I firmly believe that art and science can’t be separated, and that this is particularly true in botany. Plants are simply beautiful, and that beauty has attracted many people to study them more closely, even in this age of “plant blindness.” For some, nature printing has become an absorbing hobby, with the Nature Printing Society having several hundred members. It publishes a newsletter that focuses on techniques as well as reviews of published works with nature prints. The Society has also produced an informative guide to nature printing, not only of plants but of animals as well, particularly fish (Huffman, 2016). For the latter, the primary technique is Japanese gyotaku that creates stunning works that even a botanist could love.
Since I’m interested in the fabric arts, particularly quilting and embroidery, I’ve gotten a couple of books on nature printing on fabric as well as paper (Bethmann, 2011; Dahl, 2002). I’ve used the technique just enough to know that, like creating herbarium specimens, there is quite a bit of expertise involved that only practice will make anywhere near perfect. However, the basic idea is simple; it’s something that a child can do with a sturdy leaf covered with marker ink on one side and pressed on a sheet of paper. There is a magic to this because it’s a way to make venation a focus of attention. I keep coming back to the Mabey (2015) quote with which I began this series of posts to the effect that no technique can capture the essence of a plant perfectly. However, nature printing can very effectively highlight certain aspects of that essence.
Several years ago, there was an exhibit at the Wave Hill estate in the Bronx, NY on nature printing in botany and art. It was there that I fell in love with the technique because this rather small exhibit captured the history of nature printing so thoroughly. It included some of the earlier works that I’ve already cited such as those of Franklin, Atkins, Auer, and Bradbury. But what really grabbed my attention were the various ways in which 20th and 21st-century artists have employed nature printing. Kiki Smith was represented by a lithograph with pressed leaves. Another striking example was Ed Ruscha’s Clock of 1994 with what appears to be dried grass glued to the page, but is actually a print made by a proprietary technique called Mixografia, a relief color printing process.
In conjunction with this exhibit, there was a symposium on several aspects of nature printing: Karen Reeds (2006) spoke on the technique’s history, including her research on Leonardo Da Vinci’s role, Patricia Jonas compared nature prints with herbarium specimens, and Michele Oka Doner described using nature prints in her art. In the show was a striking Doner print of what looked like the tree of blood vessels in the lungs, but was in reality a print made with roots of banyan trees that she collected from the beach near her Florida home. This work a beautiful example of how branching patterns are ubiquitous in nature, as are her massive prints of the human body. As an aside, I have to add that several months later I encountered her work again, this time at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, MI. Doner designed the floor of the visitor’s center—an installation called Beneath the Leafy Crown (2009)—with 1600 “prints” of plants and invertebrates done in bronze and embedded into terrazzo (Becherer, 2010).
In his extensive historical review of nature printing, Roderick Cave (2010) cites other nature printers who were artists rather than botanists. Most notable is the surrealist Max Ernst who used what he called frottage: making rubbings from the surface of wood or other materials, especially in his series Histoire naturelle of 1926. Arthur Rushmore, an American print maker, developed his own technique for creating what he called “hay prints,” which influenced later artists. The British artist Morris Cox also employed prints imaginatively, combining them with his poems. Some are quite fanciful, such as a human figure of printed grass, others are more reminiscent of 19th-century colored prints of flowers. He sometimes also included a favorite subject of earlier printers: lace.
I want to end with the work of one of my favorite contemporary nature printers, one who unfortunately passed away shortly after publishing an amazing book that I mentioned in an earlier post on xylaria and tree rings. It’s Woodcut by Bryan Nash Gill (2012), a collection of, quite literally, wood prints. Gill would cut a slice through a tree trunk, meticulously sand it, apply ink, and make relief prints of the wood’s raised grain. He printed not only cross sections of trunks, but cuts through milled planks as well, often juxta-positioning them in interesting patterns. His works are definitely in the realm of art not science, but for the botanist they are still wonderful reminders of the beauty and mystery beneath the surface of a tree, beneath the bark. This reminds me, that bark, too, can be a subject for the nature printer, and this will be my next art project. I doubt that it will result in a great work of either art or science, but I am sure I will learn something more about the printing process and about the wonders of bark texture.
Becherer, J. (2010). Michele Oka Doner. Grand Rapids, MI: Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.
Bethmann, L. D. (2011). Hand Printing from Nature. North Adams, MA: Storey.
Cave, R. (2010). Impressions of Nature: A History of Nature Printing. London: British Library.
Dahl, C. A. (2002). Natural Impressions. New York, NY: Watson-Guptill.
Gill, B. N. (2012). Woodcut. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.
Huffman, S. (2016). The Art of Printing from Nature: A Guidebook from the Nature Printing Society. Lake Shore, MN: Nature Printing Society.
Mabey, R. (2015). The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination. New York, NY: Norton.
Reeds, K. (2006). Leonardo da Vinci and botanical illustration: Nature prints, drawings, and woodcuts ca. 1500. In Visualizing medieval medicine and natural history, 1200-1550 (pp. 205–237). Burlington, VT: Ashgate.