Pia Östlund: Nature Printing, in Her Own Words

🕐 5 min read

Artist and Researcher, Pia Östlund talks about her experiences with nature printing in a touching first-hand account of her revival of a lost 19th-century printing technique.

I am led by curiosity and finding things in my surroundings, exploring different threads. I love plants (and gardens), books (and libraries), printing and drawing.

I am interested in people, places and narratives. The intersection between the natural world, the garden, and the library. I feel stimulated by all of this and feel a strong urge to make something from it.

Trying to find a visual expression for some of the things that excite me about the world. What that is takes different shapes.
I first came across nature printing at Chelsea Physic Garden, where I was working at the time. Hidden away in the library of rare books was a large publication, “The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland…”, by Thomas Moore, published in 1855, with nature prints by Henry Bradbury.

It has deceptively life-like prints of ferns with a curious 3D effect. They were unlike any prints I had seen before and I thought it would be a fun process to try. I soon realised that this printing method had not been used since the 19th century, so I set about trying to revive it, guided by an old patent description.

Following in the footsteps of the 19th century printers, Auer, Bradbury and Kyhl, I started at Fleet Street, the historic printing quarters in London, and St Bride’s Library, and travelled on to Vienna and Copenhagen looking for clues: original plates, prints and descriptions.

I soon realised that there was not just one way of making these prints...
I also went to old industrial towns, such as Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Gosport, and Dagenham, to find people and companies who are, today, casting metal and working with metal alloys to find potential links to the historic way of doing nature printing.

Through the Printing Historical Society I was connected with the University of Reading Department of Typography and Graphic Communication. They had a small workshop with original printing presses where I was able to experiment.. Eventually, I enrolled on an MA in Research.

I’m excited by the process and the strange kind of images it produces, starting from something as ephemeral as a leaf which is then exposed to enormous pressure and fed into a process involving roofing lead, electric currents, copper sulphates, and sulphuric acid in order to create its own representation.

I also like that nature printing defies categorisation: it is not a photograph, herbarium specimen, or botanical illustration, but rather includes elements of all three.
Nature and the natural world is where we come from. It must be stored in layers and layers of our DNA, whether we remember it or not.

Depicting, representing and grouping it, therefore, is part of us trying to make sense of the world around us and ourselves. Each person has to find their own way based on their personal experiences and what interests them. I’ve gained a lot of pleasure from looking at old books and herbals.

Many works are available online in a digitised format but I would encourage people to make the effort to go and handle the originals since that makes for a very different experience. Whilst there, take note of the type of paper, how the ink sits on it, the texture, the binding, etc.

Photographs are helpful for reference but they have a tendency to flatten prints and turn everything into the same thing. Yet when you produce a nature print, each image presents that plant in a slightly different way and never escapes the influence or motive of the author or originator.

In many ways, archival research and creative production come together, in that each time you create, you combine new questions with new technologies, which makes us revisit the past with a different lens. Forgotten technologies which no longer serve a purpose in the mainstream can be absorbed into artistic practices.

Looking into the past can make us see the present more clearly.
Pia Östlund is a Swedish designer and printmaker living in London. She is a graduate (in 2000) of Central Saint Martin’s School of Art & Design, London, and holds an MA from the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication at the University of Reading (UK). She has been a design consultant for Chelsea Physic Garden for 14 years and worked with The University of Oxford Botanic Garden for 6 years.

Pia’s revival of a rare 19th century nature printing technique, which uses lead and copper electroforming to create strangely life-like 3D images of plants on paper, is discussed by Simon Prett and Pia Östlund in “The Nature-Printer: A Tale of Industrial Espionage, Ferns and Roofing-Lead” (The Timpress, 2016).

Pia is currently working with Matthew Zucker of Zucker Art Books, New York, on a new book, “Capturing Nature”, about the techniques of nature printing.