How to eco-print on paper

Eco-printing on paper is a fun and easy way to introduce children to the wonders of natural dyeing or to get started with it yourself. Here’s a tutorial for one particular method, using autumn leaves. Autumn leaves print particularly well because they are high in tannins and carotenoid and anthocyanin pigments, which all give colour. But you could also try this process at any time of year, with any leaves that you have around you (results will obviously vary).

Materials:

  • Strips of watercolour paper
  • Wood blocks or tiles to press the paper between
  • String
  • Autumn leaves- especially red and purple. I used maple, liquidambar and claret ash

Eco-printing on paper tutorial

A simple method for eco-printing on paper

 

Step 1

Fold your paper into a concertina booklet, slightly smaller than the blocks or tiles you are using. Wet it lightly, then arrange the leaves on each page.

Plant dyes on paper

Step 2

Fold your paper up with the leaves inside. You can also put a leaf on the front and back covers. Then press between the wood blocks or tiles.

Eco-printing on paper

Step 3

Wrap your wood blocks with string to hold the bundle together. You want firm pressure so that each leaf is pushed into the paper, to make a clear print. With tiles, you can clamp them together with bulldog clips.

Wrapping eco-print paper bundles

Step 4

Once your bundles are wrapped, put them in a pot of boiling water and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour. It is always best to use a dedicated dyepot, not one you also use for cooking. If the wood blocks float, weigh them down with a rock.

Eco-print bundle

Step 5

Let them cool, then carefully unwrap, remove the leaves and let the paper dry.

Autumn leaves eco-printed on paper

If you want to learn further eco-printing on paper techniques, or find out about more types of leaves that will give good prints, have a look at my eco-printing on paper ebook, Plant Poetry. Or if you want to return to this project later, you can pin the below image.Eco-printing on paper tutorial using autumn leaves and watercolour paper. Step by step instructions.

 

25 thoughts on “How to eco-print on paper”

    1. Thanks Fran, I love helping people to get good results! I’m choosing to keep it all digital for now, but some of my customers like to print off my ebooks so they can have a hard copy.

    1. Hi Mette, sometimes I do use an iron mordant when eco-printing on paper. But it is a colour modifier, so I like to see what colours I get without it too. Acids like vinegar are a waste of time, especially when printing onto beautiful acid-free watercolour paper. There seems to be a superstitious trend for using vinegar when actually it is unnecessary.

    1. Yes, I just use plain water. Adding alum to the water will only affect the parts of the paper directly in contact with the water, not the inside of the bundle. Some watercolour paper will give much better results than others, especially if you aren’t mordanting it. I used Arches for this tutorial and I find that it is one of the best brands for eco-printing.

  1. Adriana Berrio

    do you not use any other substance than water, say for example, vinegar or alum? It is ok to use a glass pot? I am planning to do this activity with kids and your instructions seem the easiest one! thanks <3

    1. Sometimes I put dye in the water just to create an interesting effect, but you don’t need anything beyond plain water. If you want to use alum you really need to apply it to the paper in advance rather than put it in the water, otherwise it won’t really have any affect on your prints. A glass pot should be fine if it is safe for cooking in.

  2. Pingback: Eco-printing on paper tutorial – Gumnut Magic

  3. Hello! Love to try this in quarantine… and thought this was appropriate since you’re just using water, leaves and wood. I’m trying to have some other friends try this with me, but we were all concerned we don’t have pots to throw away in this moment. Is it that terrible since you’re not using iron or alum?…

    1. I think it would be fine done in a stainless steel cooking pot, as long as you wash it well afterwards. Or you can do solar dyeing with small bundles in glass jars filled with water and left in the sun for a few days. You may also like to check out my new offering, the Iso Dye Club, which has been created specifically for this time and which focuses on using materials we already have at home.

  4. Thanks for your information on eco printing. I am interested in knowing if I could press the paper between tiles and then microwave instead of using a pot of water. If the paper was wet before adding the botanicals, do you think that would work?

    1. I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard of other people microwaving their bundles – maybe do a search and see if you can find their tips and tricks.

    2. This will work if the paper is damp. I wrap the bundle in a wet towel, wrap it in plastic on top, make 4-5 small holes in it with scissors. I turn it on for 1-1.5 minutes. I give you a rest for 10 minutes. I turn it on for another 1-1.5 minutes, 10 minutes of rest. And so I repeat 5 times. Then I wrap the bundle in a large towel and leave it for 3-4 hours.

  5. Thank you for teaching me such a satisfying craft. My prints are great but monochrome, in shades of yellow to brown. How can I achieve the greens, reds and blues I crave? I am using alum mordant on the watercolor paper, and either an iron or copper modifier. Your insight would be appreciated.

    1. Hi Liliane. For this example, I used Arches watercolour paper which has a gelatin binder in it. This helps to get the greens from autumn leaves. You might also like to try preparing your paper with just an iron mordant, or with soy milk binder. Coreopsis flowers or eucalyptus leaves can both give bright oranges to red on paper prepared with gelatin or soy milk.

    1. Hi Emmalee, there’s a bit of a misconception about the necessity of vinegar in eco-printing. Vinegar is not a mordant. It is sometimes used as an assist for acid dyes on wool and nylon, but it doesn’t help dye to set on cotton or other plant fibres (paper is essentially a plant fibre). That said, you could do your own experiments and see if adding vinegar to the water does have an impact.

  6. Hello ! I love this post!
    I just tried an attempt of leaves on silk yet there were very weak results. I believe that maybe I didn’t tie my string tight enough.
    I want to try this one and I love that you didn’t add anything to the paper or water. What type of string do you use?
    Thanks 🙂

    1. Hi Tara, for string I use strips of old cotton that I tie together. Results on paper can vary a lot depending on what type of paper you use but yes I love keeping it simple wherever possible.

  7. Hey! I love the idea of doing ecoprinting with just water! I am going to try it this afternoon. However i was wondering how long these last, how long will the color stay on the paper..? Will it fade or not? Thank you for answering already!

    1. Hello, it depends on which leaves and plants you use, but as long as you store them away from direct sunlight, the colour lasts for years. I haven’t seen mine fade yet, but I assume they eventually would.

  8. Thank you for sharing. I’ve been thinking about trying this. I’ve done something similar with fabric and sunlight. I was wondering if you’ve tried flowers or even just the petals? I have transferred the color of flowers to fabric by simply pounding the flowers/petals covered and then pounding gently over them.

    1. Hello, yes flowers work wonderfully with this method too. In my eco-printing on paper ebook, I have some examples of this and a list of flowers to try, but you can just try it with any flowers growing around you and see what happens. They generally need lower temperatures and shorter cooking times than leaves though because their colour is more delicate.

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