Thursday, January 6, 2011

Playing with Leaves and Octopodes

(For those of you who are wondering, octopodes is the most accurate, though not most common, plural of octopus.)

Back in September, I got invited to teach encaustic techniques to an organization I had never heard of before - the Nature Printing Society. It is a group of scientists, educators, artists, and other geeks and misfits who love making art prints from any sort of natural ephemera that will hold still long enough - plants, fish, and yes, even octopus.

nature prints by Bridget Benton made by placing feathers
and plants on light-sensitive etching plates; plates are then inked and printed

Making impressions of natural objects is one of the oldest - and most accurate - ways of recording the essential characteristics of natural objects: this is why the scientists love it. It also opens up whole new worlds of creative possibilities: this is why the artists love it. And as for the geeks and misfits, hey - who wouldn't love rolling ink on an octopus or tramping through the woods looking for nifty leaves and branches to print?

nature prints on fabric by Bridget Benton using an inked gelatin plate for mono-printing; shown here collaged with some mass-produced fabrics

Yup - you guessed it: artist, educator, and nature-loving nerd that I am - these are my people. I eagerly accepted the invitation to teach - it seemed like a great opportunity to learn some new things! In fact, doing the work to prepare to teach an encaustic class for nature printers opened up some new possibilities in my own work - I played with pressing leaves and other natural objects into the wax, and using oil paint to pick up the impressions. This led to a whole new series of work that I showed (and demostrated) during Portland Open Studios in October and at Guardino Gallery in December.

encaustic with oak leaf impressions

And I had a great time teaching at their annual conference at the Oregon coast. The whole group is so open to learning and sharing techniques that I felt completely at home. I took several classes while I was there, too, but there was one that had me giddy with excitement: Octopus Printing. Now, fish printing or gyotaku, is pretty well known in the U.S. as a Japanese import: you ink up a dead fish and then gently press paper onto the inky fish surface to pick up an impression. Using octopus as a giant rubber stamp, however, is not as well known.

gyotaku, or fish print, made by Nature Printing Society member

But I am deeply drawn to octopus. Octopodes. Octopusses. However you say it, I love their sensuous shape and suckerness. And to get a chance to print them? How could I resist? We started out with small ones, sold for food at local Asian markets. Thawed, cleaned, and dried, they are remarkably easy to position and print. They can also be re-frozen and then re-thawed and used again for printing. I admit, this is not for the squeamish.

me with my first octopus print!

several of my wee octopus prints!

I would have been happy just to make little prints. However, some local fisherman had caught a large octopus in their nets: knowing that we were in town and looking for non-commercially viable catch to print, they saved it for us. Several brave souls from the Nature Printing Society, including our intrepid Octopus Printing Instructor, Sharron Huffman, cleaned and gutted the octopus so that we could do giant octopus prints.

Sharron inking the large octopus

Sharron after the first print was pulled from the octopus

Now, Sharron has been printing octopodes for many years - she's as drawn to them as I am. She had one specimen, purchased at a Seattle fish market, that she carefully conserved and used for years to print from. She even has a detailed how-to on her website. Now, if you're lucky enough to live in the Portland area, and want to do some hands-on octopus printing, she's having a workshop in her home studio in February! Oh yeah - you can bet I'll be there!

print of large octopus tentacles by Bridget Benton

large octopus print on silk by Bridget Benton

If you're interested, here's the info: Sharron Huffman will teach Beginning Octopus Printing February 12, 1:00–4:00 p.m. at her home studio in Milwaukie, Oregon. $65 plus $15 materials fee. Limited to 5 participants. Contact Sharron at for more information and registration. I hope you'll join us!

participants in the octopus printing classroom, Nature Printing Society workshop, 2010