2:15 pm
Hi Marina – you could use a large saucepan with a steamer basket but don’t use it again for food.
July 29, 2019 @ 10:09 am
Ali, thank you for the helpful video. Your prints are lovely! How many papers do you put in one bundle? Thanks!
September 20, 2019 @ 5:54 pm
Hi Carol – it depends on how much plant material I put. I need to be able to get the clips around the bundles, so I use that as my guide.
August 1, 2019 @ 4:37 pm
Wonderful tutorial. Can this process be done safely in my kitchen with a roaster pan dedicated to art stuff only?
August 2, 2019 @ 9:32 am
Does your bundle of papers and vegetation actually sit IN the water or above it?
September 20, 2019 @ 5:55 pm
The papers sit above the water and steam. Although I know some folks submerge the bundle in water. Great question!
September 18, 2019 @ 8:32 pm
I have two areas of questions.
1. Once the paper has been soaked in the alum solution, can that be kept a few days or a week to soak more paper for prints? Or can the wetted paper be allowed to dry? Will the steaming still work if the papers are dry or can they be sprayed/misted before using?
2. My eco prints seem to be wavey/bumpily all over; yours looked smooth. What’s the problem?
September 19, 2019 @ 11:31 am
I have tried this method several times now and have had results that i am happy with…i followed the original instructions to the letter the first time, then kind of went free lance with things. I used more of the alum in the solution.( I used aluminum sulphate that i got at the gardening center) I made a tray of that solution and put my paper in it for only a few minutes before adding the vegetation. I put some of the solution in a spray bottle and just sprayed the vegetation when i put it on top of and between the papers. My papers were pretty wet when i put them in the roasting pan to steam and in fact the last time i did it, the papers more or less boiled as i had the heat up a bit higher than a simmer. The results are not that much different from time to time and it is all a matter of finding out what vegetation works and what does not. Ali is right….purple sand cherry works well, as do other dark purple leaves. Choke cherries are good…(the actual berries) as are elderberries…they are beautiful. I put in the whole head of berries complete with stalks. Things that go in as bright red foliage (especially at this time of the year…..don’t come out that way. I have had red maple leaves turn blueish green which is still pretty. I find that layering things that don’t have much color, with things that do (purple leaves) makes the weaker ones show up so much better.
I don’t know that leaving your wetted papers to dry before adding veg. would matter, especially if you spray them with more solution before steaming.
My papers also come out wavy and bumpy and I have been ironing them before using them in books. I have posted a few results on Instagram if you are interested…
September 20, 2019 @ 5:59 pm
Hi Diane – great questions. Here goes:
1. You can soak papers in the alum solution, allow them to dry and then use them at a later date. I would keep them out of direct sunlight while being stored. But you must rewet the paper before you add the botanicals and steam it. I would soak them not spray them.
2. The will be wavy if you put in thick leaves and berries. Once they’re dry, iron them between two sheets of copier paper with the iron’s steam setting on. Or if you don’t need to use them immediately, you could press them under heavy books.
Hope that helps!
April 21, 2020 @ 5:38 pm
Is it possible to get similar results without using aluminum sulfite?
April 22, 2020 @ 1:25 pm
I’m afraid you do need to pre-treat the paper with something to get the leaves to leave an impression.
April 22, 2020 @ 10:19 am
I have used aluminum sulfite. It’s what I had on hand. Worked well.
April 22, 2020 @ 1:24 pm
Good to know Pat!
June 23, 2020 @ 6:31 pm
Do we use the aluminum sulfate water that we’ve soaked the paper in to steam; or fresh water for the steamer?
June 23, 2020 @ 7:39 pm
I soak my papers in a plastic tub similar to a cat litter tray. And I use fresh water for steaming. I know some folks reuse the alum soaking water but i don’t. I just pour it away in the garden
Linda Kamp Waugh
July 6, 2022 @ 4:13 pm
Ali, I have an electric fry pan that’s 2 inches deep. Will this work? Also what else besides a brick can I use?
On another topic, where can I get the triangular ruler with round circular holes that you use for making and measuring stitching holes? Thank you.