The ocean is the best artist! The forms, colors, patterns and textures that have evolved in the sea feel alien and magical compared to all the landbound stuff we see every day.
This instructable will teach you how to take the beautiful forms of algae and turn them into artistic displays. This technique is derived from scientific herbaria, and is done via squashing. Unfortunately for a lot of you inland folk, marine algae is not super easy to come by, so you will have to substitute with revolting, inferior alternatives like freshwater plants. You can also order algae from the internetz by searching for 'marine macroalgae', or maybe you have a really nice coastal friend who will mail you some. I'd probably mail you some if no one else will.
Like almost everything I do, this project is fast, cheap and easy! There is some drying time involved (1-3 days), but the actual execution of work takes about 10 minutes once you have your algae.
People get very excited about receiving them as presents, and giving them away is pretty hard because they are just so beautiful. I want to keep them all, hang them from the ceiling and all over the walls, and pretend I'm underwater all the time.
Step 1: Gather Materials
You will need the following things to make an algae herbarium specimen, the cost should be under $15 if you have none of these things already:
: Watercolor Paper
Or similarly water-absorbent and heavyweight paper. 140# or 300g+ weight is good, and make sure you get the right size for your frame if you have one. Also make sure you can detach the paper from the book it comes from easily. You can use scissors to cut of course, but I've found the cuts look pretty ugly.
: Wax Paper
Or similarly water-wicking and no-stick paper.
: Paper Towels
Or similarly absorbent paper or cloth.
Or similarly flat and breathable material. You need two pieces that are slightly larger than your watercolor paper.
: Heavy Stuff
I usually use big piles of books or marine batteries, but anything heavy that is at least the size of your cardboard will work. The heavy stuff is used for squashing so it should be quite heavy, and this is a 'the heavier the better' kind of thing.
I don't know how seaweed came to be a derogatory name when it is so extremely wonderful and interesting, but seaweed falls under the big taxonomic label of algae and is what you want to find. Most freshwater algae is slimy and gross so you should try for marine algae if that's an option. Algae is photosynthetic like plants, but is not actually plants. They attach to rocks using these dense networks of grabby bits called 'holdfasts', and this means that to find algae, you need to go to a body of water where there is light and rocks.
Nearly all shore rocks will have algae attached to them, so go to your nearest beach/tidepools/marina/dock/etc., find the rocks and collect the algae off of them, trying to keep the holdfast as intact as possible. A lot of beaches will actually have pretty fresh algae deposited onto it from the tides, so you don't even have to get your feet wet. I like collecting a big diversity of algae and making a bunch of these at once. You want to choose fleshy algaes, not the calcareous hard ones (you can squash these but you need to glue them or they won't stick). Be careful of rogue waves, rising tides, extreme slipperyness and other hazards. Keep your algae in a bag or container of seawater until you're ready to press it.
If you don't have ocean near you, you can almost certainly find freshwater plants growing in any body of non-swift water - ponds, lakes, slow rivers, etc. You can follow all the same instructions as the marine people.
: Photo Frame
Or other surface to mount your specimen and display it to the world!
Step 2: Algae As Art
In this step you will be laying out the algae how you want it to look.
Your algae should still be wet because you kept it in a container full of seawater! I have never rinsed mine with freshwater, but some people do, so if you have an irrational hatred of salt, you can rinse yours.
I like to separate my algae into piles by species so I can see what my artistic options are.
Setup your canvas as follows:
: Lay a piece of cardboard down on your work surface
: Lay a piece of paper towel down on top of the cardboard
: Lay a piece of watercolor paper on top of the paper towel
: Arrange algae on watercolor paper
Gently shake off excess water from each piece of algae (it should still be a little bit wet though), and arrange them however you want on your watercolor paper! Try to make the algae as two-dimensional as possible, and untangle the leaf-like blades from each other so that you can kind of fan them out in order to display more of the structure. If your piece has a big holdfast, you can cut it down a bit with scissors to make it squishable. In general, you will probably be surprised by how well things squish! The big pneumatocysts on kelp, the air bubbles that buoy their fronds close to the light, will squish flat and perfect without any modification, despite how 3D they are.
I like to mix up my arrangements between perfect, simple displays of one to three specimens, and weird abstract shapes and textures. It's basically impossible to make an arrangement look bad. Have fun! Be creative! Once you've layed out your algae how you want it on the watercolor paper, you can move on to the next step.
Step 3: The Squishening
And now, you squish it!
Algae naturally has a goo glue in its tissues, so when you squish it to paper and let it dry, it stays stuck there. This should also be true of freshwater plants, but I haven't tried it. If it doesn't stick, you can add some white glue to help it.
Close your herbarium pressing sandwich as follows:
: Lay a piece of wax paper on top of your algae (waxy side down to keep the algae from also gluing to the paper towel)
: Lay a paper towel down on top of the wax paper. If you want to do a bunch at once, just stack them on top of each other with two paper towels in between.
: Lay a piece of cardboard down on top of the paper towel
: Put all the heavy things on top of the cardboard
Then you get to practice patience. The fastest I have ever removed my paper is about 12 hours, which is probably not enough. If you have the capability, it's a good idea to check the paper towels after about 12 hours and if they're wet, swap them out for new paper towels and wait another 12. You're supposed to do this until the paper is dry, but I don't practice patience often enough so I usually just let it go for one to three days.
The good thing about removing the paper before it's dry is that the algae won't be as stuck to the wax paper, the bad thing is that the paper might dry a little warped. You'll have to decide which is easier to deal with for you.
When the watercolor paper is as dry as you want it to be, you can go to the next step!
Step 4: Remove the Pressing From Its Sandwich, Frame and Display!
Separating the mounted specimens from all the other parts of the press sandwich is certainly the hardest part of this instructable, but luckily its still pretty darn easy.
Remove the heavy stuff, cardboard and paper towels, and now you are left with your beautiful creation and a piece of wax paper stuck to it. Gently and slowly peel away the wax paper, trying not to take any algae with you. I feel like there has to be a material that is even less sticky than wax paper, but I haven't experimented yet. I've lost some beautiful pressings to wax paper shenanigans :( If you use something else that works easily, let us all know!
If you accidentally lift some of the algae, you can repair it by gluing it down with the smallest possible amount of white glue. You can apply it with a toothpick to the underside of the algae, and it won't even be noticeable.
Once the wax paper is off, you are basically done!
Let the pressing finish drying and then you can put it in a frame or display it however you want.
I hope you enjoy your human-ocean collaboration on this project, please feel free to ask questions by message or in the comments section! I'll add more photos of finished examples soon!