Create art from nature: how to make paper, brew plant dyes and more

Create art from nature: how to make paper, brew plant dyes and more
Making authentic and naturally beautiful paper is simple when using natural ingredients, as shown by UAB professor Doug Baulos (left) at UAB's paper and dye garden. Baulos said that Alabama has "a lot of really great dye plants" such as the black walnut tree and zinnias. (UAB)

Making art this summer could be as easy as stepping outdoors and gathering nature’s own supplies.

From making paper from iris blades and tomato stems to upcycling old T-shirts with natural dyes from zinnias, sunflower seeds or marigolds, all you need is a little know-how, says University of Alabama at Birmingham Assistant Professor Doug Baulos, MFA.

Students learn about the unique artistry of using handmade dyes. (UAB)

Baulos teaches drawing and bookmaking in the UAB College of Arts and SciencesDepartment of Art and Art History. He often leads workshops and pop-up studios for the department, and also volunteers and works with other artists in the community.

“In the UAB paper and dye garden, in its third year now, we grow a lot of plants that you can make paper out of very easily,” Baulos said. “Everybody thinks it’s a big mystery about making paper, but’s actually pretty easy.” The DAAH paper and dye garden is within UAB’s community garden, where students, faculty and community volunteers joined together recently to paint a mural.

One point Baulos makes clear: He would never pick anything living to make it into something – everything is a year old and dead, he says. The main plants he uses to make paper are the small stems of tomato or sunflower, and iris blades when they die every year; the dead iris blades in an iris bed make really beautiful paper, Baulos says.

“We’ll just cook it in soda ash, which is the white stuff left over from a campfire, and then you cook it, grind it up in a blender and pour it over a screen and, presto, you have paper,” he said. “The best part about using things from the garden is that you are preventing acid from getting in the paper, which is the horrible thing about paper being made today. It’s not only the fiber from trees, but it is also the fact that it has a huge amount of acid in it.”

Even recycled paper contains acid, and artwork or calligraphy made with it will last only about 10 years. He and his students have made thousands of sheets of paper in classes, and “it’s pretty amazing; they make entire sketchbooks out of the paper.” Baulos uses the garden and natural dyeing for his Scientific Illustration and Special Topics: Hybrid Materials courses. Students also make paper in his ARS 200 Drawing course.

Baulos and the DAAH are in collaboration with Karolina M. Mukhtar, Ph.D., associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Biology. He teaches these techniques to her plant biology students, and they make paper. He discusses with them the differences between plant fibers molecularly.

“It’s been a really great collaboration point within the College of Arts and Sciences,” he said. “A lot of people think art and science don’t have much in common, but at some level of research in art you really have to know about the science of color and the science of how to make things.”

Baulos, who grew up in rural Illinois, says there are a lot of really great dye plants in Alabama, like the black walnut tree and zinnias, two of his favorites.

“Sunflower seeds are actually really blue-black – once you grow the sunflowers for the paper and enjoy the sunflower, when it is dead, the seeds can be left for the birds or squirrels; but they also make a beautiful dye,” he said. “The Indians used it a lot in their weaving. It’s called Hopi black.”

An “eco print bundle” made by Baulos, which looks similar to a sepia photo. (UAB

To make the dye, brew the walnuts – which must be gathered when black, not green – or the seeds or dead zinnias, just like brewing tea. The dye can be added to the paper vat to color the paper, or let it get really thick and paint it on the paper, he says.

Baulos grew up on a farm, and his grandmother taught him a lot about dyes. She would hand-dye her own fiber and wool. A lot of times people will use dyes from their gardens, like beets, which create a jewel red-violet color. But the color from beets is fugitive, meaning it does not actually dye the material, and it will go back to white.

In the garden, students have grown indigo, which they have used to dye old denim jeans; small purple potatoes; carrots, which offer a brilliant orange color; and marigolds, as well as the older traditional dyes woad (blue) and dyer’s chamomile (yellow).

To dye a cotton or linen shirt, you must first mordant the fabric, or rid it of impurities. Use soy milk, one cup per quart of water, or a quarter cup of alum to a quart of water, soak for 30 minutes and let it drip. Prepare the dye a day or more ahead of time. Make an initial tisane by steeping marigold petals in hot water.

“You want to fill a container totally full of marigolds, then fill it to the same level with hot water, let it sit over night or longer, and add more water as it evaporates, twice,” Baulos said. “Then cook it for an hour and a half. If it doesn’t work, it may be because it didn’t sit long enough. Just like a tea bag, if you take it out it after eight seconds, none of the tea has been allowed to steep. You don’t have to strain out the marigolds. Save the marigolds, and add them into your paper since they’ve already been cooked.

“The longer it steeps, the more it seeps into the fabric.”

Baulos also teaches eco-printing, or actually using the flower petals or a leaf to leave an imprint. Roll the flower or leaf on the fabric and then into a bundle, then steam or cook it in water in a non-reactive pot for about three hours, and it actually prints  the shape of the leaf on the fabric. Eucalyptus is also grown in the dye garden and is great for eco-printing.

“I think people are really amazed at eco-printing,” he said. “They didn’t realize it would leave the shape of the flower.”

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