Paper Towels Transformed

Last Saturday my husband and I participated in a Jewelry making workshop at a local arts organization. Neither of us are jewelry people but he had his reasons why he thought this would be fun. Also, trying something new is often beneficial, even if the reason why is not immediately apparent.

Paper towels tie dyed with food color

The artist who taught the class, Kim Turner, demonstrated how to use paper towels and food coloring to form the base for a piece of jewelry; sort of low tech tie dying.  The idea is, after the paper towel dries, it can be attached to a base (Kim gave us brass shapes that could be turned into necklaces or earrings) and embellished further using the tie-dyed patterns as points of inspiration.  The two towels on the left are my husbands; both my towels turned into one color but he managed to keep colors separated.  The reason the one towel is smaller is because he used the other half on the brass base.  Since many people did turn their creations into necklaces and earrings, there were plenty of things to use for embellishment such as beads, chains, etc. The most popular thing to use were paint pens, especially the metallic ones. Here are our results.

Jewelry workshop
Paper towel based jewelry

At first I was going to turn these into pins (I do like pins). And I still may do that but I also like the look of them mounted on the one paper towel.

finished piece
Finished pieces with paper towel background

I can see possibilities of using this technique with some high quality paper and watercolor or acrylic wash. I can also see this as a great activity to do with children: meaning the dying the paper towel part.   So thanks to Kim and the people at ArtsPlus for making this workshop happen.


How to Identify Plants by Keying

If you have read my other posts on collecting weeds and wild plants, then the term keying may sound familiar so here is my long promised attempt at explaining that process. You may wonder, why not just snap a picture and run it through an app on your phone?  Part of the fun of keying is like solving a puzzle.  Also, if someone is really interested in botany, just learning the name of something really does not teach anything about the characteristics of a plant. Since keying can become quite involved, what I will do is give a general explanation for the mildly curious. Perhaps some point in the future, I will go into greater detail about plant characteristics; and with it being January, the examples I can provide at the moment are pretty slim pickins!

A sampling of plant key guides

First, lets talk about the types of key guides that are available.  There is the professional key (which I do not own) and those for amateurs, like the ones pictured above.  Different guides use different systems for identification but the one thing they all have in common is the need to identify certain characteristics of the plant in question. It is of the most importance that whatever guide you choose, that the time is taken to read the introduction to the guide and directions on how to use it.

So keeping with general information, listed below are some of the most basic characteristics you will need to know to begin using whatever key guide you choose.

  • If it is an herbaceous or woody plant – example: a woody plant means a shrub, there are also vines (which can be woody or non woody but generally are just classified as vines in a key), and herbaceous plants which are other flowering plants like our friends the weeds and other wildflowers.  These keys do not include trees or grasses (both of which also flower) because those types of plants are a whole different ball of wax.
  • Characteristics of flower/fruit/seed – this includes the number of parts, if is regular or irregular. Parts of a flower include the petals, sepals, female & male parts (pistil & stamen), and if the flower is regular or irregular (in a very basic sense this has to do with the shape of the flower).
  • Characteristics of leaves – this includes the position of the leaves, what the edges look like, the overall shape, and if it is simple or compound. I will throw in a few photos here. The beech leaf to the left is considered toothed because the edge is serrated. The wild ginger leaf on the right is considered entire because there are no teeth.

After the basic characteristics of the plant have been determined, depending on the key, you will either be guided through the book with a group of symbols and compare your specimen with additional plant characteristics until you reach something that looks like your plant. Alternately is a system where a number is assigned to each characteristic and the group of numbers helps to guide you through the key until you come to something that resemble your plant. Each of these systems are great fun and you may choose to use just one type of key or several.  I use several but my favorite is the one that uses a number system (I will pause here to let those of you who know me laugh hysterically because you know my aversion to anything to do with numbers).

Useful tools for keying include a ruler, tweezers, a jewelers loop, and pencil/notepad

The system with the numbers is called the Newcomb system and I like it because it goes into great detail as to exactly what the plant looks like. However, the Newcomb system was written for the Northeastern US/Canada.  This does not mean it is not useful elsewhere because you can still track a plant to at least the family or genus. This was the first key I ever used and in the beginning there were many of days that I wanted to toss it across the room. But with increased understanding of what I was looking at and practice, I now find it to be quite easy. If you are only mildly interested in this process, I would recommend one of the guides that uses symbols such as the ones in the Finders series (these are the ones in the top right of my key guide photo).

