From A Forest Walk (Bleach Printing on Fabric)

Fern II : Bleach Print on Fabric

 Don’t throw your old t-shirts away, or the leaves off your celery, walk in forests …  

I’m making a series of mixed media,‘altered book’ works which I’m calling ‘Take a Leaf Out of My Book’. It’s a sub-theme within a theme I’ve entitled ‘House of Cards’. I’ve called one of the works in this sub-theme ‘Leaf & Blood’. I’ve completed two so far and I’m planning on thirteen in all. This is to match the 13 cards in a suit. ‘13’ is also a reference to the 13 at The Last Supper, as ‘Leaf & Blood’ is a meditation of sorts on the Crucifixion.The theme and sub-theme began to evolve when I began to tear apart a copy of Dickens’ ‘Pickwick Papers’, to turn into this series.  The camp is divided on the practice of ‘altering’ books. Some consider it destruction, a sacrilege, others, ‘creative recycling’. Likewise, the technique I’m about to describe can’t be said to be eco-friendly – bleach is known to kill fish. 

My view? I’m in with the ‘creative recyclers’. I can’t avoid making a carbon footprint, even my breath is toxic! But I hope I try to walk in consciousness.  And if someone out there knows of an alternative to the use of bleach in this process, please share it.  

I made the print in the picture above using the torn off sleeve of an old black t-shirt, using ordinary household bleach and some fern leaves collected during a walk in a forest, la forêt de l’Isle Adam. L’Isle Adam is a small town in the Val d’Oise region of France. It’s about 30 minutes drive from Paris and another 10 minutes from the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent Van Gogh passed the last few months of his life. 

I’ll be writing a separate blog about walking in L’Isle Adam, with photos. 

I adapted the printing technique from a similar one I found in a visually sumptuous book called ‘Mixed Media Nature Journals, sub-titled ‘New Techniques for Exploring Nature, Life and Memories’, by L K Ludwig, who has an equally lavish blog ‘The Poetic Eye’ at: 

The technique is as follows:  


Bleach is toxic and burns.  The author cannot be held responsible for any accident or injury resulting from the use and especially abuse of the following process. It is followed at the reader’s own risk. 


I hope it’s obvious that this technique is not suitable for young children, even under supervision.  

  • Wear rubber gloves when handling bleach
  • Wear an apron or overall
  • Wear old clothes
  • Don’t do this process in bare feet!
  • Don’t do it using the top of an antique table! (I use a glass-topped table)
  • Cover the floor with plastic sheeting
  • Don’t mix bleach with anything except water
  • Work in a well-ventilated area
  • Work carefully and responsibly and in an organised way (no clutter)
  • Replace the cap on the bleach bottle immediately after each use
  • Clean up spills or drips as soon as they occur
  • Don’t eat or drink in the same space while working with bleach
  • If an accident does occur, run the cold tap over the burnt area.
  • If bleach splashes in the eye, rinse the eye out with copious amounts of cold water and seek medical advice at once. 


  • Rubber gloves
  • Paper towels
  • Spray bottle
  • Household bleach
  • Water
  • Scrap white paper
  • Two shallow trays (I’d suggest photographer’s developing trays or cat litter trays)
  • White vinegar
  • Leaves, feathers or other items
  • Black t-shirt fabric


  • Fill the spray bottle with a 1:1 bleach to cold water solution
  • Fill one of the two trays with 1:2 vinegar to cold water solution. (This is a neutralising solution for ‘stopping’ the action of the bleach on the fabric)
  • Fill the second tray with cold water
  • Mark each tray in such a way that you know which is which

 You can print in two ways, either by spraying the item with the bleach solution or by placing the item on the fabric and spraying round it. First time out, I had more success with prints made by placing the item onto the fabric and spraying round it (as in the prints illustrated here) than by spraying the item and pressing it down onto the cloth. 

 If spraying the item, shake off the excess afterwards(gently), place it onto the black fabric, cover with a sheet of white paper and press. 

 If spraying round the item, lay the item down on the fabric and spray around it. 

 An image will rise like magic and quite quickly, from the blackness of the cloth. I found that the reaction of the fabric to the bleach was a matter of seconds. 

When the print reaches a stage you like, dump it into the tray with the neutralising (vinegar and cold water) solution and leave it for a few minutes.  

Leave it to neutralise for several minutes, then move it again into the tray of cold water, swish it around then squeeze it out. 

Renew the neutralising solution/cold water trays every so often. 

Blot the fabric/print with paper towels then let it dry. (I ironed mine).  

 This second print was made by ‘layering’. I bleached the fern silhouette into the black fabric first, neutralising the bleach when the fern image was still quite pale.  The more dramatic, darker print, was made from a large celery leaf. (I think it could be read as a flock of birds, too). How many layers depends on how much ‘burning’ the fabric can take and in one of my attempts at this session I managed to burn a hole through! This does not concern me as my work, on one level, incorporates the aspect of ‘damage’. And it’s all experimentation!   

As the ‘black’ in t-shirts is arrived at using a variety of different dyes, the colours of the finished prints will differ slightly.  I have a t-shirt waiting to be ‘recycled’ into art in this way that becomes more orangey than pink when bleached.                                   
There are bonuses to this technique: 

  • It’s good for quickly refilling the ‘image’ well, if it’s running dry. It brings about a feeling of ‘abundance’ as, in a matter of hours, you can amass a lot of great images. 
  • It’s a way of recycling old t-shirts instead of chucking them out.
  • And celery leaves.
  • Collecting leaves and other items for the prints meant getting out into Nature, looking at nature, getting some fresh-air exercise.
  • You get to WALK!

My prints will further metamorphose and form part of a larger piece or body of work. The next stage is to digitally enhance/alter them.  I use Adobe Photo Elements 8. I’ll be explaining these alterations step-by-step in future blogs.  

 This bleaching technique is demonstrated here:  

And the technique has ancient origins in the Japanese Shibori tradition and the worldwide Shibori network can be found at:

About AnnIsikArts

Artist/Writer/Chess Enthusiast/Musician (Singer)/Gardener
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