Plant fibre paper: Progress …… or not

Yesterday, after another period of boiling my swiss cheese plant fibre I let it cool down in the pot overnight.  This morning, out it came straight into a pillow case for the rinsing process again.  No slime, but possibly a bit of mud or similar.  I think the whole lot was too dry for any slime, or maybe there isn’t enough sap in this particular plant to turn into slime regardless.

It’s been drying out in the garden until I decide what to do next.

scp5Grabbing the rotary cutter and roughly chopping it sounds good.  Then it can get re-soaked and I can try to whizz it in the blender into pulp.

However, although I have no experience in this field, my sense is that you really do need the slime to ‘glue’ the lot together into paper sheets.  I think this will end up shredded as much as I can and mixed with other paper pulp to form usable sheets.  Whatever I end up with is going to be super textural and very fibrous.

In its current form it reminds me of a bad hair day!

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Plant fibre paper: My first foray!

Ever since seeing a friend pulping banana leaf & stalk and then later turning it into wonderful textural paper sheets I’ve been wanting to have a go.

Mandy made two colours, that I saw.  One was a beautiful rich brown, sounds boring but you really had to see the amount of shades within each sheet to appreciate how the fibre broke down and the variety of colour throughout.  Absolutely gorgeous.

dyed-banana-pulpShe later dyed some of the fibre a rich deep burgundy red.  I was enthralled.  The red still maintained a brown tinge throughout, so eliminating the harshness of a solid bright colour.dyed-banana-pulp-blending

I wanted to have a go myself.  I mentioned it to my husband and a few days later, lo and behold, what did he come home with?  Two tropical dwarf banana trees!

banana-trees-newHow fast do you think it took me to plant them?  They were in before the end of the first day!

One sits in a very sunny spot close to a brick wall which holds the heat in summer.  The second is in a more shaded area, overhung by larger trees, close to a stone wall which doesn’t got so much heat.  It’s going to be interesting to compare their growth speed.

So here we are 7 weeks on.

banana-trees-7-weeksOn the left is the tree that sits in direct sunlight and heat all day.  It has gone from 4 to almost 7 full leaves in the past 7 weeks.  On the right is the second tree which hasn’t grown as tall and has a little less leaf growth.  Just look at the grassy weeds that are coming up.  Obviously they prefer the shade more than the banana tree does!

Anyway, as is clear, I can’t really get any paper happening out of these for a while yet.  So I turned my attention to some swiss cheese plants (Monstera Deliciosa)  growing on my property.

scp1scp2I collected all the dead leaves and stalks, shredded them into a big pot and left them to soak overnight.  This morning, using the banana fibre ‘recipe’ I got from Mandy, I mixed up a solution of caustic soda with cold water, added it to the pan and started the heat.

OK, here’s the thing.  I don’t really know what I’m doing but have a vague idea of why I’m doing some of it.  The caustic soda is to break down the fibres into a slime so that they can then go through a blender and be turned into pulp ready to make paper sheets.  What I’m not sure about is if what Mandy sent me will work with my plant material.  I know you need plants that are fibrous so the pulped mush will ‘entangle’ (so to speak) and then will form into sheets.  So I’m just having a mess about to see if I can produce anything that is usable.

The recipe says to check after 1/2 an hour boiling but it could take over an hour until the fibres are black and slimy (that’s for banana fibre of course).  So, 2 hours later, and after checking multiple times, I decided enough was enough.  It wasn’t slimy but the fibres had separated and the whole lot was super soft.

scp3Out it came into an old pillow case and it was rinsed (don’t worry about the sink, most of the caustic soda had been rinsed out elsewhere before these photos), and rinsed, and rinsed.  It seemed very soft and I was hopeful about the blending even though it wasn’t slimy.  My thinking is that maybe swiss cheese plant doesn’t go slimy like banana fibre.

Into the blender it went, for 15 seconds – until I could smell the motor burning!!!  Opening it up and pouring out the water I found that the fibres had wrapped themselves neatly around the blades and were ‘strangling’ them.  Oops, and I only bought the blender yesterday!