This is where I will stop my description on keying because to go further would require better examples than I can collect at this time. Also, some readers may just have wanted their curiosity satisfied and I hope this has served that purpose. At some point in the future, when I can get better samples to photograph, perhaps I can go into some more detail on plant characteristics for those who are curious. But for now, That’s all folks!

For the Love of Weeds ~ part 2

Yesterday I spoke of my love of weeds and mentioned that I am involved with collecting wild plants for an organization. So I will talk a bit about this today.

Where I live, the county is steward to an herbarium, which is a collection of wild plants that are preserved for the purpose of research.  I am a member of an organization called Central Carolina Master Naturalists, a group that is trained in different areas of natural history then does volunteer work in a particular field or fields. My main area of interest is botany and I volunteer with the herbarium.

Plant Press
A plant press

One of the most welcoming feelings I had after moving here was going to the herbarium and seeing a plant press tagged with my name for me to use.  Let me take a moment to address something very important: there is protocol for collecting wild plants.   Though I was collecting “weeds” like I used to which were plentiful, I was also collecting other specimens so I had to follow some rules. First, I had to have permission, which came from the herbarium itself. As a scientific entity, I could collect for them as long as they approved of me doing so. Second,if it was an endangered plant, it could not be collected at all. I simply took a photograph of it and logged information about it.  The other thing is there has to be at least ten visible specimens of what you are collecting so there is assurance of not removing something that is not prolific.

So as to the actual collecting itself, you need to try to get as much of the plant as possible which means preferably something in flower (also something that had gone to fruit or seed is good) a few leaves, and roots. The specimen is then spritzed with water and put into a plastic bag and sealed to maintain the moisture. Then the location has to be recorded and now this is done with GPS coordinates as they are the most accurate. Other conditions are noted: the surrounding landscape, other plants in the area, any information added is useful.

A mounted specimen with label. The plant is Clematis virginiana.

When I got the plants home, I had to position them in the press so they would dry out in a way that when they were mounted, different parts of the plant could be studied.  Then, if I did not know the plant (and most times I did not), I had to key it out.  Keying involves looking at very specific aspects of a plant such as flower parts, arrangement and type of  leaves, and a variety of other physical attributes of the plant.  Different guides have different criteria for keying but these aspects are pretty universal.  I was going to talk more about keying in this post but it is so involved, I have since decided to devote a whole post to just that topic so that will come over the next few days.  The name of the plant is added to the notes taken while in the field and placed with the plant in the press. When the press got filled up, I brought it to the herbarium where the plant ID was verified (or corrected) by a botanist, mounted, labeled, accessioned, scanned, and filed. To the right is a plant I collected and I am happy to have learned that this particular plant had not been collected in the county in 50 years. So there is my contribution to local science! 

Field work 2The herbarium is part of a larger resource center containing a variety of natural history items and scientific data collection so there are several projects that go on. Some of the other things I have helped with are forest assessments, moth nights, and endangered species counts. The photograph on the left is one such event where we were preparing to start a count for the Schweinitz’s sunflower (Helianthus schweinitzii).

I will end this post with a brief statement on use of botanical names vs. common names. I know it can be really annoying to be talking about a plant and some showoff has to throw out the Latin name but I cannot stress how important and useful it is.  When I first started to collect, my field partner was talking about a Tamarack and I said that I knew of a similar tree called a Larch. Neither of us knew what the other meant but as it turned out, we were both talking about the exact same tree (Larix laricina).





For the Love of Weeds

Dandelion (Taraxacum), Chickweed (Stellaria), Woodsorrell (Oxalis)

I always wondered about the plants that grow along the highway embankments and in the sidewalk cracks and curb sides.  What are these things and how do they survive in what seem to be very hostile conditions?   I like plants and flowers as much as the next person and I have had my garden plot full of colorful annual flowers, then an extensive herb garden, then a more extensive native plant garden and, somewhere mixed with the native plant garden, a weed garden.  Yes, I grew (on purpose) weeds.

So the topic of weeds inevitably brings up the question: What is a weed? I think Merriam-Webster has one of the better definitions: a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth.  I have come across many descriptions that call weeds “of little value“, and claim they are “dangerous to other plants“.  From a natural history point of view, such descriptions could be applied to many highly prized plants and are not necessarily true of a number of things we call weeds.

weed guides
Two of my favorite books!

My interest in weeds started, as previously mentioned, out of curiosity then grew into an obsession.  I would go out for my after dinner walk and scan the sidewalk for weeds, pluck them up (nobody seemed to care about them) and then take them home to key them out, which is something I will explain in another post. After I attempted to identify and press the weeds I would paste them in a small scrapbook with the name, date, and where it was collected.  During one period of time I did not have much chance to tend to my native plant garden so I made a conscious decision to let the weeds grow among the other plants and see what came up.

