Eco Printing with Autumn leaves

It’s happening! Mother Nature is throwing so much colour at my feet I’m going crazy! The stunning colours and abundance of leaves has me bundling everyday! Won’t you join me Eco Printing with Autumn Leaves to see what colours you get; science magic?!

Oh, the Colours!

My view of my yard is GLOWING! It changed so quickly this year & it seems like it’s all at once. The ground is covered and the bit of rain has kept the leaves from getting dry and crispy.

Oh, the Maples!

Almost all the leaves I get here in Canada are Maples; but so many varieties I can’t keep track! I especially like the leaves that are variegated; not all one colour. ‘But I wonder; an I expect a certain colour to print from a Autumn leaf? Since I plan on printing pretty well immediately I just pick them, stack them in up-cycled bags in the fridge. You can keep them longer if you dry them between paper for later printing.

The Fall Colour Science:

Since I have a clear view of all this I can follow how the changes start. It never ceases to amaze me how the colours appear! In the fall, the length of daylight and changes in temperature stop leaves from making their food; the green chlorophyll breaks down, the green colour disappears, and the yellow to orange colours become visible (yellow carotenoids). This spooky fellow guards my leaves and always seems to get a nice variety around him

The reds that you see however are Anthocyanins that are produced by the trees in the fall. These pigments can vary in colour from red to blue to purple. The golden-browns are the tannins that help give variety to the colours. Wow, now that all makes sense to what colours I get!!!

Red maple (Acer rubrum):

One of the most amazing trees I discovered is this red maple (Acer rubrum), it has the most amazing reds but without the brown/yellow undertones. When I print with it I’m always amazed. It turns red all at once and seems to skip the yellow stage completely so I assume it’s all about the Anthocyanins here!

Anthocyanins are water-soluable pigments that can range from blue to purple depending on the PH. This print on bamboo (Aluminum Acetate mordanted) is more blue but on silk it is more purple (dipped leaves in iron/ferrous sulphate solution) Cotinus can be different colours throughout the year, sometimes quite red and also has the ability to print blue.

In these botanical prints the tannins here tend to be on the dark edges of the leaves and the yellow carotenoids give much golden splendour!

Understanding the science will help me make some choices of which leaves to choose, but Mother Nature will always keep us guessing!

Look for leaves that are bright colours, less brownish for richer hues (colour). The darker reds will print darker and the browns & yellows (oak leaves) will print golden brown with iron. See below:

Before & After:

To be able to observe (the best way to learn) here is the same fabric piece before and after bundling and processing.

In this eco printing with autumn leaves so many colours happened. All these leaves have a bit of yellow (carotenoids) and some have the reds (anthocyanins) but when you mix those colours you get what you see here. Some understanding of colour theory does help (blue and yellow = green)

The Iron mordant will react with the tannins and darken (sadden) the natural dyes on any fibre (cotton, linen, wool) Sometimes the ends of the stems of the leaf prints have a burst (dot) where the tannins/dyes seem to leak out to create a circle.

See the Anthocyanins!

Isn’t science fun? Yes, different mordants, modifiers will give varying results but will still give unique pieces of art none-the-less! See the beautiful reds!?

Can you see where the Red Maples printed their bluish tones? If I had used less modifier iron these would be lighter and less dull.

These cotton fabrics were not ‘cooked’ using much energy in a pot on the stove, on hot plate or turkey roaster but in a microwave oven. Make sure to bundle tightly on your dowel, (or sandwich if using pieces of paper) and use a barrier if you want clean (no bleed) prints. The choices are your’s. Eco printers should wear gloves when using iron solution (ferrous sulfate)

Addition of Natural Dyes:

This silk scarf was dyed with a strong logwood dye before bundling with fresh leaves. These maples have the potential to discharge the dye, but not all leaves have that ability.

It’s hard to believe that the colour changes so much during the processing! The fun part is always opening the bundle and this magic keeps me interested…

The Big Question:

What is the recipe? How are you assured to get a certain result? Well as much as I’d like to say it’s guaranteed, there are a few factors that can make variations in the outcome. Even the amount of sun a leaf gets will affect it’s composition.

The amount of iron involved will have an effect as you see here. Keeping notes is vital but as you know I like to throw ‘caution to the wind’ sometimes and just go by feel. That’s what you get to after you’ve cooked for many years so this is similar.

This was dyed with Myrobalan before placing the leaves and then I used an iron blanket.

