Stories of the Blues: Exploring Cyanotype Photography


Part of my fascination with the cyanotype process is it’s historical background as one of the earliest photographic processes. John Herschel invented the process back in 1842 - he actually just wanted a method of copying his notes!

Most famous of the early artists using this method was Anna Atkins who published a book in 1843 using her botanical cyanotypes to illustrate it - making it the earliest book to use photographic imaging.







https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/anna-atkins-cyanotypes-the-first-book-of-photographs.html

https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/pdf_publications/pdf/atlas_cyanotype.pdf


Today there are many artists and photographers experimenting with the process - which in principle is remarkably easy, although totally, and charmingly, unpredictable. It’s a perfect activity for sunny days too as we head into summer.


I used a kit from Silverprint (see below) that I already had but there are lots of options. I’ve included at the end options for supplies, more info etc if you would like to give this a try!


You need -

  • A solution of the two photosensitive chemicals to coat the paper with

  • A foam applicator or brush

  • Paper - this can be any type of paper but watercolour paper is often favoured as it is robust enough to put up with the rinsing process. I did experiment with some pages from an old paperback which was successful and have seen examples done on musical manuscripts

  • Items to place on the paper - leaves and flowers work very well but any flat’ish object would work

  • An old, clean clip frame and some bulldog clips

  • Daylight for the UV rays that develop the prints

  • Plastic box for developing - deep sided such as a cat litter tray(new!!) or shallow storage box. Alternatively there’s always the bath!

The Process and what I discovered along the way!


1. Prepare the paper by coating it in a solution of the two chemicals. This needs to be done in a space with very subdued light to stop it developing. I did mine on the floor of my bathroom with the door shut and blinds down. It doesn’t need to be dark.

Applying the solution can be messy so cover any surfaces you are working on first. (although it does wash off)


The foam applicator is designed to apply a relatively even coat - I didn’t quite manage it but quite liked the way the uneven application worked in practice. If you use a brush then you can deliberately create rough brush edged prints - I intend to do this once I get the right type of brush to do this along with some bigger sheets of paper.


Don’t necessarily cover all the paper - I did and then wished I hadn’t as a rough border looks quite nice. I’ll be doing this on my next set.



2.Dry the paper in a dry dark place - I used my airing cupboard as the open shelves were perfect for drying the sheets and left them overnight so they were ready for the next day.

Please note as you are using chemicals wear plastic gloves whilst handling the solution and avoid getting it on your skin. Work in a space that is well aired! If you are thinking of doing this with children you may be safer opting for the pre treated papers that are available(listed below).

Place the dry paper in a black bag or box to prevent developing happening before you use it. You can theoretically store the paper for some time this way. My kit included a black sealable bag for this.

However - I suspect that once you start this, like me, you’ll use your paper up quite quickly!

The chemical set by Jaquard I’ve listed below allows you to just use a little at a time whereas the Silverprint kit required you to use all the solution at once - the kit included enough sheets of paper for this plus a little extra that I used on alternative papers.


3. Once dry you can start printing!

Small leaves and flowers (especially small pale/white ones) are good for this process as the light should travel though them leaving you some of the detail in the resulting print. Larger leaves can just leave a white shape in practice which is interesting but not as attractive as other subjects. Ferns and grasses work well too.


Pick your subjects bearing in mind the size of your paper - the paper in my kit was quite small and this really did restrict what I could do - especially when I started playing with the wet process. I shall be buying much larger paper for the next set


It makes a difference which way up you place leaves - place face down for the best results - the glass will flatten them to the paper better and you’ll get more details showing up in the end result


Lay out your design before placing it onto the paper as once you have taken the paper out of the dark place you need to work quickly even in subdued light.


Place your subjects on the paper and then sandwich it between the glass and board of your clip frame. Secure with bulldog clips around the edge. I found it easier to work with a larger frame than my paper - that way you don’t get the edges of the clips on the resulting print.


You need a heavy clip frame - ie one with thick glass to properly squash your item to the paper. I suspect that in a couple of cases my glass was not quite heavy enough for the type of plant I had chosen.



Place in the sun - I got more even results when I tilted them up to face the light rather than just flat on the table. Once the paper goes a murky green/bronze colour it’s ‘cooked’. In the recent weather this has only taken 5 - 10 minutes. It will be interesting to see how long it takes with the more cloudy weather we are expecting this week.



4. Develop your prints by placing in your tray of water and agitate to rinse all the chemicals off the paper. You can also rinse under a gently running cold tap too. This is when the magic happens and you see the real colours emerge. This may take up to 10 minutes.






Leave to dry - some people hang them but I laid mine on kitchen roll backed by newspaper and this worked for me. Interestingly the colours continue to develop for some time afterwards as they oxidise with the air. The blue should turn to a really deep Prussian blue. If you like the look of them pre rinsing take a photo!


And that’s all there is to it - apart from trying wet cyanotype techniques, toning your prints with tea/coffee and multi exposures! I’ll write a blog on this later once I have truly experimented with it.

I realise that last time I tried this I started with more complicated ideas and got quickly frustrated so definitely start simple and build up your technique and understanding.


Supplies

The kit I used was

https://shop.silverprint.co.uk/Silverprint-Cyanotype-Kit/product/1821/1821/


It includes a plastic box that can double as a rinsing tray, paper, storage bag, foam applicator, chemicals and plastic gloves and very clear instructions for a beginner.


Silverprint has a good selection of supplies for Cyanotype printing should you get into it.


Alternatively this kit was mentioned in many of the tutorials that I have watched this week

Jaquard Cyanotype kit - available through sites such as www.fredaldous.co.uk and of course Amazon.

Their website is full of great information as well.

https://www.jacquardproducts.com/cyanotype-set


Paper:

As mentioned before watercolour paper seems to be the favoured surface to print on.

Look for acid free, cold pressed paper of around 300gsm (this weight will really stand up to the washing process)

But feel free to experiment with other papers.


Pre-coated papers are available from many outlets such as craft suppliers and Amazon. Usually called sun print paper it allows you to work without the need for mixing the chemicals.


Video:

The following video is a good demonstration of the basic techniques

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWAEaETdPTs

Books:

Cyanotype: Historical and Alternative Photography by Peter Mrhr

I had this book already. It is a clear step by step book covering the process, toning your images etc


Cyanotype: The Blueprint in Contemporary Practice by Christina Z Anderson

This one is on my wishlist and has been recommended for all the other applications of this process including wet cyanotypes and alternative surfaces for printing such as wood, stones etc.


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All images © Sarah Holmes 2020 No reproduction without prior permission.