Cyanotype Workshop Resources
Resources for workshop participants
Introduction to the Cyanotype process
The English scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel discovered this procedure in 1842. Though Herschel is perhaps the inventor of the cyanotype process, it was Anna Atkins, a British scientist, who brought the process into the realm of photography. She created a limited series of cyanotype books that documented ferns and other plant life. By using this process, Anna Atkins is regarded as the first woman photographer.
What is a cyanotype?
Cyanotype is an antique photographic process distinctive for its Prussian blue monochrome prints. It was invented in the Victorian era but was quickly forgotten as photography improved, only surviving as a copying technique for documents and plans in the form of blueprints.
What is a photogram?
A photogram is a photographic image made without a camera by placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light. The usual result is a negative shadow image that shows variations in tone that depends upon the transparency of the objects used.
The cyanotype process is simple. It can be done easily in a few steps:
1. Mix two chemicals to create photo sensitive solution of ‘sensitizer’.
2. Brush, smear, or soak the sensitizer into cotton-based watercolor paper.
3. Create a negative image on a transperency with a laser/inkjet printer or copy machine.
4. Place the negative over the dried, sensitized paper or just place objects on the paper to create a photogram.
5. Expose to UV light.
6. Wash the image in water to develop.
7. Hang to dry, and enjoy!
Michelle Vine, Herbarium Hamburgense 2016-2017
The process in detail
1. Mixing the chemicals
This recipe makes approximately 50 8×10 inch prints. The cyanotype is made up of two simple solutions:
- Solution A: 25 grams Ferric ammonium citrate (green) and 100 ml. water.
- Solution B: 10 grams Potassium ferricyanide and 100 ml. water.
Dissolve the chemicals in water to make two separate solutions. Add Ammonium ferric citrate to water into one container and Potassium ferricyanide to water in another. Stir with a plastic spoon until the chemicals dissolve. Mix equal quantities of each solution together in a third container. Unused solutions can be stored separately in brown bottles away from light, but will not last very long once they have been mixed. Dispose of any unused chemicals in a sensible and environmentally friendly way!
Your work area
Your floors, carpets, walls, work surfaces, clothes and skin can be stained by the chemicals. Cover all possible areas, use rubber gloves and an apron or an old shirt to work in. If you have the space, choose an area where you can spread out. Ordinary light bulbs or tungsten light is safe to use, but UV light will affect your prints. Some fluorescent lighting may also affect your prints.
2. Preparing the paper
WARNING: EYE PROTECTION AND RUBBER GLOVES MUST BE WORN WHEN HANDLING CHEMICAL SOLUTIONS.
The exposure time for cyanotype is very slow so coating paper or fabric may be done in low light conditions away from direct sunlight. However, to be safe it is advisable to dry the paper or fabric in complete darkness or in darkroom conditions.
When coating paper or fabric with the cyanotype chemical it is important to ensure an even application. Remember to stir the chemical before applying to make sure that it is properly mixed.
• Brush – Use a soft brush to evenly coat the surface. It is best to apply two coats, working over the surface methodically in both directions (length and width ways). It is advisable to use a brush without a metal ferrule, as this can affect the cyanotype chemical. A pastry brush or a foam brush can work very well.
• Dip – Dipping the paper or fabric into a flat tray of cyanotype solution will ensure an even coating of the chemical. However, this method will use up much more of the chemical than other coating methods. Be sure to allow excess cyanotype solution to drip off paper before putting to dry. With textiles it may be necessary to squeeze out the excess before drying.
• Rod – A glass coating rod is a very economical way to coat paper but is of little use on fabric. Place the paper in a flat tray and pour a line of cyanotype solution along one edge. Carefully pull the solution over the length of the paper a few times until the whole surface has been coated evenly.
• Get Creative – How else could you apply the sensitiser to your paper?
Once the paper or fabric has been sufficiently coated, set to dry in a dark room or cabinet. Paper or fabric can be dried horizontally on top of newspaper or on a drying rack. They can also be dried vertically by hanging on a washing line.
Once the cyanotype chemical has been dried, it is best to expose and process the cyanotype as soon as possible. Coated material however can be kept for as long as 6 months if it has been kept in a light fast container such as an old photographic black bag and box.
3. Printing the cyanotype
Print a cyanotype by placing your negative (to reproduce a photograph) or object (to make a photogram) in contact with your coated paper or fabric. Sandwich it with a piece of glass.
Expose the sandwich to UV light. Natural sunlight is the traditional light source, but UV lamps can also be used.
A photogram can also be made by placing items on the surface. Plants, decorative items or other objects can be used to create silhouettes or interesting shapes.
Exposure times can vary from a few minutes to several hours, depending on how strong your light source is or the season where you are printing.
When the color is a nice even slate grey quickly place a big black piece of card between the objects and the paper and quickly take the sheets inside.
4. Processing and drying
When the print has been exposed, process your print by rinsing it in cold water. The wash also removes any unexposed chemicals. Wash for at least 5 minutes, until all chemicals are removed and the water runs clear. Oxidation is also hastened this way – bringing out the blue color. The final print can now be hung to dry.
Cyanotype works from other artists for inspiration
Artist: Lloyd Godman
In his Conversations with Trees series (2004), the artist has made a series of experimental alternative photographic works where the emulsion is painted onto the paper in a figurative manner.
Artist: Anna Atkins
Artist: Bill Chambers
In his All Washed Up series (2016), the artist has created cyanotype prints using objects collected from the city streets after a storm.
Artist: Francis Baker
Cyanotype on sewing pattern tissue
Artist: Christian Marclay
Untitled (Studio Floor)
22-1/2 x 30 inches
Utilizing the photogram technique (often with multiple exposures) he “draws” with cassettes and unfurled tape, exploring a range of compositional strategies in the intense blue of the cyanotype that are partly inspired by well known abstract painters.
Artist: Annie Lopez
Medical Conditions (2013), a vintage-inspired dress in which the artist Annie Lopez developed cyanotypes onto tamale wrappers with images representing family memories.
Artist: Robert A. Schaefer Jr
Cyanotype titled ‘Miss Julie’
Cyanotype titled Julian altered with watercolour paint
Extra Cyanotype Resources:
Here are a few of the resources that I have found very informative during my research into cyanotypes:
General Info on the Process:
Christopher James. 2009. The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes (2nd ed.). Engage Learning, NY. Particularly chapters:
Chapter 5: The Digital Options: An odd history, workflows for negatives, & the digital arts; pp. 102-132.
Chapter 7: The cyanotype process; pp. 148-174
Chapter 8: Cyanotype: Variations and adaptions;.
Making Digital Negatives (for those that wish to go into the technical sides of this part of the process)
According to Christina Z. Anderson (http://www.freestylephoto.biz/alternative-process/making-digital-negatives) excellent results can be yielding from following a Three-step negative workflow:
- Determine the Basic Exposure Time for the photo process to be used to give maximum black.
- Determine overall negative contrast to match the contrast of the process and give “paper white.”
- Make midtone adjustments to match the response curve of the process.
From her instructions, this is NOT a simple process: it is quite involved but the explanations are detailed and well-written.
All artwork and content © Michelle Vine 2019
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