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Making Art With Nature - Leaf Rubbings

I grew up in a land absolutely covered in trees. Many trees were deciduous trees that loose their leaves every year, like alders, birch, aspen, maples, and dogwoods. We also had a wealth of conifers and evergreen trees like firs, hemlock, cedar, spruce, and pines. The area I was raised in had a very strong tradition of making art using nature to both make something beautiful as well as to learn about the world around you. Of all the activities I used to do, leaf rubbings have always held a special place in my heart.

Max Ernst is credited with returning frottage (rubbing) as a technique to the art world in 1925 A.D. The core idea of a leaf rubbing is extremely simple. Simply sandwich a leaf in between two pieces of paper, take some drawing instrument and rub the top sheet of paper vigorously. You won’t be-leaf your eyes as a beautiful copy of your leaf is left in brilliant color.

It works best to use firm strokes that all go in one direction. I prefer diagonals and horizontals. This keeps the impression of the leaf veins clear and bold. Circular strokes cause the impressions to become muddy.

Rubbings are an extremely affordable craft requiring only the subject, paper, and any firm drawing tool. Crayons, pastels, pens, charcoal, and pencils all work wonderfully to make rubbings. I often make leaf rubbings using a spiral notebook as it is the paper I have handy and a set of crayons since they are easy to carry and I like the vibrant colors.

Flat objects make the cleanest impressions, however rounded objects like pinecones, stones, lichens, etc can also create extremely neat texture impressions. The designs distort after the paper is flattened back out, but the depiction of the texture remains very interesting.

This is a wonderful craft for kids and adults alike. Rubbings are a craft with a technique that is easy to master and produce cool art pieces. That does not limit your creativity, each piece is unique to the artist. I have seen wonderful designs that were made of layered leaves, layered colors, leaves in isolation surrounded by the rough edges of pinecones, etc. Even the humble blade of grass can lend itself to something eye-catching.

Rubbings also have a scientific use. Before cameras were invented, rubbings were a common way to exactly capture identifying characteristics of a specimen. Are the leaves on a branch alternating? Serrated? What does the vein pattern look like? Are the leaves circular or oval shape? What is the exact scale of the leaf? All of these questions were answered with a few strokes of a pencil and a sheet of paper. This is a great skill to teach kids who are looking to explore natural sciences.

Not just leaves can be the subject of your rubbings! Anything flat can make a cool impression. This includes planks of wood, slabs of stone, coins, plaster walls, tiles, fish scales, etc. Get creative! 

In modern times, forensic scientists and detectives still use the same technique to reveal words written on a sheet of paper that is no longer there. The pen that made the words on the removed sheet leaves imprints in the layers of paper underneath. These can then be highlighted and revealed through rubbing.

I was out on the trails with my sister and realized it had been a few years since the last time I had tried my hand at making some rubbings. Here are the fruits of my labors! I really like how the yellow and blue turned out. The blue crayon goes down much more dramatically than the yellow and makes striking highlights and shadows.

Have you ever done any rubbings? What were some of your favorites? If not, why not try today!

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