Part Science, Part Alchemy … The Art of Cyanotype Part 1

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 gift; being told by my photography tutor on that long-ago course that I had a good, was such 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. 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.

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?!!

During the cyanotype process the print goes through many and various colour changes
During the cyanotype process the print goes through many and various colour changes

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. 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.

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!

Wild Mallow Flowers make perfect subject for cyanotypes
Wild Mallow Flowers make perfect subject for cyanotypes

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!!

Pressed wildflowers and flowers from my garden, ready to be added to the print
Pressed wildflowers and flowers from my garden

Then What Happens?!!

The way a cyanotype print is developed is through exposure to 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!!

A Cyanotype print goes through many changes
A Cyanotype print with added salt, vinegar, bicarb and ink!

It’s Basically Blue …

But I Like To Experiment

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.

So, that’s the “science” part … in my next blog, I’ll tell you about the magic!!!

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