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How to Make Sun Paper Prints with Fall Leaves

A package of Sun Art Paper surrounded by a variety of fall leaves

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I’d say that Fall is my favorite season of the year, but then Summer would get all hot headed and Spring would wilt a bit. Truth is, as long as there isn’t snow on the ground, I’m pretty happy with the weather year-round. And I guess it is kind of ironic that I don’t like winter because it’s cold, but I like Fall partly because of its cool, crisp weather. Go figure. Anyways, after a spontaneous backcountry drive with some visiting relatives proved that fall was, in fact, in full swing, I decided to take my camera to my favorite park to see if I could catch any fall colors there. We’re a bit lower in elevation, so the leaves weren’t quite as vivid just yet, but I did manage to capture some delightfully cozy fall pictures. (At least, I think they’re delightfully cozy…)

Part of why I love this park so much is because nearly every time I go, I find something fun and unique. The first time I went, there was the male Wood Duck. There have been huge murders of crows, marmots, signs of beaver (although I’ve yet to see the animal, much to my chagrin), enormous white geese, and a Belted Kingfisher. This time, when I did a little off-trail exploring, I found this handsome fella:

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl
Let’s just say I was really grateful that I’d listened to the little prompting to bring my camera along on my walk. I also thought it was the perfect opportunity to pick up some leaves to make some sun paper prints. A few years ago, when I left Philmont for what I thought was the last time (spoiler: it wasn’t), I picked up a few leaves from below my favorite trees. I made three sun prints, which I’ve used in my decorating ever since. I especially like how they look over our bed with the pretty blue paisley comforter Brett and I picked out when we got married.

To anyone else, they’re just leaf prints that work well with the decor, but to me, they’re a regular reminder of a place that’s incredibly special to me. I love having souvenirs and mementos that fit with my decor and don’t feel kitschy. It’s kind of like a secret that only I know. (Well, me and now all of you. Whoops!)

Make Your Own Fall Sun Paper Prints with Fall Leaves

These leaf prints are super easy to make, and only take a few minutes. They’re a great craft to do with kids, or you can put them in a nice frame to make them look artsy and chic. To make these prints, you will need:
  • Leaves – It’s best to use leaves that are dry but not brittle. Color won’t matter much, but it’s fun to look for leaves with unique shapes. If your leaf is still a little wet, you can dry it flat by placing it between paper towels layered between two thick books for a few days, just like you might press flowers. (Also, you don’t have to use leaves for this! Any relatively flat object will work.)
  • Sun Paper – Also called cyanotype paper. I use and recommend Sun Art Paper by Tedco. Your kit should come with several sheets of cyanotype paper in a protective sleeve and a clear sheet of acrylic to hold your leaves in place.
  • A tray or piece of flat cardboard – You’ll be moving your sun prints around a bit, so having a flat surface on which to carry them makes this a lot easier.
  • A timer
  • A cake pan
  • Lemon Juice (optional)
  • A flat, sunny spot
  • An iron (optional)

Arrange Your Leaves

While you don’t have to do this in darkness, it’s best to not set up shop in an area with super bright light. The brighter the light, the faster the cyanotype activates. Start by placing your sun paper blue side up on your tray. Make sure you leave the rest of the paper inside the protective sleeve so it doesn’t get exposed to light until you’re ready to use it. Arrange your leaves on your paper however you’d like and cover with the sheet of acrylic.

Soak Up Some Sunshine

Place the tray with your leaf arrangement in a sunny spot. The instructions say you can even use a sunny window, and you might still have success on a cloudy day (but you’ll have to increase the exposure time). You have a small window of time to make quick adjustments to your arrangement if it moved at all while you were carrying it. Avoid letting any unwanted shadows touch the paper—even the edge of the acrylic sheet can cast a shadow. Any part of the paper that isn’t exposed to sunlight will be bright white in the final print. Prints take 1-5 minutes to expose properly on a sunny day (I like to leave them out for the full five minutes, just to be sure). Your prints are ready for the next step when the paper turns a very light blue.

Bath Time

While your sun prints are enjoying the sunshine, add 1/4-1/2″ of water to the bottom of a cake pan and add a few drops of lemon juice. The lemon juice is optional, but it gives the final prints a really lovely dark blue color.
Cake pan with water and lemon juice
Sun print water bath
When your prints are ready, bring them back inside and remove the acrylic sheet and the leaves. You should have a negative image like this: Dark blue leaf print on a light blue background Quickly rinse the sun paper in your lemony water bath for about one minute. I like to put them in face down, making sure they’re completely submerged, and move them gently through the water to make sure they get a good rinse. If you’re skipping the lemon juice, you can also rinse the paper under a gentle stream of water for a minute.

Let Them Dry

After rinsing the sun paper, remove them from the water and gently shake off any excess water. Lay flat to dry. You’ll see the color slowly switch back to being blue where the paper was exposed and white where it wasn’t.  After your prints are completely dry, there may still be a bit of curl or waviness to the paper. You can either press them between two books for 1-2 days to flatten them out, or you can give them a gentle once over with an iron on its very lowest setting. (As all irons are different, exercise caution if this is the route you choose. Test a small area first and make sure the iron isn’t too hot for the paper.) I find that sometimes, the heat of the iron can affect the color of the print, so I usually iron mine face down. Regardless of what flattening method you use, wait until your sun paper is completely dry or you’ll end up with wrinkly spots.

Aaaand, Voila!

That’s it! I told you it was super easy. Depending on how persnickety you are about your leaf arrangements, a single print takes less than 10 minutes (not including drying time).
Five cyanotype prints of fall leaves
Finished sun paper prints
If you don’t want to frame and display your sun prints, there are lots of other fun things you can do with them:
  • Use them as wrapping paper for a small gift
  • Write a letter on the back and send it to a friend
  • Make smaller prints and use them to decorate the front of a card
  • Make a gift bag
  • Scan your favorite and turn it into your desktop/phone wallpaper
Whatever you decide to do, I hope you have lots of fun! If you try your hand at these fall leaf sun paper prints, I’d love to see your finished projects. Post the photos on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #jestkeptsecret so I can see them! Jess
Find Your Joy Do you have a favorite way to memorialize places that are special to you and your family? Simple mementos like these sun paper prints are a great way to bring a piece of that special place into your home. Share your favorite places and how you remember them in the comments below—and don’t forget to write about them in your journal!

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Jess Friedman
Jess is a Canadian-American who’s always ready for the next adventure. She loves all things living, always has a million creative projects in progress, and polishes her nerd badge daily. She is passionate about helping families make and preserve treasured memories that strengthen bonds across generations. You can read more posts by Jess here.

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