self-impression (materiaaldruk)

29 September 2010 § 1 Comment



also: self-printing, nature printing, Naturselbstdruck (German)

Dutch: materiaaldruk

category: manual relief printing/ intaglio


Self-impression originated in a wish of biologists and pharmasists to preserve the inner structures particularly of plants and leaves for a longer time. Storing the leaves itself isn’t possible, because after a while they start to disintegrate and aren’t useful anymore for biological or medical research. The technique of self-impression is very old and it is unknown who invented it. Presumably it isn’t invented by one person, but took shape on different locations and different moments. One of the oldest example of self-impression known is a Dioskurides handwriting from the 13th century, now in Istanbul (Topkapı palace, ms. A. III, 2127). The Auratus codex, dating from 1425, (Salzburg university library, ms. MI 36) is believed to be the earliest form of self-impression in western Europe. This technique of illustrating books was popular for a long time, also because of the in acording to woodcut or copper plates inexpensive way of fabricating.

            Self-impression is based on the principle of natural material, in book history especially (parts of ) plants, used as printing material. The first step was to dry the leaf, for instance between two sheets of paper. Leonardo da Vinci made some concise notes on how he used the technique: he made use of a mixture of mainly lampblack and oil, which he applied on a sheet of paper, and coated the leaf with white-lead in oil. Da Vinci’s example of self-impression next to his text isn’t yet fabricated in this way. This makes clear there isn’t only one producution process, but people experimented with it. From the 15th century on people used many different procedures to use the technique of self-impression. Feasibly one started to experiment without the knowledge of contemporary or prior practice. Many ways of making nature prints can therefore be seen in books from the 15th to the 19th century.

Alexius Pedemontanus’s discription of the procedure makes use of an oil-soot based ink which, after the leaf itself is being covererd with the ink, is pushed on paper by hand. Mizauld used an other technique: with chemicals or through natural corruption of the material he removed all parts of the leaf except its skeleton of veins. He then inkted the skeleton and made his prints. Plant parts around the veins can also be extracted in a process of maceration, where an oil-based substance dissolves the weaker structures of the leaf. Another way of inkting the leaf is to cover a sheet of paper with oil, to blacken this sheet with a candle and to put the leaf between this sheet and another blank sheet on top, after which the package is rubbed and the oil-soot mixture pastes to the plant. The sheet of paper can be folded to print at the same time the front as well as the back site of the leaf.

Pacioli speaks of colouring the self-impressions by hand with green ink. Also for example roots are being added afterwards by hand in verdigris. Van den Spieghel didn’t use lampblack anymore, but printer’s ink, which he applied with a dabber. In this way the structures of the leaf could be printed more accurate. The same ink as used with the letterpress as well as ink used for printing copper plates was used by printers of this technique. An indirect way of inkting was used for a more equal print: the inkted leaf was laid on a polished board, from which the print was made.

            Johannes Kniphof was the first scientist who used the self-impression technique on large scale and develloped it by using colour ink (mostly green tints) and a hand press. Kniphof saw himself, because of his use of the technique for general interest and the innovations he made, as the inventor of self-impression. And indeed he must be called the person who on large scale made use of it, for example in his Botanica in originali. Little is known of Kniphof’s precise use of self-impression, because he didn’t reveal his innovations in detail.

            Plants used as printing objects can’t for a long time resist the pressure of the printing procedure. That is why only a few good prints can be made of one preparation. In the 19th century the popularity of this technique began to decline due to the growth of for example encyclopaedic works on plants. Self-impression wasn’t sufficient anymore for printing all the illustrations in these books and one started in these cases to use for instance lithography.

In this period another technique of nature print is becoming popular, wich is rather different from the self-impression so far. With this intaglio printing technique the printer places for example a leaf on a lead plate, on which he again puts a plate of steal. Through hard pressure on the steal plate the leaf gives an imprint in the lead. The lead plate with imprint isn’t suitable for printing because of the softness of the lead. Therefore, through electrotyping the plate, a reproduction in copper is made, which can resist the high pressure of the normal printing process. This process is developped by Alois Auer in Vienna, which in the second half of the 19th century became the centre of the new nature printing technique. Auer wrote many publications on his developments. [John Tholen]



Primary literature:

Auer, A. Die Entdeckung des Naturselbstdrucks, Wien 1853

Boccone, S. [P.] Disegni naturali et originali consacrati alla sua maestra Cesarea di Leopoldo primo, Wien 1685 (Austrian national library)

Dossie, R. The handmaid to the arts, London 1764

Geyer, J. Dictamnographia sive brevis Dictamni descriptio, Frankfurt/ Leipzig 1687

Herbarium vivus seu hortus hyemalis, Brussel 1673 (Royal library, Brussels)

Kniphof, J. Nachricht von einer sehr bequamen und nützlichen Art die Kräuter anzudrucken und nach ihrer natürlichen Gestalt abgebildet vorzustellen, in: Miscellanea – Physico – Medico – Mathematica, Erfurt 1733, 779-89

Mizauld, A. De hortensium arborum institutione opusculum, Paris 1560

Pacioli, L. De viribus quantitatis, cod. 250 fol. 259v-260r (Bologna biblioteca universitaria; an English translation can be found in Cave (2010), app. I)

Pedemontanus, A [Hiëronymus Rosello], Liber de secretis naturae, 17.16, Venezia 1555 (translation into German: J. Wecker, Kunstbuch des Alexii Pedemontani, Basel 1570)

Peele, J. The art of drawing, and painting in water-colours, London 1732

Spieghel, A. van den Isagoges in rem herbarium, 79, Padua 1606

Vinci, L. da Codex Atlanticus, fol. 72v (Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milano)


Secondary literature:

Cave, R. Impressions of nature, a history of nature printing, London 2010

Fischer, H. Naturselbstdrucke von Pflanzen aus dem 15. Jahrhundert, in: Bericht der Oberhessischen Gesellschaft für Natur- und Heilkunde zu Gießen, 13 (1930), 27-30

Geus, A. et al. Natur im Druck, eine Ausstellung zur Geschichte und Technik des Naturselbstdrucks, Marburg a/d Lahn 1995



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