So it hadn’t worked.  I squeezed out a lot of the water from the pillow case and took a good look at what I had produced.  Here’s a close-up:

scp4Well, at least there is no leaf or stalk structure left.  The fibres have completely separated but obviously they are still too tough to work with.  So, what’s the next step?  Back into the pot, more caustic soda and another long boiling is currently underway.  Now it might be time to actually do some on-line research and see what I can come up with.

Result: Sorry, no paper today, not even any usable pulp, but I’m tenacious and it will all work out in the end – whenever that might be.  Meantime, this is fascinating stuff and I’m having the best time.

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Making denim paper: Colouring

ppa-dp9Even though I’ve been busy elsewhere I still managed to find time to drag my remaining denim pulp out and form some new sheets.

Blue, never having been my favourite colour, isn’t something I want hundreds of sheets of, so dyeing the pulp was the aim for the day.  However, what colour could I mix into the denim to allow me to have a paper that is still able to be printed on without my imagery being overwhelmed by the background?  Yellow, of course.  That should result in green.  The store of dyes and colours available at Primrose Paper Arts is quite extensive and I was informed that some brands or types might be more effective than others.

ppa-dp10So, using jam jars, I separated out small amounts of pulp and tried a couple of different yellows and orange.  Not good.  I ended up with what I see on the internet is commonly called goose-poop green!!  Even the colour sample card here looks nicer than it was in reality!

ppa-dp11I then tried adding to this awful colour a little mid green.  OK, that was an improvement but a bit too, well … mid-green.  By this stage I had realised that what I was looking for was a more teal colour.

So, several jam jars later (and help from a very experienced paper artist, Jill Elias), working on proportions of original denim colour with a mix of deep blue and deep green I finally got something I thought would work.  However, to get the colour to take to the fibre and not just float around in the water I had to drain the pulp as much as possible and tip the dye into this pulp ‘slurry’.  It was mixed well, until as much of the fibre as possible was colour saturated, before going into the paper bath and adding the water.

ppa-dp12The colour looks best in the small lower inset picture as the light was at a different angle.

So what was the final result, and how different was it to the original blue denim paper I had made before?

ppa-dp13Obviously how it looks when wet is not what you get when dry, it lightens quite a bit, and I’m really pleased with the outcome.  However, do you see those creases, top and bottom, on the sheets?  Well, they shouldn’t be there.  Since making these sheets I’ve learned why this has happened and will discuss the reasons and solution when I next make and dry some paper sheets and post my progress.

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Primrose Paper Arts

My blog has been sadly neglected over the last few weeks, but not through laziness on my part!

I’ve been having the best time working with a bunch of fantastic people putting together a brand new WordPress site for Primrose Paper Arts.

ppa-headernotesWorking as a team, and brainstorming as we went, we came up with a basic outline to get us started.

These may look like scrappy notes to my viewers but luckily they translated into the beginnings of a really good site.  Everyone was enthusiastic and, with our first post less than a month ago, we’ve already got quite a bit happening and the Members Gallery section is slowly taking shape.

We’ve got several exhibition notices up, a review of our holiday workshop, information about our next workshop, our exhibitions and our November Open Day.

With this being the 25th anniversary year of the organization we are delighted to launch our new internet platform to entice all those interested in everything to do with paper (making, pulping, sculpting, beating, layering, manipulating, colouring, embossing and more).

pulpingIf it’s paper related we will have it, whether it be showcasing techniques, profiling artists, promoting exhibitions, reviewing related books or anything else our members want to discuss and write about.

book-tied-spineIt’s not just about making paper,we are also printers, sculptors and book makers, and will be talking about it all.

Our members have so many skills and I’m just a beginner!  I’ve so much to learn, so many guidelines to understand and then break as I do my own experimentation.

So if you find yourself becoming intrigued with working with, and understanding, paper and paper related arts, head over to the new site by clicking here.

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Hard ground etching: The final process

Water & spit biting


We prepared a dedicated work area for this because the process can be quite hazardous as it involves pure nitric acid and keeping that contained is all important.  It is a colourless liquid and is, obviously, highly corrosive.

zinc-etch-18The studio has several dedicated fume removal areas with pull-down front perspex to protect users, and we set up in one of those.  Using a very large, heavy plastic tray as my work area I arranged three containers within it: pure nitric acid, water and hand wash detergent.

