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DIY Printing with Spices!

Using common grocery store items we will make our own photoreactive paper that you can use to capture images with sunlight. For this project, you’ll need turmeric, Borax, 91% isopropyl alcohol, a foam brush, thick paper (like watercolor paper), a tall jar, and the glass from a picture frame. With parental guidance, this chemistry craft can be done by anyone.

This process was originally invented by Mary Somerville in 1842. Somerville was a Scottish scientist, writer, and polymath who studied mathematics and astronomy. She was nominated to be one of the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society. She was elected to the American Geographical and Statistical Society in 1857 and the Italian Geographical Society in 1870 and was made a member of the American Philosophical Society.

Anthotypes are a type of photo-sensitive print. Basically the plant compound — in this case the curcumin in the spice turmeric — is degraded by the UV light of the sun over time. Many spices and flowers can be used for this process. We’re using turmeric because it degrades pretty quickly. To stop the degradation process we use Borax which contains sodium tetraborate. This binds the any remaining undegraded turmeric on the paper and forms an organo-metallic compound that turns brown and creates the final print.

For this project you will need:

  • Watercolor paper
  • Foam brushes
  • Small pane of glass or Plexiglas
  • Stiff cardboard
  • Binder clips
  • Powdered turmeric
  • 91% isopropanol
  • Borax detergent
  • Tall, thin containers for mixing
  • Measuring spoons and cups
  • Found objects from natural
  • A tray or dish that can hold your paper

First, we need to treat our watercolor paper with a photo-sensitive turmeric solution. Mix 1 teaspoon of turmeric into 4 teaspoons of isopropanol alcohol in your tall container. Shake the container or mix it well. Let the solution rest until the turmeric settles at the bottom.

Use the foam brush to coat your watercolor paper. Try to apply the liquid uniformly and in one direction. This solution should coat two 9×12 pieces of paper. Place the paper on your cardboard and put it into a closet or another dark place until it dries. If you want, use a fan to circulate the air and dry the paper more quickly.

Once dry, place your found objects on the paper to create a “mask” that will block light in those areas. Then make a sandwich, with the carboard behind the paper and your glass or plexiglass on top. Use binder clips to hold everything together. Work quickly. Any natural light your paper is exposed to at this point can affect your print. Store any leftover paper in a manilla folder or envelope.

Place your materials in a sunny spot, with the most direct sunlight possible. You don’t want shadows to fall on the print. Find a place where your print will not be disturbed for several hours. Leave it in the sun for 2-3 hours, checking on it occasionally. The longer you leave the print expose, the more white the background will be in the end. It may take a few tried to get the exposure your want.

When you are ready to develop your print, add 2 teaspoons of Borax to 1/2 cup of warm water. Bring your print inside. Remove the glass and found objects. Place the print in your tray. Pour the Borax solution over the print and make sure the entire surface is coated. The areas that were not exposed should turn deep brown. Allow the paper to sit int he Borax solution until you are happy with the developed color.

Rinse the print well with lots of warm water to remove any Borax. Make sure you wash your hands as well, as ingesting Borax can make you sick. Place the paper into a safe place and let it dry completely. Depending on the quality and thickness of the watercolor paper used, you may need to place the print under a few books to flatten it after it dries.

Frame your print to enjoy. Or make small prints and use them on the fronts of cards. Cut up your print and make bookmarks for friends. You can use your anthotype of many fun projects!

Once you’re familiar with the process, you can try other spices, vegetables, or flowers for your anthotypes. This technique leaves lots of room for experimentation. Because the materials are inexpensive and easily available, you can explore many options.

Special thanks to Dino-Thor, who published the original inspiration for this project on Instructables.

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