image of cyanotype, summer meadow with gold ink

Part Science, Part Alchemy … The Art of the Cyanotype

Hey there! It’s good to see you here. My name is Lizzie, and I am the redhead who is always wondering! Wondering about life, about this beautiful world, about words and light and colour and form. And mostly about how I can be the best me that I can possibly be.

I am a creator of hand bound books and of art, in the form of cyanotypes and photographs. I am also an avid journal-keeper and I’d like to share some of my journal wonderings with you today ….

Art Envy and a Good Eye

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I have been a keen photographer for many years.

A few years ago, I was given the opportunity to do a short photography course, and from Day One, when they gave us disposable cameras to mess around with and find our feet, I was hooked! 

Since I first picked up a camera and realised that I had a “good eye”, I have delighted in the fact that I am able to create images. I have for so long been envious of artists, who can paint and draw, who could create “something” from “nothing”.

Discovering that I had a “knack” for photography was such a breakthrough; being told by my photography tutor on that long-ago course that I had a good eye, was a gift. Here was a way to create images.

Alternative Photography

A while back a wonderful artist I know introduced me to cyanotypes and from my own first experiment with this medium I was completely smitten by this alternative form of photographic development.

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Cyanotype printing is a very old form of photography. This photographic printing process which produces a cyan-blue print, was used by engineers well into the 20th century as a simple and low-cost process to produce copies of drawings, referred to as blueprints. Many of you will be familiar with architects’ blueprints.

The process uses two chemicals: ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. The English scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel discovered the procedure in 1842, so we are talking about a process that has been around for a very long time. Though the process was developed by Herschel, he considered it as mainly a means of reproducing notes and diagrams, as in blueprints.

Anna Atkins created a series of cyanotype limited-edition books that documented ferns and other plant life from her extensive seaweed collection, placing specimens directly onto coated paper and allowing the action of light to create a silhouette effect. By using this photogram process, Anna Atkins is sometimes considered the first female photographer. (Thank you for the info, Wikipedia!). So, I am in good company!

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But How Does It Work??

So, how does it work? I like to think that it’s a little bit science and a little bit alchemy … because we ALL want to make magic, right?!! 

There are two basic chemicals, let’s just call them Compound A and Compound B. These are mixed together and then painted onto one side of the paper you wish to print on. 

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They are a kind of greeny-yellow at this stage. You have to do this part in a darkened room, because it’s UV light that causes it to develop. What I usually do is paint up a batch of paper in the evening before I go to bed and let it “cure” overnight. I then keep them safely stored away from sunlight, until I’m ready to start creating prints.

What Kind of Paper Do You Use?

I’ve experimented with lots of different papers, but my current favourite to work with is Hahnemühle Bugra-Bütten art paper. It has a kind of lush texture to it, that I think works really well with the cyanotype chemicals.

Another favourite paper of mine is Indian Cotton Rag, which is an entirely different kettle of fish! It’s silky smooth and quite delightful to work with.

The Fun Begins

And this is when the fun begins! I use flowers as the subjects for my prints.

I use wildflowers from the lanes around my beautiful Wiltshire home … Umbelliferae and Wild Mallows and Wild Field Poppies are my favourites. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the jolly Oxeye daisies, which grow in abundance right on my doorstep!

I also use flowers from my garden. I have a small garden, but I fill it with flowers of all sorts, but I find that Osteospermums, or African Daisies as they are commonly known, and Cosmos, and Black-eyed Susans all work really well. They are all daisy-like flowers and like the trusty Oxeyes, they make me feel happy and jolly!!

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A close up of a flower

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A close up of a flower

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So How Does It Actually Work?!!

The way a cyanotype print is developed is through exposure to the sun’s UV rays … wherever the sun touches the exposed paper turns a gorgeous deep blue. Where the flowers are laid, the sun is either prevented from touching the paper, or it is filtered through the petals and stems.

This leaves a ghostly image of the flower on the paper … the photographic “print” developed by the sun.

Spice it Up

To spice things up a little, I add various different things into the mix. I love to create wet cyanotypes by spraying water onto the surface of the paper just before exposing it to the sun.

I use coarse salt crystals, sprinkled on the paper, which gives the most beautiful fractal-like patterns. I even quite literally “spice it up” by adding things like coriander and pepper!!

It’s Basically Blue … But I Like A Touch of Other Colours

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To give variations to the colours produced in the final print, I will also sometimes use dyes and inks in the development process.

I love to use silver and gold ink; they give such richness to the final print.

But my use of colour is sparing. These are, after all, blue prints I’m creating, and I love the cyanotype blues! With the dyes and inks I use, I follow the “less is more” rule. 

Let The Magic Begin

The next stage is where the magic happens!

The prints go out into the sunshine to develop. The colours start to change immediately. Greens and turquoises emerge.

My excitement starts to build … up until this point, I’m never quite sure how a print will work out. But as soon as it starts “cooking” in the sunshine, I can usually tell if I’m going to be happy with the final result.

Every cyanotype print is completely unique. Even if I use the same flowers, the same added ingredients, no two prints will ever be identical.

And that is the thrill for me. Every single print is an original. Every print has a character of its own.

And even as these colours start to emerge, I don’t know what the final article will actually look like.

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The Zen of Cyanotyping

The development stage of cyanotype printing feels a little like the Zen Buddhist teachings about impermanence, and I am always reminded of the beautiful sand mandalas the monks create, only to sweep them away.

There are stages of the development of a print where the colours are so vibrant, so wild and crazily bright, as the chemicals and my added ingredients go through their transformations. Vivid greens and turquoises blossom on the paper. These are short lived, but nonetheless breath-taking. When I am working on prints, there is always at least one camera to hand, so that I may capture these fleeting images.

The Dull Bit Before The Big Reveal

The final stages of the sun’s development process are a little bit disappointing. When the paper has absorbed a lot of UV light, it starts to go quite grey and dull.

But if you are trying this yourself for the first time, do not be disheartened by this … it’s just a phase, a necessary part of developing, the butterfly’s cocoon … it’s as if the print is getting ready to thrill you with a great TA-DAH gesture!

For when the print has gone well and truly grey (I usually leave mine in the sun for a couple of hours), it’s time for the last part of the process … the washing!

The Washing and The Big Reveal

Every cyanotype printmaker has a different way of doing this. Some immerse the prints in water. Me, I like to either hose mine down in the garden, or wash them under the shower in the bathroom.

As I wash the chemicals and dyes off of the paper, the final print begins to emerge, and I am always thrilled. I’m smiling as I write this, just thinking about the way the beautiful prints blossom on the paper.

My Happy-Making Process

Creating cyanotype prints is such a happy-making process, to see the images of the flowers appear, the colours become more vivid, and to know that I have created something truly beautiful, that captures the essence of Summer in Wiltshire, that makes me very happy!

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