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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Old, Old Time Printing

In the spirit of spring, with all the flowers and trees in bloom, I thought it fitting to discuss some primitive custom printing techniques that have been around (in some cases) probably since the Stone Age. They’re ideal for children’s art parties, and you may even want to do these projects if you have an artistic bent.

Anthotypes

The first technique is actually a photographic printing technique. It uses the juices of plants and the sun to make images. This is how to do it:

  1. You prepare the substrate with an emulsion made from the juice of plants, flower petals, or berries. You can grind these into a pulp by hand, using a mortar and pestle, or you can use a mixer. The mortar and pestle is easier to clean and more efficient for small batches, but the mixer is easier on your hands, and it’s more suited to larger batches. In addition, if you use a mortar and pestle, the skins of the berries will be strained away (you won’t be able to sufficiently pulverize them by hand). You can use any number of plants. Research the plants online, and take time to experiment and play.
  2. When you have crushed or mixed the flowers, berries, or plants into a pulp, strain out the liquid using cheesecloth or a coffee filter. (You can also dilute the liquid with denatured alcohol, olive oil, or distilled water, depending on the result you’re after.)
  3. Choose a substrate, like thick watercolor paper, and paint the liquid emulsion onto the material. Keep in mind that the paper will be outside for days or weeks, so it should be durable (not fragile, lightweight paper).
  4. Choose an object, such as a flower or plant. Place the object on the emulsion coated (dry) sheet of paper and cover the paper and object with a glass frame (a sheet of plexiglass will do). As the rays of the sun destroy the coloration in the emulsion, the object covering the emulsion will resist fading (since the paper underneath will get less light). In the course of hours, days, or weeks (depending on your choice of emulsion), you will get a positive image of the object. Remember to choose a positive rather than negative image (think photography) since the sun will lighten the emulsion rather than darken it (as would happen with traditional darkroom-based photographic printing).
  5. If you frame and hang your print, keep it out of the sun, because the fading process will continue in direct sunlight.
  6. For those of you with little patience (like myself) two good plants to start with are corn poppy and dahlia. I found these online. They produce very sensitive emulsions that react quickly to the sun.
  7. Totally unrelated to this process, but directly relevant to contemporary commercial printing, is the fact that even a commercial print book left in the sun will do the exact same thing. I have a number of books with dust jacket spines that are much lighter than the front and back covers. I had these in a bookcase for many years in an office that received intense afternoon sunlight. The sun lightened the ink on the dust covers just as it will lighten the anthotype plant emulsions.

Cyanotypes

You can produce a similar result to anthotypes with treated light-sensitive fabric (treated with ammonium iron (III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide). This process was initially invented to produce photographic reproductions of plants, seed pods, etc., laid on treated paper.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Buy the sunprint fabric (i.e., specially treated fabric made to be light sensitive).
  2. Pin plant specimens–leaves, seed pods, etc.–to the fabric in an artistic design.
  3. Unlike the aforementioned anthotypes, this process goes fast. Once you have covered the fabric with leaves and petals, expose it to direct sunlight. It may help to use a light frame (such as a piece of plexiglass laid over the project). This will keep everything stationary.
  4. In about 15 or 20 minutes for cotton (less for silk), you’ll be ready to bring the fabric indoors. Rinse the material under running water until the water runs clear. The colors should set in 12 to 24 hours.

Hammering the Juice Out of Plants

A third way to do custom printing with plants and flowers is to lay the leaves on thick, absorbent watercolor paper, cover them with paper towels, and beat them with hammers. This releases the natural juices and creates a “contact print.” Here’s how to do it:

  1. Choose a durable surface, like a cutting board, that will tolerate the abuse. Cover it with a paper bag.
  2. Place flowers on the watercolor paper. You can tape them down to make sure they don’t move.
  3. Cover the flowers and watercolor paper substrate with paper towels or some other form of blotter paper.
  4. You can mark on the paper towels with a pen to identify where you will need to strike the hammer to pulverize the flowers or plants to release their juices.
  5. Try different hammers (ball peen and cross peen hammers, for instance). Hammer across in rows, and then up and down in columns. You will need to hit every part of the underlying plant to release the juices that will print on the watercolor paper.
  6. You can check your work by lifting the paper towel. If you have a complete image of the flower or leaf on the paper towel, you are probably ready to remove the leaves.
  7. Peel, scratch, or rub the pulverized leaves or flower petals off the watercolor paper to reveal the printed images below, made from the juices of the plants.
  8. You will have more or less success with this technique based on the amount of water in the plant as well as the coloration of the flower and the stiffness of its fibers. The paper substrate and your technique with the hammer will also make a difference in the final product.

How Is This Relevant to Printing?

All three are traditional custom printing techniques. This is what people did before they could digitally inkjet images onto fabric substrates for their industrial design projects (presumably decorating their grass-thatched huts, tipis, and yurts).

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