Working with anthotypes

Steven Pitsenbarger tells us how he achieved amazing colours using nothing but plants.

Writer and photography / Steven Pitsenbarger

AnthotypeI started working with anthotypes as a project for a plant identification class. The assignment was to make a presentation that was plant related (and legal). Elizabeth Graves, had already been working with alternative processes for several years. She suggested that I try anthotypes. I suspect this was because she wanted me to experiment with a process she had not yet tried.

Creating images of plants using an emulsion made from plants seemed like the perfect project for my class. I decided to give it a try.

I started by searching the web to see what information was available about the anthotype process. I was surprised to find relatively little. The process is simple enough to get started without much research.

Basically you mash the juice out of any part of a plant that has a color you like, you apply that color onto a surface you like, and then you make a contact print in the sun.

StrainerMy first experiments came with mixed success. I got images to appear with every plant. Some were just better than others. I went to the local farmers’ market and bought some cut flowers that had colors I liked. I tried a purple Dutch Iris and some red and pink Gerbera daisies. I pulled the petals off of the flowers and then chopped them up in a food processor.

I mixed in a little distilled water to add to the volume. I then mashed the chopped petals through a metal strainer into a clean bowl. The purple iris made a nice purple liquid. The red and pink daisies came out a reddish brown. I used a 1″ wide artist brush to paint the emulsion onto 10″ x 14″ Fabriano acquarello watercolour paper. I soon discovered that the addition of water only diluted the mix. As long as there was enough plant material available, the water was unnecessary. I applied multiple coats to get a darker color. 2-3 coats seems to work best.

Painting paperAfter letting my coated paper dry overnight, I selected some leaves that I had previously collected. I placed the leaves on the paper and then put them between two sheet of glass, using rubber-coated clamps to hold everything in place. I set my makeshift print frames in a spot that would get maximum sun exposure (this can be a challenge in San Francisco). After one full day in the sun, I could already see significant changes on the paper coated with iris. The daisies did not seem as distinct. I left both out for two weeks. Some resulting images are Solanumquitoiris (Iris) and Polystichumgerbera (Gerbera). While I was able to get an image from the daisy emulsion, the iris was much more defined. I can even see the veins through the leaf of the Naranjilla plant (Solanum quitoense).

Once I saw how easy this was I started looking at all of the plants in my garden with a new perspective.

Anthotype print
I began to size up plants for their potential as an image or as an emulsion.

  • Yellow chrysanthemum flowers made a lovely paint, but they did not turn out to be very photosensitive.
  • Raspberries showed decent results.
  • Blueberries were all pulp and no pigment. Perhaps the skins on their own could produce better results.
  • Cyanotype printBlackberries were fantastic. I got great results in exposures of about 3 days. The color and the texture are very nice with the blackberries. (image right)
  • Cineraria (Senecio x hybridus) was a disappointment. It did not produce much of an image despite its brightly colored flowers.
  • California poppies (Eschscholzia California) are very photosensitive. The exposed portions of this emulsion faded out in 3-4 hours. I suspect that these images may not last. Time will tell. I also found that it is important to include the anthers with the poppies. The color is not strong enough without them.
  • My favorite emulsion might be from the leaves of the Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus). This is another fast 3-4 hour emulsion. The result is a brilliant green image with astounding contrast. (See large image to the right of this list)
  • Red wine is another fast and easy emulsion. Just paint it onto the paper straight out of the bottle.
  • Purple Bearded Iris was very juicy and produced good results with just a few flowers.
  • I also had good luck with fruit from a Fuchsia, the anthers from a Stargazer Lily, and Colmonara orchid flowers. I didn’t even bother straining the orchid flowers: I just rubbed them directly onto the paper for Philoxanorchid.


Anthhotype printAnother unexpected twist happened when I used fresh leaves as my contact image subject. Moist leaves sweat when exposed to the heat of the sun. This moisture then reacts to the emulsion and the paper with some interesting effects. This can be seen as a sunburst effect in Schefflerastursium (left) and as an x-ray-like effect in Solanummarginiris (right).Anthotype print

Overall I had a lot more successes than failures. In my experience, it didn’t really seem to matter how I got the plant juices onto the paper. I did not need to add alcohol or distilled water to the mix. I had better results using leaves to make shadow prints than I did, using inkjet transparencies. I think this is simply a density issue. It also seemed a bit more direct to skip the use of a camera and computer. There are many emulsions that had relatively fast exposure times.

One thing I don’t know about yet is longevity. I have only been using this process for a few months. I am storing the images in a dark place. Perhaps I can report back on these images in a couple of years.

This is an easy, toxin-free, and fun process. With the variety of plants available in the world, the possibilities are endless.

Recommended reading - Learn more in the Anthotype books
Anthotypes – Explore the darkroom in your garden and make photographs using plants
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50 pre-defined pages for you to document your anthotype process.

1 thought on “Working with anthotypes”

  1. Hi Steven,
    I read your post with interest as I have only just started using anthotype since March, and longevity is my major concern. Have you had any information regarding its archival properties? I can imagine acids from the plant material may also cause a problem as they do with dyed fabric.


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