Saturday, 23 June 2012

Elephant No. 265: Anthotype

This is one of the more unusual printing techniques I've come across—although perhaps not that unusual for anyone who's ever made contact prints in a photography class.

An anthotype—from the Greek anthos (flower)—is created by using photosensitive emulsions created from plant material. A sheet of paper is coated with the emulsion, then light-blocking material such as a leaf, flower or silhouette is laid on top. The entire piece is then placed outside in the sun until the background bleaches out to a near-white, leaving the sun-blocking material as the design. You can also use this process with large-format negatives. Since I didn't have any appropriate negatives on hand, I decided to go the contact-print route.

Anthotype of lion statue from a negative by Jalo Porkalla.
This anthotype required an entire summer to develop under a Finnish sun.

For millennia, dyes have been made from plant material such as leaves, twigs, fruits and vegetables. Some are more light-fast than others, bleaching out slowly, while some are so sensitive to light that they will disappear within minutes.

Invented by British scientist John Herschel in 1842, the anthotype was originally conceived as a photographic process for making images of flowers. It was ultimately abandoned as impractical and time-consuming, and is today used primarily in fine-art printing. Because they are so susceptible to the effects of light, anthotype images tend to be fragile and prone to fading. No one seems to have figured out how to fully arrest the fading process, although some plant materials are known to fade less readily than others.

Anthotype by yourmung.

The colour of the flower or plant is often the colour that you'll get in the final print. Some plants, however, will yield very different colours. For example, lilacs result in pinky browns, rather than mauve, and my own experiment today resulted in a light lavender, despite the fact that I started out with a rich, dark burgundy. This is partly due to the action of the sun on certain pigments, fading out some, while retaining others.

There are as many variations in tincture as there are plants in the garden. Some plants also react better with than water. Popular flowers include poppies, peonies and violets. Cabbage and grasses are also supposed to be good. For an excellent description of the process by anthotype expert Malin Fabbri, click here.

The method is relatively straightforward:

1. Crush plant material with a mortar and pestle, or in a blender if quantities are large.

2. Add distilled water, denatured alcohol, or even vodka. The thicker the mixture, the darker the background.

3. Strain mixture through cheesecloth, a fine strainer or a coffee filter.

4. Paint a piece of heavy paper—such as watercolour paper—with the mixture.

5. Let paper dry in a dark place—or it will start to fade. You can also speed up the drying process with a hairdryer.

6. Arrange leaves, silhouettes or whatever on the dry paper.

7. Place in bright sun. Check periodically until background fades to white, or as light as you want it.

There was no comprehensive online source listing plant materials, but I saw some pretty prints using blueberries, so I decided to try that. The main issue with this process is how sensitive the emulsion is to light. Some emulsions will fade almost immediately when placed in the sun. Others take days or even weeks. The sun is very hot and bright here today, so I decided to take my chances.

I started by grinding a few blueberries and a couple of blackberries with a mortar and pestle. I mixed this with distilled water, which is supposedly the best liquid for maintaining the colour of the original material.

I then strained the emulsion through a fine strainer to remove most of the pulp. I wanted to keep some of the specks of plant material to add texture to the paper, so I opted for a fine mesh rather than cheesecloth or a coffee filter.

Once I had a nice emulsion, I painted it onto a piece of medium-weight watercolour paper. You need a relatively sturdy paper for this process, so that it will stand up to the tincture, as well as to the trauma of sitting in sun for hours or days.

While my paper was drying in a darkened room, I cut out an elephant silhouette. I used black bristol board for this, thinking that a dark colour would be less likely to allow light to shine through.

The paper dried quickly, so I was ready to go in about an hour or so. It dried a much bluer colour than the original emulsion, but that was okay with me.

I placed my sihouette on the paper, and took it outside to let it sit for a few hours. I chose the brightest part of my yard, where the sun is likely to shine for most of the day. It was about 12:30 in the afternoon when I placed it outside.

Nearly six hours later, the background had faded enough that I was okay with it. It hadn't faded to white, but it was about as good as it was going to get within a single day. I peeked under the trunk to check it before disassembling everything, and there was enough contrast to show where the silhouette had been. The sun sneaked under the top edges of the crown because the paper curled away just a bit, despite being weighted down. Most serious anthotypers apparently use photographic printing frames for something like this. For artist Jalo Porkkala's set-up, click here.

With some emulsions, apparently they need to be left for days or weeks to fade properly, and berries may be one of these. I was a bit disappointed in the final image, but I guess you take what you get when you only have a day's worth of sun to play with. I was also a bit disappointed in the darkness of the original colour on the paper. Supposedly you can get vibrant colours with very few flower petals, so several berries should have been fairly dark. Oh well.

I was intrigued enough by this process that I will probably try it again at some point, with different types of flowers and leaves. I may even try with some kind of large-format negative next time. And several days' worth of sun.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In the late 1990s, rangers in South Africa's Pilanesberg Park discovered a disturbing trend. For years, rangers had been trying to protect the endangered white rhinoceros, which was suddenly being attacked and killed by unknown assailants.

Because the rhino horns had been left with the bodies, they knew it wasn't the work of poachers. Instead, it soon became apparent that a group of elephant juvenile delinquents had taken to attacking and killing the Park's rhinoceroses.

This is highly unusual behaviour among properly socialized elephants. Unfortunately, this particular group had grown up without any male role models, and had no idea what appropriate elephant behaviour might be.

The problem dated back to a major elephant cull some 20 years earlier. In South Africa's Kruger National Park, elephant populations had grown out of hand. At the time, there was no way of relocating large adult elephants, so a decision was made to kill the adults and save the babies. The babies were then transported to other parks, such as Pilanesberg. Although the supervising veterinarian at the time worried that the young elephants might not adjust without adult supervision, there was no other option.

The net result was an entire generation of traumatized orphaned elephants, thrown together without any adults to show them how to behave. Elephants learn from one another, and knowledge is passed down from generation to generation, making the cull nothing short of catastrophic. Years later, the orphans had essentially developed into troubled teens with raging hormones. In elephants, raging hormones lead to murderous behaviour, leading in turn to the killing of rhinos.

Park rangers began photographing the suspects and tracking them. Not only were the elephants attacking and killing rhinos, but they also became increasingly aggressive towards tourist vehicles. Worst of all was an elephant named Mafuta. Mafuta became leader of the difficult herd, essentially turning them into an unmanageable street gang, with himself as the ringleader. Mafuta was so bad that, if distracted from attacking a rhino, he would fly into a rage if the rhino escaped, and would return to attack the same rhino several weeks later.

Rangers worried that they would have to shoot the elephants, but wanted to avoid killing them if there was any other way. They hit upon a solution that worked surprisingly well: bring in some even larger bull elephants.

No one had ever transported fully-grown adult elephants before, but by 1998, rangers at Kruger National Park had brought some fully grown male elephants to Pilanesberg Park. The bigger, older elephants quickly established a pecking order, putting the younger elephants in their place, which also has the effect of reducing a younger elephant's hormone levels. As one of the rangers put it, it was like suddenly confronting a group of out-of-control teenagers with their fathers.

The juvenile delinquents seem to have understood the message. Since the arrival of the adult elephants, not a single rhino has been killed by an elephant.

Male elephant and rhino, South Africa, 2011.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India


  1. Thanks so much! I'm so glad you like it. But it's nothing like your gorgeous work!

    Many people have told me how much they like your beautiful anthotypes, and two people have told me they are now inspired to try it.