What is a Cyanotype?
Cyanotypes are a photographic process where sensitized paper or fabric is exposed to the sun (or other UV light source) in order to make an artistic print. The process was invented in 1842 by Sir John Frederick William Herschel, who wanted a quick way to reproduce mathematical tables. For decades, the process was use to print architectural blue prints, which are still called blueprints, even though now they’re black ink on white paper, printed on oversized printers.
The chemicals Potassium ferricyanide and Ferric ammonium citrate are mixed in a dark room and applied to the substrate, usually paper, though other substrates can be used as well. For a photogram, objects are placed on top of the paper and the stack of paper and objects are placed in the sun for a period of time. Then the paper is rinsed and dried.
Negative films can be created on transparency film in order to print cyanotypes of photographs.
Now, on to how you can learn to print cyanotypes yourself! Follow all safety precautions and wear personal protective gear.
Learn to Print Cyanotypes
An instructable: https://www.instructables.com/Cyanotype-Sun-Printing
The only book that’s comprehensive, yet not a college textbook: https://www.alternativephotography.com/blueprint-to-cyanotypes
There is also an old book called Blueprints on Fabric: Innovative Uses for Cyanotype by Barbara Hewitt, which is very good. As of this writing, I’m seeing used copies for around $8.00.
Domestika has a course:
Getting Started with Printing Cyanotypes
The fastest way to get started is to buy pre-treated paper. This paper is generally not going to give you as nice a result as watercolor paper that you treat yourself, but it’s cheap and a good way to learn.
You can also buy pretreated fabric, I suggest only buying Jacquard brand.
It’s really easy! I kept searching for more information because I couldn’t accept how easy it was, I guess.
Pro Tips from Me and Artists I know:
• In coating your own paper, you do not need to be in darkroom like conditions. My friend coats her papers in the garage in the evening and uses them the next day.
• You can maybe print cyanotypes outdoors in the winter but it’s going to take all day. I use a UV light box so that I can work indoors, any time of day or night.
• Rinse your paper, face down, for ten minutes in water. Exchange that for fresh water, adding a teaspoon of regular household hydrogen peroxide. Rinse more, then a final rinse in just water. The peroxide speeds the darkening of the print.
• In the Instructable linked above, she shows using clear acrylic and clothes pins to clamp the work together for the exposure stage. The closer your items are to the paper, the better, more detailed the print. When printing outside, I use a piece of cardboard, cut to the size of my acrylic, which is 11″ x 14″ and I’m using 8.5″ x 11″ paper. I use binder clips to hold the sandwich together. If your binder clips overlap your paper, they will print, which is why the cardboard and acrylic are so much larger.
There are tons of videos out there on it, I just prefer to learn from books, so I haven’t shared any video links except the Domestika video course. I love Domestika courses, they’re short and well organized. Heads up, most of them are not in English, many are in Spanish, but they always have English subtitles as one of many options.
Learn about Anna Atkins
Anna Atkins was a British botanist and early adopter of cyantoypes. Her family was friends with John F.W. Herschel, who invented the process. Many women interested in science at the time turned to botany because no one could stop you from botanizing, and there were fewer barriers to entry than other sciences. She already had a large collection of dried and pressed seaweed specimens when she began with cyanotype. She used those to print multiple copies of a book made entirely of original cyanotypes of British seaweed. She made about a dozen copies of the book and each book is made of originals. Few complete books survive, as they were taken apart and the prints framed. Her book is considered the first book of photography!
There’s a lovely children’s book about Anna Atkins called The Bluest of Blues, by Fiona Robinson. Find it on Bookshop, here: https://bookshop.org/p/books/the-bluest-of-blues-anna-atkins-and-the-first-book-of-photographs-fiona-robinson/20316021
This book, Anna Atkins Blue Prints, prints some of her cyanotypes: https://bookshop.org/p/books/anna-atkins-blue-prints-rolf-sachsse/17380315
Here’s a short article about her, with images of her work: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/anna-atkins-cyanotypes-the-first-book-of-photographs.html
What Do I Use in My Art?
I use cyanotypes sometimes and I use Jacquard Solar Fast Dye sometimes. I use Solar Fast more often. The processes are similar. To learn about the differences, Jacquard, which sells both products, has a pdf listing the differences. They have no reason to push one more than the other, so this would seem to be an even-handed discussion.
What do I like about Solar Fast? No drying time, you paint the Solar Fast on to the fabric and you can print immediately. It comes in more colors. It’s a true dye.