Early in my study of flower pressing, I noted that each author I read regarded enhancing the color of pressed material in any way is a cardinal sin. Touching a daisy petal or baby's breath with gesso white was an offense to be kept secret. With much difficulty, I tried to accept this concept as fact.
I had been working with pressed flowers for several years when, one memorable day, I met Irene Flesher through her "Pressed Flower Art." Her wonderful book boldly includes a chapter titled, "Color Washing." With no apology, she lists her colors by name and manufacturer's code number, and the size and type of brushes she uses. I was fascinated and could hardly wait to obtain the materials and try color washing for myself.
I wrote to Irene, telling her, "This is a fan letter." Her publisher forwarded the letter to her, much to her delight. She said she had wondered if anyone even remembered that she had written that book in 1984. Thus began an exchange of letters that lasted for about five years until her death. It seems difficult to realize that we never actually met; we came to know each other so well. She talked me through my first tries with color washing, always patient with my questions. We exchanged pressed material, each introducing the other to something new. We talked of gardening, worrying the winters through whether spring would ever come.
I found color washing with artists' water colors very rewarding, and I will here share with you that procedure. Irene's book is long out of print. In it she recommends use of the paints artists use; the water colors prepared for children are hardly worth the effort required for use in picture work since the color does not have lasting quality. I will list a few of the Windsor and Newton artists' colors. These four are enough to buy for a trial at color washing:
Permanent Green Light #561
Permanent Rose #075
Bright Red #006
Chinese White #011
Brush, size #2, pointed
A plastic plate makes an inexpensive starter pallet, or art stores sell small inexpensive ones for watercolors.
A glass "medicine" dropper is fine for adding the very small amounts of water necessary.
Add a drop or two of liquid detergent to a glass of water to help keep the paint from beading up on
the petals and leaves.
Squeeze a drop of paint half the size of a pea onto the pallet. Add drops of water, mixing with a toothpick or your brush. Try the mixture on a petal. If it is too dark, add a bit of white; if it is too thick, add a few more drops of water. Restrict your mixture to a "pool" about one inch in diameter. When you have finished painting for the day, let the "pool" dry. The paint on the pallet can be activated at another time by adding a few drops of water. Good water colors are expensive, and there is no need to waste any. Keep tubes tightly covered. Squeeze them from the bottom. Good brushes should also be well cleaned after each use with liquid detergent and running water. Tap out the water and reshape the bristles with your fingers. Never leave brushes standing in water; the wood will expand and crack the finish. Store with bristles up.
When color washing fern or some small-leaf sprays, try working on a piece of aluminum foil or waxed paper. Using a half inch brush for color washing fern is helpful. The paint that collects on the foil or paper can be picked up on your brush and stroked onto the next piece of fern. Brush with a light touch; don't saturate. Either leave pieces on the waxed paper or transfer them to a sheet of computer paper to dry. Newsprint is to be avoided here. Most pieces dry quickly enough so that you can put them back into your design within a few minutes. If the pieces stick to the paper, scratch the back with a fingernail to release it unharmed. When the material is dry, it may curl slightly; if so, place it in the phone book press under very light pressure, or glue it down in your design.
How long will the color last? There are many variables, but always it will be longer than material that is not color washed. Avoiding exposure to direct sunlight, the colors will fade gradually over six to eight years. Greens become a soft beige more quickly than flowers do. A little planning "for the future" allows one to introduce material that will provide contrasting antique tones in a picture. Often the results after time is lovelier than the picture's original look.
Flowers and individual leaves are color washed with the small #2 pointed brush. Use computer paper or a folded paper towel over newspaper as a work surface. Try to mix the color to match your memory of the flower when you picked it. If you have a flower that lost its color in pressing, it can often be restored with a light touch of water color. Or if you have an abundance of colorless flowers, try giving some a new look. Blue Bead Lilies are a wild flower I have in abundance. They are classed as a green flower, but are actually a pale beige, about an inch across. I have often given them the pretty dresses Nature denied them. Don't attempt color washing very thin flowers; they either roll up or disintegrate.
Many flowers we call blue are actually shades of violet. Mixing a blue watercolor to match Nature's blues is most difficult. Often a faded blue flower comes to life with a touch of pale violet. Blue food coloring mixed with water is another possibility to try.
After working with water colors for a while, I realized they do not work equally well for everything. I tried using felt-tipped permanent ink markers. For many uses they are wonderfully convenient and long lasting, but one is limited by the small range of useful colors available. Red is usually fine, but the pink available is apt to be fluorescent. I have never found a green marker that duplicates any green found in nature. One pen marked "yellow" proved to be a useful gold, ranging to pale orange.
The felt-tipped color pencils packaged for children are washable water colors, often scented with fragrances they love. Pink smells like bubble gum and red like cherries. These come in a wide range of colors and can be used on less permanent work such as greeting cards.
Many flowers need little or no help since they have naturally lasting color. Delphinium and Larkspur come in shades of pink, lavender, and blue. Pressed fresh, they hold color for years. Avoid displaying in sunlight. Delphinium have been found in Egyptian tombs, the flowers still bright blue after centuries in the dark. If you find larkspur in an old book, hidden from light for years, it will probably still have good color.
Blue Scilla, an early minor spring bulb, presses well and holds its blue color. Forget-Me-Nots occasionally press pink, but usually they retain their soft blue color well. The lovely color of violets is short-lived and needs color added.
Marigolds and coreopsis retain their bright gold and orange colors. Buttercups, stored in pressing papers stay bright and are useful over several years. Along the roadsides in July and August in New England, St. John's Wort offers gold flowers in abundance. The flowers press thin, so pick enough to use one on top of the other. They are too thin to color wash successfully.
There is a variety of sage called Hummingbird Sage. An annual in New England, it has numerous small intense red flowers that are attractive to "Hummers." It presses well and stays bright. Another red that needs no color help is Christmas Cactus. You can pick this from your house plants in winter. Cyclamen, taken apart, pressed, and then reassembled is red or pink, depending on the plant, with very bright results.
Wild fern picked when it has taken on its fall color, will remain as it is when pressed - it is already "antiqued." An accent of such dark material will stay dark and give emphasis to the outline of your design. Meadow Rue, both early flower sprays and later, seed sprays press very dark and graceful. The flowers press to look like tiny chocolate baby's breath. Many white flowers such as Japanese bamboo press ivory to beige, and they will remain so, darkening only slightly over time. Add a touch of color to your antique design by using an accent flower of lasting color such as larkspur or delphinium or a flower with color added.