The Japanese Maples leave nice silhouettes since the leaf shapes create a resist. That means the iron and myrobalan react and the leaf actually doesn’t even need to leave a colour. I hope your head isn’t spinning, it will all make sense as you experiment and observe…

Next time you are stomping through the leaves or complaining about having to rake (I know that all too well) then remember the amazing pigments possible by Eco printing with Autumn Leaves! (silk scarf)

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  1. What is a “barrier” to make crisp leaf prints on paper? Mine often have softer edges. I quickly wet the paper in alum sulfate , dip the leaves in iron or copper mordant and blot, tie tightly between tiles, and put in bag in microwave or steam like you’ve previously suggested. Thanks for all you do!

    1. When I do paper I don’t use a barrier, and just do as you sad and stack leaves-paper-leaves-paper etc and then usually I pick the better side for use. The prints don’t bleed through the paper I use (card stock)

      1. Now can we have a tutorial on printing paper? Says your demanding followers (smiley face). As a plant and science and fabric nerd I find this all fascinating. Also love seeing the maples turn – one of the things I miss from the Great Lakes region. But I have a self imposed moratorium on adding to the fabric studio. Soooo – paper would technically be acceptable.
        Thanks, Barb. Love love love your posts.

    1. Got it, thanks! Collecting today! You can get me so in the weeds – literally. And people question why I need a laundry ROOM! Eggs, oh, eggs!

  2. I love the last scarf, how did you get the leaves purple? They don’t look like they have been soaked in logwood to be despite the color…

    1. Well, at the beginning of the post I explain the pigments found in fall leaves, no logwood. It’s the Anthocyanin in that specie of leaf… Nature is amazing!

  3. Thanks Barb for the clarification-I found your tutorial SO helpful when I started (and shared a $ offering in appreciation😊). So nice to have a choice of front or back with each print. Doing a very pale wash of watercolor on the background before printing adds a lot of interest, and then I finish with a coat of plain encaustic hot wax on top and frame.

  4. Hi barb,

    Thank you so much for sharing this information with us! I tried to print a variety of leaves last night and dis a comparison between the iron dipped leaves and non dipped but there was no real difference… I’m guessing because I didn’t dip with boiled water! Doh! Will try again. I am desperate to get a green print from oak leaves…

    1. Interesting, I do not use boiling water to dip leaves, I may use a warmer water if the leaves were dried from another year. You may need to try different species of oak. The ones I have plentiful do not print well for me. Look closely at the examples to see which specie…

  5. Hi Barb –

    I am going to try an iron blanket for the first time, and I have read on your other posts that this fabric needs to be soaked in weak iron water. I have some steel wool dissolved in vinegar that I have used to stain wood – can I use that? How weak is weak? Is the vinegar ok? I am pre-dyeing the fabric with cochineal.
    Thank you so much for sharing your expertise!

    1. Yes, the vinegar is fine. Was it also diluted with water? It is hard to gauge the strength without testing. I do use iron sulphate as it is measurable. It would be safer to do a small simple test before using the precious cochineal and just use an iron blanket with your concoction. I have some Myrobalan (harde powder) and if I steep a bit of that I can see how it reacts instantly to the iron solution and turns dark, that gives me an idea. I started to get a ‘feel’ of the iron strength after doing a lot of testing, but I am sure that does not help you. Have you read this?

  6. Investigando, encontré el estampado botánico y me enamoro . Llena de dudas y preguntas , voy avanzando y retrocediendo con mis impresiones . Acabo de encontrarte y te agradezco x tus explicaciones . Tengo que investigar cómo hacerlo en microondas . Me podrás asesorar . Muchas gracias

  7. Hi, I really love your work, especially with your ecoprinting! I practice as well on coton, linen, silk.. And I would like to try on Leather and wondering if you test it before ? And if you have tips about it ? What mordant do you use and do you cook it ? I don’t know how to start.. leather is expensive and I ‘m a little bit afraid to waste it all.. I’m sure you have advices.
    Have a nice day.

    1. I have tried leather with some success but it’ s a lot to explain here. Yes, it’s expensive and needs to not have any coatings. Sheep/lamp skins work nicely. The key is to not get it too hot, then the leather cooks like a tough steak! I’m hoping to get a post written on it soon.

  8. Hi!
    I’ve got a question about the colour on the background of the prints.
    Do you first dye the fabric and then place the leaves to eco print after dyeing?
    If so, do you dry the fabric after dyeing before eco printing?
    Thank you! Xx