Finding plants and pigments for making anthotypes

An excerpt from Anthotypes – Explore the darkroom in your garden and make photographs using plants. Plants suitable for making anthotypes and where to get them.

Writer and photography / Malin Fabbri

Anthotypes by Malin Fabbri printing and stencelling with plantsGoing down to the local flower market you will find countless possibilities for anthotyping. And, going just before closing time, you may find that the traders will sell the flowers half price, rather than packing them up and taking them back home again. A good example is the Colombia Road flower market in London. The flowers that have passed their sell-by-date for the table – but not for anthotyping – may also be virtually free. Freshly picked flowers are preferred, but market flowers are a good source for pigments. Apart from flower markets, there are also the woods, the fields, your garden, larder, fridge, window sill, spice cabinet, and wine cellar to be explored.

Luckily my mother has a green thumb and likes raising flowers and plants in her garden and on her windowsills. I like to harvest them. (Or, “raid them” as she calls it, my counter-argument is that they will be given eternal life in my anthotypes – which does not soothe her). To make enough emulsion for one print, often one or two flowers will do – hardly enough to make a fuss about!

Don’t judge a flower by its petals – a lot of plants can be used to print anthotypes!

Anthotypes from lilacs - printing with plants
“Lantern shadow” by Malin Fabbri, 2011.The color of the petals is often different from the color of the final print. This golden brown print was made from emulsion from the blue flower of a Common lilac (Syringa vulgaris).

The color of the plant will not necessarily be the color of the emulsion or the final print. For example, the emulsion from the blue flower of a common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) will result in a golden brown print. Any two plants with similar colored petals can produce two totally different colored emulsions. For example beauty bush from the honeysuckle family (Kolkwitzia amabilis) and Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) both give you a dark brown emulsion, whereas bleeding heart – also called lyre flower, old-fashioned bleeding-heart, venus’s car, lady in a bath and dutchman’s trousers – (Lamprocapnos spectabilis), of the same color, will produce an emulsion of a light blue shade.

A lot of very colorful plants are a disappointment, resulting in brown and grey emulsions when a vibrant pink or blue was expected. Different shades of brown and greyish-green are not hard to come by, but finding the gems that will produce a spectacular color is a quest. The purple pansy (Viola wittrockiana) is one of these, making a luminous blue print. Another gem is black currants (Ribes negru), making a strong pink print.

Using fruits as the base for emulsions sometimes comes with a few surprises. Though red currants (Ribes rubrum) behave properly, black currants (Ribes nigrum) unexpectedly turn to slime when crushed, and even the strained emulsion is slimy. They still produce a very fine print. The evil cousin of ordinary cherries (Prunus apetala) is amarelle or sour cherries (Prunus cerasus) where the emulsion has time to oxidize before it dries on the paper, turning brown like an apple does when cut in half and left in the open air. The resulting print is not worth the work.

Most plants you try will probably yield some kind of image, but some work much better than others. Flower petals, berries, plants, vegetables, wine, juices, or even spices can be used. The gallery section is by no means a complete list of plants to use for your emulsion. The list is an indication of good plants to start with. Plants, flowers, and fruit can be found in every color in the visible spectrum, but, bear in mind that the color of a petal is not often the color of the final print.

The plants to continue your work with is a matter of your own experimentation. Many plants have been tried and tested. One of the oddest examples is given in The art of Photography by Dr. G. C. Hermann Halleur, late director of the Royal Technical School at Bochum, published by John Weale in London, in 1854:

“Saw-dust and shavings of mahogany, when boiled in water, yield to that fluid their coloring matter; paper imbibed with this decoction is highly sensitive to light, and gives very pretty pictures; but they are not more permanent than the preceding anthotypes.”

There are thousands of unexplored plants, flowers or vegetables not mentioned here. Most of them have never been tried. The possibilities are countless.

Malin Fabbri has written three books on alternative photographic processes. In 1999 she began, and continues to be it’s editor.

Learn more in the Anthotype books
Anthotypes – Explore the darkroom in your garden and make photographs using plants
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Anthotypes – Explore the darkroom in your garden and make photographs using plants

by Malin Fabbri

9 of 10   Rated 9,8 - based on 224 votes

Make prints using plants - an environmentally safe process!
The most comprehensive resource on Anthotypes.
NEW Anthotype Book 2022!
Anthotype Emulsions, Volume 1 – The collective research from photographers on World Anthotype Day 2022
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Anthotype Emulsions, Volume 1 – The collective research from photographers on World Anthotype Day 2022

by Malin Fabbri

Anthotype research from over 100 artists from all over the globe on 60 different plants, powders and dyes for anthotypes!
NEW Anthotype Notebook 2022!
Anthotype notebook
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Anthotype notes – Document your anthotype process

Notebook by Malin Fabbri

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50 pre-defined pages for you to document your anthotype process.

4 thoughts on “Finding plants and pigments for making anthotypes”

  1. I’ve only tried this once, but I was so delighted with the results that I want to share my experience in case it helps anyone. I used Spirulina (a blue-green algae food that can be purchased in most health food stores) to make the pigment, since I knew it makes a very dark green liquid when mixed with water. I mixed it with rubbing alcohol instead of water to make it dry on paper faster, but I expect it would work with water just as well. I soaked a piece of paper with it and put it out in the sun with a coin on top. I was shocked when the paper turned completely white after just 1 hour of sunlight exposure. The area under the coin was still a nice green color. Holding the exposed part of the paper next to a clean sheet of paper, I could not tell the difference. The exposed portion had turned COMPLETELY white after just 1 hour. I spent the rest of the afternoon making photograms of different objects. It’s a lot of fun and my results look a lot better than some of the ones on here that apparently took days of exposure. So, if you want to try this and don’t know what plant pigment to use, I suggest Spirulina. Good luck!

  2. I forgot I left this question… I tried it… it is an absolutely permanent, light proof stain as you would ever need… presuming you needed to dye something… brown…

  3. hey… have u tried English or Black walnuts? Either wood shavings or the skin on the nuts produces a very fine brown stain…which I’ve never had produce a print from….

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