The print plate was laid over base struts so that excess liquid could run off.

Water biting

zinc-etch-19Water was tipped onto the plate.  Normally it would immediately turn into small droplets but with the aquatint base it appears to cover the entire area where it is applied.  See my previous post to understand why this pooling occurs.  Nitric acid, from the jug, was then brushed in selected areas over the water.

Note: I’m well aware of safety issues and that gloves should always be worn, but I guess it is the teacher’s prerogative whether he chooses to wear them or not.

zinc-etch-20Above you can clearly see where the acid has turned cloudy in the water.  The idea is to move it around, alternating diluting and adding acid.  Where the acid sits for differing lengths of time determines the depth of the etching that occurs.  So this technique is perfect for creating smooth tonal differences across a surface.  By keeping the plate wet (in this case only the sky down to the horizon line) the acid is suspended and can be lightly moved around, so avoiding harsh outlines of etched areas.

This soft process should give excellent sky tonal value without vastly bitten areas.

Spit biting

I’m told that in the olden days (I’ll let you research exactly when that was yourselves) spit was actually used as a resist against acid biting.  However, my tutor usually uses washing up liquid.  Not having any to hand I took a container and purloined some hand-wash from the closest bathroom.

zinc-etch-21On the left, hand-wash is being dribbled in lines across the lower half of the plate, in the hope that we get some water movement in the final prints.  On the right a light amount of water has been added in the remaining areas.  The hand-wash will act as a resist against the acid but the edges of it will gradually mix with the water.  Once the acid is added and the hand-wash is moved around marginally it should be possible to achieve some quite dynamic changes in tonal value as the acid bites in very selected areas.

zinc-etch-22On the left, the acid is being added.  This isn’t being softly brushed across as per the sky, here it is being applied carefully in horizontal lines.  It is filling in some of the spaces, mixing with the water, forming waves and movement and the hand-wash is being reshaped to stop out the acid in some places.

On the right, the plate is almost finished etching and is ready to be plunged into a water bath to remove the acid and hand-wash.  You can see the difference between the soft approach in the upper sky area and the more robust effects on the lower section.

zinc-etch-23The plate was rinsed and the bitumen was removed from the swan and cygnets.

Ready to print.

With only 20 minutes of class time left and quite a lot to still clear up I only had time for one initial print.  One of my classmates kindly told me to use the colours she had already mixed as there was no time to start from scratch.  The colours were lovely but a bit too concentrated for my design as I’m keen to try a heavily diluted background and have the swan sitting brilliantly in the foreground.

Still, beggars can’t be choosers and I was grateful for the offer to use her inks.  So here is the first print proof of this single plate.

zinc-etch-24On the left is the inked plate.  On the right is the first print.  A little more “Lost at Sea” than “First time out on the lake with mum”!  Oh, and is that a cyclone forming in the background?

OK, a bit of work still to do here to get this happening how I want to see it, and I have yet to print the soft ground etched plants as a second layer.

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Hard ground etching: The next stage

Aquatint & selective masking

Step 1: Aquatint

Aquatint is a way of preparing the print plate surface to hold a lot of ink, thereby creating a solid deeply coloured printed area.

So what is aquatint?
Aquatint is powdered resin that is applied and fused to the plate surface.
How does it work?
Imagine millions of marbles covering the bottom of an empty swimming pool, all fused (glued) in place.  If you were to walk over them you would feel the rise and fall of each marble, and if you looked closely you would see the curved dips where each abutted the next.  Now think about tipping in gallons of paint.  Where will it pool?  Well, it will sit in the crevices between the marbles and, if they are lightly applied, it will sink between them as well.

zinc-etch-13Got that?  Now scale the whole thing down – down as far as powder or dust.  By fusing the aquatint (powdered resin) to the plate and applying ink to the surface you can achieve a very solid velvety printed design.  Using dampened paper will help this as the paper becomes flexible and the pressure of the etching press pushes it into the textural surface of the inked & aquatinted plate.
How do you apply the aquatint?
The powdered resin is stored in a large enclosed chamber with a shallow drop down door.

zinc-etch-14The print plate is placed inside the opening on a cardboard support, sitting on a wire rack.

