Leaf Rubbing as Educational Outreach

Leaf Rubbing by Gail SelfridgeWhen I was a kid the best part of going back to school was getting all new art supplies: crayons, pencils, erasers, paper, and a set of Prang watercolors complete with brush. That was BC (before computers) when we had low-tech materials and used some pretty basic techniques. One day the teacher showed us how to make crayon rubbings. We ran around making rubbings of all kinds of things, but my favorite was finding and using leaves. From those humble beginnings, I developed an interest in making scientifically accurate plant drawings, so by the time I got to high school Biology class I had a corner on the market of plant illustration, and firmly believe it was what allowed me to actually pass the class.

Making rubbings is still a good way to introduce the appreciation of nature and science, and it can be used as part of educational outreach programs for both children and adults. As a one-time event, in which the rubbing becomes the end product, is particularly good for dealing with younger children who have much shorter attention spans and a need for hands-on activities.

For older children and adults, a program or class that meets two or more times provides an opportunity for closer observation of the specimen and for learning how to create scientifically accurate drawings. In this instance, the rubbing becomes the basis of a preliminary drawing that then serves as a means for exploring traditional drawing media and techniques including graphite pencils, colored pencils, watercolor, pen-and-ink.

Supplies and Technique

Leaf Rubbing by Gail SelfridgeThe basic leaf rubbing process is very simple and requires few materials. Broken pieces of ordinary school crayons can be used. Next, best is pressed crayons similar to Prang Crayograph and Prang Kindograph. If you can afford it, and want to go, first class, try gravestone rubbing wax. Black gives the best impression but various colors can be used for special effects if the rubbing is to be the end product.

The paper needs to be smooth and lightweight. Avoid heavy papers or coated ones. Tracing paper works well, particularly if preliminary drawings are to be made from the rubbings.

The top of a leaf is usually smoother than the underside where the ribs and veins are more prominent. Try rubbing both sides to see the difference. Place the leaf on a hard, smooth surface, and cover it with paper. Press on the paper to hold the leaf in place. Use the crayon to make firm but not hard strokes that bring out the delicate shape.

This sounds easy, but it takes a bit of practice. Here are a few suggestions: Use the broad side of the crayon rather than the point and apply even pressure to one small area at a time. With your fingers, hold the paper in place to avoid slipping. Do not go back over an area that is finished to avoid getting a double line. 

It is possible to use large specimens or delicate ferns but make your life easy and start by selecting leaves that are sturdy and a manageable size. What is available depends upon your location, but some that work well include Elm, Maple, Cottonwood, Oak, Ginkgo, and Strawberry.

Preliminary Drawings and Image Transfer

Leaf Rubbing by Gail SelfridgeOnce the rubbing is completed, use a piece of tracing paper and a 2B pencil to trace over it. If there are parts that are not clear now is your chance to reference the specimen. Over this first tracing, a second tracing can be made in which some parts of the original specimen that may have been missing or damaged can be repaired, and decisions can be made regarding the appearance and positioning of the final image.

For the final drawing, you will want to use good paper. Choose one that is appropriate for the technique. If you are going to use watercolor then get a suitable watercolor paper. For graphite pencils and colored pencils, bristol works well, but no matter what paper is used, make sure it is acid-free.

Transferring the preliminary drawing to the final paper can be accomplished using one of the several methods described in The Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration (1989 Edition, pages 12-14; 2003 Edition, pages 15-17). Of the ones described, the easiest method is to use a graphite pencil (I use a 2B) to cover the entire back of the preliminary or at least the lines that are to be transferred. Then place the preliminary on top of the final paper and use a pencil to trace over the drawing thus transferring the image. The final work can now be executed in the technique of choice.

When working with nonprofessionals I find that establishing a preliminary image is often difficult for them. This method avoids fussing over measurements and details thus allowing them to get on with learning, not only about the specimen but also about using various art materials and techniques. And a fringe benefit is that the preliminary image can be repeatedly transferred and used to explore a series of different materials and techniques.

The Finished Work

Leaf Rubbing by Gail SelfridgeOnce finished it is important to organize and display the works. This can be done in purely artistic ways or as a means of learning how to identify plants by their foliage rather than by their blossoms.

Rubbings can be cut out and arranged on a background. They can be organized either as a simple or technical collection and grouped by size, shape, or veination. They can be kept in a scrapbook, photo album, portfolio, or made into a booklet to show the trees/plants in your own yard, in your neighborhood, or in your state.

Temporary exhibits can be arranged on a bulletin board. Finished works can be displayed by matting and framing or by mounting them on matboard. They can be mounted on a roll of paper creating a scroll; it can then be attached to a dowel and hung vertically.




Educational Outreach Programs

Educational outreach programs are appropriate for schools, Scout and 4-H groups, garden shows, museum, and botanical garden events; these are often one-time events that are directed to groups of either children or adults. Sometimes there will be mixed ages such as children and their parents and the presenter needs to be prepared. Not only does the presenter need to be familiar and experienced with the leaf rubbing process, it is important to provide those in attendance with suitable art supplies and appropriate specimens as well. Do not let students search out leaves to use because time will be wasted and unsuitable, i.e. difficult, material will always be found. You need to provide sheets of paper, crayons, an assortment of medium size leaves that are sturdy, and a good table or rubbing surface.

Be prepared to demonstrate the technique, answer questions, and either show or recommend ways in which the rubbings and/or subsequent drawings can be used. At one of my workshops for presenters, there was a participant that admitted to having led a group in making such images but, after the drawings were finished, did not know what to do with them so they were just thrown away! What a waste and what a message to those who had worked to learn and create.

Educational Outreach: Case Study

In planning an educational outreach program it is important to determine and establish the objectives, the audience, and strategies for not only implementing the program but, equally important, how to fund it. For most museums and botanical gardens the objectives for activities, events, publications, and educational outreach are the same: raise the visibility of the institution, increase visitation, increase membership in the Friends group, recruit volunteers, encourage donations and financial support.

The Kansas State University Gardens undertook the development of an Adaptive/Native Plant area, and when the area walkway was under construction a decision was made to imprint leaves in the concrete as a means of teaching leaf identification to visitors. My part was to create a leaf identification brochure for visitors to use in identifying walkway leaf prints and to create a poster featuring the Adaptive/Native Plant area.

Leaf Rubbing Educational Outreach

Leaf Rubbing Educational Outreach

Funding for outreach programs is often available to nonprofit institutions from various granting sources; both the brochure and poster were funded in part by a major grant from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust and smaller grants including one from the City/University Projects Fund. 

The opening of the Adaptive/Native Plant area was celebrated with an outreach event that included tours, refreshments, and activities for visitors. One of the activities was a leaf rubbing station and it was enjoyed by both children and adults. The event was quite successful, and both the brochure and the poster were later included in the exhibit Focus on Nature VIII, New York State Museum, Albany, NY thus extending the visibility of the KSU Gardens to an even larger audience.

My participation in the Huyck Nature Preserve 2012 Artists-In-Residence program (see The COM.EN.ART Experience in the GNSI Journal 2013, Number 1) included a workshop on leaf rubbing for leaders working with campers at the Huyck summer programs as well as research scientists who planned to use the material with their own children. So in addition to large events, be aware that many other opportunities exist for leaf rubbing activities as outreach programs.

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