The principals of making Anthotypes are straightforward but, as with most things, there’s a little bit of devil in the detail. What follows is a brief introduction to the process, omitting some of the finer points that will be covered in future posts. Meanwhile, Malin Fabbri’s wonderful book ANTHOTYPES: Exploring The Darkroom In Your Garden And Make Photographs Using Plants, is THE Bible for all those inspired to try this art for themselves. It’s available to purchase by post or to download from both Amazon and Lulu. Malin Fabbri’s book contains illustrated details of many plants but encourages further experimentation. One word of caution: please remember to check that the plants and flowers you choose are not poisonous.
Quite simply, to make an Anthotype you need plant matter and sunlight. Not much of the former, but in most cases, rather a lot of the latter. Dye is extracted from the plant matter, paper is coated with the dye, a photographic transparency is placed on top of the dyed paper, both are exposed to UV light which bleaches away areas of the dyed paper, leaving an image. So, the first thing to do is select a few flowers, leaves, fruits or vegetables that look as if they will produce coloured dye. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t buy these from your local supermarket, but since the middle of April, I have been experimenting with some of the wonderful things that are grown here at Painswick Rococo Garden. During my first week, Head Gardener Steve Quinton asked me if I could find a use for some end-of-season beetroot that he was grubbing out whilst preparing a bed for new planting. The roots were far too small and woody for the kitchen, but beetroot is one of the most reliable vegetables for making Anthotypes, so I was delighted to save Steve’s offering from the compost tip. Once I’d removed the green leaves, I chopped and washed the red stalks, put them to one side, then scrubbed the knarled roots clean. I was curious to see if the stalks would produce as strong a dye as the roots.
The next stage of the process is to pulverize your chosen “ingredient”. This can be done by hand, with a mortar and pestle, or in a liquidiser. Some things will mash up and release dye very easily, especially if they have been cut into small pieces first, but it’s often necessary to add a few drops of water, alcohol or vinegar. This helps to emulsify the plant matter and relase coloured dye. My raw beetroot was far too tough for either method, so chef Lucy Moir came to the rescue, kindly offering to boil it in a kitchen pan and then blitz it in the liquidiser. Whatever process you employ, the aim is to end up with a thick, soupy/pesto-like consistency. Personally, I prefer to add as little extra liquid as possible so that the resulting dye is not too “thin”, by which I mean translucent.
Now comes the really fun bit! To extract dye from the vegetable mash, sieve it through a fine metal sieve or clean muslin cloth. You may need to sieve the mash a second time through a clean muslin: what you’re aiming for is a clean dye with no “juicy bits”.
When you’ve squeezed as much juice as you can from the vegetable mash, you’re ready to coat a piece of paper with dye, using a paintbrush or sponge. It’s important to choose a paper that will absorb the dye. Thin papers are said to work better than thicker ones, but I’m experimenting with everything from heavily textured Napalese Karuki paper, various weights of watercolour and cartridge papers and unidentified scraps scavenged from my studio bookshelves and cupboards.
Once the paper is evenly covered with dye, it needs to be hung to dry. My original drying system was rather basic: a Marks and Spencers bag, placed in the Bothy cupboard. It’s important to find a a light-sealed drying space: we need to preserve as much of that gorgeous, handmade colour as possible: bear in mind that that it will look several shades lighter, possibly even a completely different colour, when dry. Repeat the coating and drying process until you have built up a block of strong colour: this will determine the darkest tones of the resulting Anthotype. Below are examples of paper with one or two coats of beetroot. Notice how different they all are! The paper’s chemical composition will influence the colour (as will the acidity of the dye, but more of that another time)
Selecting a photograph with which to make a digital transparency requires careful consideration. It’s important to note the word TRANSPARENCY rather than NEGATIVE. Remember that this is a BLEACHING process. A transparency is copy of a photograph printed on acetate. This may be made on a photocopier, home inkjet printer or office laser printer. Below is the photograph I chose as my first Anthotype, selected it because it’s a high contrast image with very black blacks and white whites. The black areas must be as black as possible so that the sun does not penetrate through them too much. Making a suitable transparency can be a bit tricky and I’ll be sharing some of my trials and errors in future posts.
Place a dry transparency on top of piece of the dry, coated paper. Sandwich this inside a glass-fronted frame: a cheap, clip-frame is perfect. You’ll notice a few extra things in the photograph on the right. The paper at each side and the leaves masking the lower edge were used to mask fingerprints on the transparency because I’d handled it too quickly, before it had dried! The leaves were an experiment, to see if the sun penetrated differently.
Once you have your prepared the paper, transparency in the frame, wait for a sunny day, place outside in a location where it can soak up as much sun as possible, then wait..and wait…and wait (as you may have already gathered, making Anthotypes requires a lot of patience) The sun will gradually bleach the areas of the paper that are not hidden under the dark areas of the transparency. This may take hours, days, weeks or even months, depending on the plant matter used and where you are in the world. Here in Painswick, we’ve had a few glorious days since mid-April, but they haven’t always coincided with my days in the studio when I could place the frame outside and keep an eye on the weather. After three days in the sun, my Anthotype was not showing much sign of bleaching. It was then that I devised a cunning plan, in the form of the greenhouse! Feeling rather pleased with myself, I placed the frame on the greenhouse shelving and left it in the company of some tomato plants for about a week. This way, I could optimise the daylight, even on overcast days.
I wasn’t intending to be in the garden last bank holiday Monday, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to pop over to see how things were going in the greenhouse. Was my bus ride worthwhile? After a month’s endeavour, was my Anthotype ready to be revealed to the world? At first glance, I felt a glimmer of excitement: the exposed areas certainly looked a much paler pink than when I’d last looked. Deciding whether to remove the glass and check was nerve-wrecking. Once it’s off, there’s no going back! To be extra-certain, I compared the colour of the bleached areas of the print next to piece of unexposed beetroot paper. Satisfied with my observations, I decided that it was indeed time to open up the frame and take a look…
Et voila! The first Hortus Lucis Painswick Rococo Garden Anthotype and just possibly, the first ever Anthotype made from an iPhone photograph. I’m rather pleased with the result. There is much more detail than I expected: it was an exciting moment to recognise Eagle House in all its ethereal, beetrooty-pink glory! On Monday afternoon, two ladies visited the Bothy to ask me about Anthotypes and I was delighted to finally have an example of my own making to share. I explained that we had to view the photograph in dim light, to preserve it for as long as possible. One of the ladies asked “can’t you vanish it or something, to preserve it?” to which I replied “I don’t want to”, “So how are you going to sell it for millions of pounds?” My second answer was as simple as my first “I won’t”.
Over the coming year, this first print will be kept in a drawer at Painswick Rococo Garden and I’ll share it with visitors. It may take a year to fade, it may take twenty, or it might just still be visible a hundred years from now. But however long it lasts as a visible object, the making of it has given me immense pleasure: I’ve spent a month in the most beautiful garden, made fascinating discoveries about nature, science and art, heard the stories and reflections of those who have stopped by to ask me about the process and finally, experienced the inexplicable pleasure of seeing my first Anthotype appear from under the glass.