The outer handle is cranked very fast many times to agitate the resin and produce a cloud inside the box.  In my case, 3 minutes was allowed for it to settle and produce an even covering over the plate.

Obviously, this process is hazardous to lungs and we wore masks to avoid breathing in the dust.

The plate was very carefully removed (one sneeze or deep breath and it’s over!) and placed on a metal rack ready for the fusing stage.

zinc-etch-15A heat gun, one that radiates heat without blowing – so not a hairdryer – was used from the underside to melt and fuse the resin together and to the plate surface.

In this picture you can see the heating in action and the swan image just starting to appear as the resin becomes translucent.

zinc-etch-16On the left is an image of the plate once the resin has been fused.  I’ve photographed it under a yellow light so the ‘mottled’ surface can be seen more easily than on the silvery zinc colour.

Once cooled down it is ready for the next stage.

As I am working on the background and have the swan and cygnets exactly how I want them (having checked by doing a proof print before getting to the aquatint stage) I masked them so none of the next techniques used to produce the water and sky will affect them.

Step 2: Bitumen

What is an effective way to block out an area of a print plate where you don’t want the acid solution to bite?
Initially this plate was covered with hard ground wax as a resist.  The swans were then etched through the wax using an etching tool and the plate put into the acid bath to bite the areas where the tool had removed the wax.  Very straightforward.  But this technique isn’t possible when a selected area, or areas, are needed to be masked.  The wax is rolled onto the plate and cannot be carefully brushed onto particular parts because it is never liquid enough to use a brush and solidifies immediately it leaves the heated hotplate.

zinc-etch-17So a mix of bitumen and meths was made to a thick paint consistency and this was brushed over the swan and cygnets.

It’s quite a hard process because if any bitumen ends up in the wrong place, or you miss a bit, it has the potential to ruin the plate.

Keep in mind that every part of the exposed plate has the potential to be affected by the next stage of acid work.  So I took my time, used a very fine brush and blocked out my subjects.  This will protect them from further etching.  After the whole process is complete the bitumen solution will be removed with turps.

Next comes the water & spit biting to create the unevenness of sky and water.

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Hard ground etching: My first plate


Zinc-Etch-11The aim with this plate is to combine it with my soft ground etched plant material from a few weeks ago, which will be printed as a second layer.

I thought it might be interesting to be looking through the plants to a lake or river, perhaps with ducks or swans.  So, using my beginner’s guide to drawing book, I picked up my pencil.

SwansDuck head and shaping was quite good but I wasn’t sure what to do with the folded wings and the book had a good example of a swan and cygnets that I could learn from, so I went with that.  The images were then regrouped whilst being transferred to tracing paper using a 6B pencil.

My zinc plate was prepared as for the soft ground etching: cleaned, degreased and heated on the hotplate to 90 degrees, then hard wax was applied.  It melted the same way as the soft wax and was then rolled to form a smooth covering.  Hard-zinc-etch-1Once cold it dried to a very hard finish and the traced image could be laid on the surface and put through an etching press (reduced pressure) to transfer the graphite to the wax.

Due to a lighting issue my photo didn’t come out well enough so here is a view of a transfer from a classmate (Cynthia).  Using an etching tool I then proceeded to draw into the wax using the transferred lines as a guide.  Detail not transferred was added as the etching evolved.  My design is quite detail-specific and it was surprisingly difficult to see where to etch as the light played over the golden surface of the waxed zinc.

Once complete, the plate was immersed in a nitric acid & water solution (ratio 1:8) for several minutes, checking from time to time and wafting with a feather to remove bubbles, for the design to be bitten into the plate.  When satisfied, I dissolved the remaining wax, cleaned the plate and took a proof print.

Hard-zinc-etch-2An excellent start for this design.  The next stage will be aquatint and masking, followed by water bite and spit bite background sections to create sky and water effects.

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