Third Saturday Online: Leaf Rubbings

European artists have painted a variety of plants and flowers that reflect the floral obsessions that come and go. Today we will see depictions of these fads from the past, including British “fern fever” and Dutch “tulipmania,” in art at the UMFA. You can make our own paper book to record rubbings of plants and flowers you want to learn more about. 

Before getting started on the art project, let’s look at some depictions of these flora fads from the UMFA’s European Art collection. 

A pottery vase sits in the bottom center of the painting. It has applied sculptural flowers in a ring around the center with a sculpted face of a bearded man in the center. The vase holds five tulips, an iris, and three other flowers. The tulips are mostly oranges and pinks with stripes of yellow and white. The other flowers are blue, red and yellow.
Georg Flegel, German (1566-1638), Tulips, Iris and Other Flowers in a Sculpted Urn, 1586-1638, oil painting, gift of Val A. Browning, UMFA1993.034.001

Tulpenmanie or Tulip Mania swept over Europe in the 1600s. The Dutch were obsessed with tulips: they loved to collect them, plant them, and paint them. Some rare species were so popular their price was six times the average annual salary! This painting of striped tulips would have been very fashionable. Why do you think the artist painted so many tulips in the vase? What flower do you see a lot of today? What is your favorite flower?

A young girl stands in the middle of the painting and can be seen from the waist up. She folds her arms around a stick and has a basket on her back filled with ferns. The girl is white with brown hair and has a blue skirt, white shirt and brown bodice. There are various plants in the background.
William Charles Thomas Dobson, British (1817-1898), The Fern Gatherers, 1865, oil painting, gift of John Pilcher, UMFA2017.6.6

Pteridomania or Fern Fever struck England in the 1800s when people were obsessed with collecting ferns. They loved ferns so much they wrote poems about ferns, they had images of ferns on wallpaper and linens, and they even went on hunting expeditions for them in the woods. The collectors wanted to learn everything about these ferms. This painting shows a young girl gathering ferns to sell to these fern hunters. Can you see the ferns in her basket? Have you ever wanted to learn everything about a plant? 

a close up of the center of a pink orchid. The petals are light pink with dark pink patterning. The stigma is white and sits over a yellowish labellum.
Mary Joan Waid American (1939), Orchid I, 1926-1976, pastel, gift of Marilyn Cole Fischbach and A. Aladar Marberger, UMFA1977.215

Orchidelirium or Orchid Delirium was another fad in Victorian England in the 1800s. Orchids are delicate flowers that are hard to keep as house plants. Because of that they became a precious prize for collectors.  Wealthy orchid fanatics of the 19th century sent explorers and collectors to almost every part of the world in search of new varieties of orchids. Today there are still collectors obsessed with orchids but collecting wild orchids was banned in 1973. 

This painting from the early 20th century shows a close up of an orchid. Often artists showed the beauty of flowers by magnifying the parts or only showing part of the flower. What part of the flower do think the artist painted? Why do you think she didn’t paint the whole flower? You can capture the beauty of a flower or leaf in your book by making rubbings that capture their texture. 

Now we are going to make a book to collect impressions or rubbings of some of your favorite plants or leaves. You can have plant mania and record a lot of the same plants or you can find a variety to record. 

Let’s Make a Leaf Rubbing Book

You will need:

  • A cover for your book. This can be any paper but thicker and stronger paper is good for the cover. It can even be cardboard from a cereal box. 
  • Several sheets of paper that are thin, for example:
    • Copy paper
    • Newspaper
    • Rice paper
    • Strong tissue paper
    • Ruler
    • Pencil
    • Scissors
    • Large needle (optional)
    • Twine, string or yarn
    • Crayons

1. Gather supplies.
2. Cut your cover and paper to 5.5” x 8.5” (half sheets).
3. Fold all the papers in half (like a hamburger not a hot dog).

4. On each paper, measure 1” down the fold from the top and make a mark.
5. Do the same from the bottom – 1” up from the bottom and make a mark.
6. Measure to the middle of the fold and make a mark. 
7. Poke a hole with a needle at each mark you made on each piece of paper. 
8. Put all the papers together with the cover on the outside.
9. Cut about 3’ of string and thread through a needle.

10. Sew the binding of the book as follows:

  • Open the stack of papers and lay flat on the table with the cover on top.
  • Take the string and go down from the top through the middle hole. Leave about 3” of the end to tie later.
  • Bring the string back up through the top hole.
  • Insert the string down through the bottom hole so it is now on the underside.
  • Bring the string up through the middle hole again.
  • You now have two ends of the string coming through the middle hole. Place one end on the left side of the string laying across the spine and the other end on the right side.
  • Then tie a knot around the string laying across the spine to secure the binding.

11. You now have your own book to make plant rubbings.

Making Rubbings

a leaf site on top of the leaf rubbing book with a spool of twine and red scissors on the table, the image to the right has red crayon rubbed over a page showing an impression of the leaf beneath.

To make a rubbing impression of a plant or leaf, pick a leaf and place it under one sheet of paper. Gently rub a crayon over the paper to pick up the texture of the leaf on that paper. 

What parts of the plant or leaf showed up on your rubbing? Can you tell what your plant is from the rubbing? 

Why would you want to record plants in this way? How can you study your rubbings to help with your art? How can these rubbings help with your study of science? 

Enjoy making your rubbing collections of plants. Try not to go wild over them!

Leaf rubbing book on center of table a spool of twine, scissors, crayons and a rulers surround it on a wooden table top


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