The sun is shining away on this windy winter day, and you know what that means? Cyanotypes! I’ve been waiting for a day like this, and I’m happy to say that I’ve made good use of it.
Cyanotypes are probably some of my favorite things to do. I don’t have the accessibility to a darkroom at the moment, as well as don’t have the space for it, so it lets me feel like I’m still doing some “film” development, kinda. I was introduced to this process during the last photography class I took at school. I was auditing the class, since they didn’t offer Photography III, and the professor gave me some pretty interesting projects, one of which was alternative processes. I started off doing botanicals, and using some old book pages she had, and fell in love with it!
If you don’t know what cyanotypes are, you should look in to it! Wikipedia does a good job of explaining it, but I’ll give you the quick and dirty on my process. Cyanotype is a contact photographic process, which creates really lovely blue images. To begin, you mix an equal part of two chemicals: ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferricyanide. Yeah, cyanide. Don’t worry though, it’s not going to kill you. Though it is mildly toxic, I’ve never had any problems with it, and to be honest, I’m not particularly careful with it when using it — I’ve gotten it on my hands and constantly have my hands in the wash, and I’m still here! I use a great kit from Photographers’ Formulary, where you don’t have to do any actually mixing of chemicals, and just combine “solution a” with “solution b”. So easy.
Once you mix the chemicals, while in a darkened room treat your surface to make it photosensitive. I personally use watercolor paper, and have had some great results. It has great durability, and holds on to the emulsion well once you’ve completed your print. One of my other favorite things to use are book pages, but they are much more fragile, so be careful. You can use pretty much anything, as long as it is able to absorb the chemical solution — various papers, cloth, untreated canvases — so be creative! Allow the treated surface to dry completely, I recommend even leaving it over night in a dark environment, and then you’re ready! Your dried surface is going to be a light, almost lime green color when you treat it, but no worries, it will turn blue at the end!
Like I said earlier, it’s a contact printing process, so you could do either one of two things. You can create your own negative, or for smaller prints, contact sheet style printing, or using medium format film, you can use actual negatives, and press it along with the paper between glass. To make it simple, I just take apart a picture frame, using the back and the glass, and then secure the pieces together with paperclips or binder clips. You want to make sure you have a good contact on your negative, otherwise you’ll end up with a fogged image, and lose a lot of your details. I use Inkpress Media Transparency Film to create 8 1/2x 11″ negatives, and have had great results….when I follow the directions and print on the right side of the transparency! They’re a little pricy, but super convenient in that I can just use my inkjet printer to make whatever negative I like! Make sure you prep your image before printing as well. Having strong contrast and clarity, as well as making a positive of your image through a photo editing program will ensure you get a good print. The other thing you can do it treat your surface like a photogram, and place an object directly on top of your paper to create an image. I still use glass when using objects, since I use flowers, leaves, etc., and in doing so, I’ve noticed you get a better outcome.
Exposure times will vary since, well, the weather is never the same from one day to another, and the sun’s position in the sky will move as you’re making your print. I prefer to wait for a nice, clear sunny day, which keeps my exposure times anywhere from the 12-15 minute range. You can gauge your exposure times by looking at your surface while in the light. It will change from a light green, to a dark green, almost blackish tone. Once you’ve reached your desired exposure, just rinse the print in cold running water. I like to fully submerge my prints and gently agitate them prior to actually rising them. The emulsion is delicate, so if you rinse too quickly, you’re going to wash your print away 😦 — so sad, I’ve totally done it. You’ll see your print develop right before your eyes, changing from that weird dark greenish hue to an intense tone of blue with white highlights. Rinse your print completely, so you don’t see any blue residue dripping from your paper and the water runs clear, and you’re finished! Just lay it flat to dry and voila, you’re a cyanotype expert.
So there you have it! I really love this process, and am thankful that I had a professor who thought outside the box and introduced me to this. Check out my final prints below. I made a couple of extras, so I may try my hand at toning them to change the color. Stay tuned!