I am not a keeper of things and I hate clutter.  This habit made for an easy relocation but it also was the cause of my tossing my weed book*. I remember having it in my hand and at the very last minute adding it to the trash can.  It is the only thing I am sorry I did not keep. Oddly, when I moved I ended up in a volunteer position collecting wild plants and since weeds are also wild plants, I got to continue my practice.  I will discuss this volunteer job along with plant identification in my next post.  (*A few people mentioned this to me in comments and emails so I need to clarify that the weed book I tossed was the scrapbook of weeds I collected, not the guides pictured above, I still have those!).

How to Make a Transfer Print

Three examples of transfer prints 

Recently I added a few new prints (see above) to my Etsy site that were made via a transfer method. I have been recently thinking about ways to print without a press because so many of the places I taught did not have a press and, in the spring, I will be teaching such a workshop again so I wanted to get back in the swing a bit.

The properties of a transfer print are very different than most printmaking techniques. The marks made are very velvety, sort of more like a charcoal drawing. If you are looking for clean, crisp lines, this is not the method to use.

Materials for a transfer print can be as bare bones as a stamp pad, paper, and pencil. But if you want a little more space for your image I suggest using block printing ink rolled out.  Here is what you need:

  • Block printing ink (I prefer permanent ink)
  • Paper
  • An inking slab such as an old baking sheet or a piece of glass or plexiglass
  • A brayer
  • Pencil
  • Cellophane tape or drafting tape
  • A fine line marker
  • Watercolor and brush are optional

If you are using a piece of glass please make sure you tape off the edges to avoid cutting yourself. You can see in my photographs below that my glass plate is taped. A heavy tape is best such as duct tape or white artist tape.

Rolled Ink
An inked plate with guide marks

Decide how big your image will be. Will is be the size of the whole sheet of paper or do you want the image set in the center of the paper with a clean-ish margin around the image?  Keep in mind if you want the latter of the two options you will not get a pristine clean margin like you would with other printmaking techniques but it will have the same effect of setting off the image.

I have marked my plate in the photo above to show both options. Circled in the red marks (this is done via photoshop, it is not on my actual printing plate) there are tic marks made with a marker.  This mark is where the ink will go.  You do not want to cover the whole plate with ink because it is not only wasteful but will make a mess.  This patch of ink is the same size as a small piece of paper I will be using, so the image will cover the whole sheet of paper, no margins.   The second marks I made in green (again via photoshop) are for if you want to use a larger sheet of paper with a margin around the image as described above. What you would do is figure out approximately where you want your image to be in relation of the paper (usually in the center). Extend the tic marks out to the edge of your inking sheet so you have indicators as to where the ink is once you put the paper down over it.  You will also see a green line on the bottom of the plate, this is also an indicator as to where to lay the paper.  With these indicators, you should be able to get your paper pretty close to getting the image in the center of the paper.

For the purpose of this demonstration, I am using a small sheet of paper that covers the entire ink patch (see below). Place the paper down and put some tape on two of the opposite corners. I always prefer drafting tape because it does not rip the paper. However, if you are practicing, use whatever you have handy such as cellophane tape.

drawing image for transfer
Marks made with a variety of tools

Now you simply draw your design with a pencil.  Above I have made marks with a variety of tools: a pencil, a thick graphite stick, the end of an erase, and my fingers. You can also use a pencil on the side, rather than the point, to get a thicker mark. The odd looking tool in the lower right corner is something called a roulette wheel, which is a specialized tool used in intaglio printing. But perhaps you have a pie cutting wheel or some other rolling implement to experiment with; have fun!

Results from transfer
Resulting Marks

Going clockwise from top right, here are the results from the various tools: pencil, roulette wheel, dragged finger, finger print, roulette wheel used a different way, fat graphite stick, stamping with end of a plastic eraser.  Keep in mind how hard you press will effect the darkness or lightness of the mark.  The finger prints were also shown as a warning, whatever you do, do not learn on your paper when drawing because those marks will be picked up. That is why it is a good idea to anchor your paper with tape. If you are using permanent ink, when the print is dry you can go over areas with watercolor.

Paper on ink pad (left), resulting print (right)

So for the quick and easy method, above is the stamp pad set up.  Again, I like permanent ink so I use Ranger Ink Pads. With this method, you are limited to the size of the stamp pad. Simply lay your paper down on the pad and draw. Presto!