News Creating the botanically printed flags for CFNT21, an interview with Karen Payten

August 16, 2021
If you were at ChangeFestNT21 or have seen the photos you may have noticed some silk flags at the back of the marquee in Goyder Square. They are the beautiful work of emerging artist Karen Payten who lives in Meanjin on Turrbal Country. Here is how she created them.
1.  How are the flags printed?
‘There were a number of different methods used for the flags. I can break them up into two primary methods – simmering and steaming:
  • Simmering – In this case, a ‘dirty’ pot was used which is a big pot containing a well boiled concoction of eucalyptus leaves and bark, along with a few pieces of rusty metal to add iron to the mix. It is called ‘dirty’ because the resulting brew is dark and funky. The flags created with this method were firstly soaked in water with vinegar and printed primarily with different varieties of eucalyptus, rolled onto pipes, immersed into the dirty pot and simmered for a number of hours. The dark brew colours the edges of the flags and the lines on the ends were created by the strings used to tie up the bundles. In most cases a barrier was used to prevent the leaves from printing through multiple layers of the fabric, which we call ‘ghosting’, but for a few flags I didn’t use a barrier and folded the flags on random diagonals to create more complex prints with the ghosting.
  • Steaming – This is where the flag is steamed in a very big pot instead of being immersed in liquid. In this case I used another piece of fabric that was soaked in iron water or a natural dye and laid over the foliage on top of the flag. This extra fabric is called an iron blanket or carrier blanket and it affects the outcome by reacting with the pre-treatment applied to the flag or imparting a colour to the background. The flags were pre-treated with mineral salts (mordants) and in a few cases also dipped in a tannin solution made from eucalyptus bark. I used either an iron blanket, which reacts with the tannin in the foliage to create slightly darker outlines or with the tannin in the flag to create a purple-grey background, or a logwood (a natural botanical dye) carrier blanket to create a purple background. In all cases I used a barrier to prevent any ghosting as I wanted clearer prints.’
2.  What was your inspiration to start using this process?
‘I’ve been retired for a few years now and after working full-time my whole adult life I struggled with not having that focus anymore. Then by accident I found an eco-dyeing workshop given by a local Brisbane woman last year and decided to attend for something to do. I was thoroughly hooked, and immediately started experimenting at home. Now after almost a year, I have 6 pots of varying sizes, attended another 5 courses, either in person or online, and I am constantly experimenting, learning and creating. My long-suffering partner will say I am obsessed, and I probably am!’
3.  How are the colours made?
‘The colours of the foliage come directly from the foliage. It is such a wonderful surprise when unbundling a piece to see the colour of a particular variety of plant, as it changes depending on which plant or tree it came from, the age of the plant or tree, and the season. The type of fabric, the pre-treatment used (if any), and the type of blanket will also affect the resulting colour of both the foliage and the background. It is amazing that often the printed colour is very different to the original colour of the leaf or flower.’
4.  How did you approach design for each flag? 
‘Because of the time constraints, I used simple designs and methods for most of the flags.  For example, some of the flags were printed in pairs, where I laid one flag on top of another with the foliage sandwiched in-between so one flag was a mirror image of the other. Others were folded in half lengthwise with foliage between the two halves to create a mirror image on the one flag. For a couple of flags I first soaked them in a tannin bath created from eucalyptus bark and used an iron blanket to create the purple-grey background resulting from the iron-tannin interaction. And finally, for a number I used a logwood carrier blanket to produce a purple-grey background.’
5.  Any secrets you can reveal?
‘In the beginning everything I did was learnt from courses, books and the botanical printing communities that I’ve joined. Now that I’m more confident I’m constantly experimenting, adding to what I have learnt so far and creating my own recipes for different effects. I guess there may be some secrets!’
6.  Does the process always work?
‘Oh no, there are always failures, though I don’t call them that, instead they are an opportunity to learn something new. The one thing I’ve learnt is to not hold onto an expectation of an outcome and to appreciate everything that comes out of the pot, so unbundling is like having Christmas all over again! There were a few ‘failures’ when printing the flags, but I was able to improve the results by using different recovery techniques such dipping a flag in iron water to darken a pale result, or reprinting it again over the top, or even dyeing it in logwood and then printing over the dye.’
7.  Do you do a lot of commissions?
‘Yours was the first! Since then I’ve had a couple of orders for scarves and wraps produced in particular styles but that is all. It is early days yet.’
8.  How did you feel seeing the flags in situ at ChangeFestNT21?
‘Oh my, I felt honoured and blessed to have been able to contribute to the festival and seeing my flags hanging up around the pavilion was amazing. I so want to thank you for the opportunity you gave me.’
9.  Anything else?
‘Well, anything is possible. I’ve just created an Etsy store, though it is currently in Holiday mode until I build up enough stock and also work out how to take decent photos of my work. Stay tuned to my IG account for news of it’s opening.’
Love Karen