The lockdown has meant spending a lot more time at home and as the sun has been shining I’ve spent the last few weeks experimenting more with wet cyanotype, lumens and anthotypes. So I thought I’d share some of the work I’ve created and a little bit about how each image is made. The chemicals can be purchased at most photographic suppliers and are inexpensive. As well as the chemicals, all you need to start creating your own wet cyanotype prints are, some paper, fabric or porous substrate, a brush, some vinegar and washing up liquid, a glass or perspex frame to expose your print in, gloves and somewhere to wash your exposed print.
The dandelion image above was made by coating a 5″ x 8″ sheet of platinum rag paper with the mixed cyanotype chemicals (as per manufacturers instructions). I have applied the dandelion whilst the paper was still wet and laid on a sheet of glass, then I add bubbles (made by mixing washing up liquid in the sink) I have then smeared neat distilled vinegar on the glass that will cover the print as it develops and also dropped small amounts on to the print itself (as you can see in the upper left corner). I’ve then clipped the glass together (I have learned to tape the edges of the glass with gaffer tape to avoid any accidents) and left the print to develop in the sun for several hours.
Generally wet cyanotype prints will need at least an hour, much longer than traditional prints, but the strength of the sun will mean these times can vary, usually I will leave them out for several hours, and occasionally for days. When the prints first go out, they will begin to change colour, then the colour will fade away completely (don’t panic) and over time it will reappear and intensify. The colours seem to develop most strongly in the first hour or two, but changes are still taking place after many hours, so if you have patience it pays off if you can leave the print for longer in the sun.
The orange tones in the feather print above are created using distilled vinegar, applied neat to the print whilst the chemicals are still wet on the paper, as in the dandelion print above. Here I have been a little more liberal with the vinegar. Oranges can also be obtained through the addition of turmeric, which can be applied as a powder or in solution, however I don’t tend to use it and prefer to just work with soap and vinegar. If I don’t have vinegar to hand then lemon or lime juice make a good alternative.
When the prints are ready, unclip the frames and wash them in water for 5 minutes to remove any residue and chemicals. They do not need to be fixed. The prints will change colour over time as they oxidise and deeper prussian blues will appear. This process can be hurried by immersing the print in a bath of diluted hydrogen peroxide. Prints can also be bleached, I use a solution of bicarbonate of soda, or toned in solutions such as tea or coffee to produce other colours and tones.
Beautiful and interesting effects can be achieved by wrapping the prints with cling film as they develop, but as an environmentalist I am keen not to use single use plastics, so don’t do this. I am trying to figure out a natural way of creating a similar effect. I’m aware I am already making art with chemicals and don’t want to further increase the footprint of my art. For this reason I have been working more frequently with anthotypes as they are completely natural using emulsions made with plants painted on to watercolour papers which are then exposed to the sun. This time you are working with a positive instead of a negative and these prints will take days to months to develop as the sun slowly fades the emulsion left exposed to the light. Do remember to take them in over night as unlike the wet cyanotype getting them wet can ruin the print, which is particularly heartbreaking if it has been out developing for some weeks.
The prints produced with this method will not last indefinitely and I am drawn to that impermanence, delighting in seeing them fade over time. The emulsions are simple to make by grinding collected petals or leaves with a pestle and mortar (or whizzing in a blender) and adding distilled water or alcohol, the mixture can then be squeezed through a cheesecloth or sieve and painted on to your paper. Alternatively you may dip the paper into the emulsion. Each method will produce an artistically different base layer upon which you can develop your print.
It is important to bear in mind that whilst natural, some plants can provoke reactions in some people so it is best to take care and wear protective gloves if you have sensitive skin or allergies.
The print above was produced by applying cyanotype chemicals to expired photographic paper, this process is enormously satisfying. The patterns that appear as you paint the emulsion onto the paper are so exquisite as the chemicals react instantly with the paper. In ths case I have then applied a flower, soap and drops of neat vinegar and clipped this in a frame and exposed the print to the sun for several hours. Salt makes very pleasing marks on the papers as the prints develop as can be seen in some of the prints below. And the addition of turmeric, paprika and coffee grounds can add other tones and textures to the final print.
To finish the cyanolumen prints I wash them in cold water for a few minutes and then put them in a bath of dilute Sodium Thiosulphate to fix them.
This week I have been creating cyanotypes on leaves. The images below show wet cyanotypes of mustard and geranium leaves on sycamore and london plane leaves I pressed last autumn. These have been created by applying the smaller leaves whilst the chemicals were still wet, this creates the dark blue tracing around the edges of the smaller leaves. I am excited about continuing this series and seeing where it takes me.
Last year I created wet cyanotypes of botanical subjects inbroken egg shells, these I then guilded with gold leaf. It is best to use egg shell fresh as the membrane inside the shell needs to be removed before the chemicals can be applied, and this becomes more challenging as the egg shell dries. The shells then become even more fragile to work with without the membrane holding them together, but I think the results are worth the effort.
If you don’t like the print you’ve just created, don’t give up! Recycle. I made the print below by re-coating a print of ferns that really hadn’t worked with cyanotype chemicals, letting it dry completely and then applying the maple leaves and putting the print out in the sun for a further 15 mins to develop. This has created an interesting double exposure effect.
The cyanotype process is really accessible, the chemicals are inexpensive, and you can use newspapers and old book pages or fabrics such as cotton and calico if you don’t have paper at home. It has provided me with a serendipitous and experimental, creative outlet during the lockdown on days when I wish I could go further afield with my camera and am feeling frustrated or low. I hope if you are reading this that you might have a go at it too, and maybe share some of your creations with me as I’d love to see them.
I’ve created a basic beginners guide to cyanotype as a PDF that you can download by clicking on this link : cyanotype handout.
I have now added a “How to make cyanotypes” page to my website – you can view it HERE.
A collection of my cyanotypes are also on display at the Gallery at Sculpture by the Lakes in Dorset, and I will be demonstrating my techniques at their inagural Dorset Art Fair in July.
You can see more of my cameraless work on the galleries on this site.
Suppliers below are a few of the suppliers of cyanotype chemicals that I have used and can recommend, clicking on the links will open their sites in a new tab.
Health and Safety – it’s important to follow the manufacturers instructions when mixing and applying wet chemicals. Gloves, eye protection and a mask should be worn where there is the risk of inhaling or spilling chemicals. Cyanotype chemicals also stain, so unless you are looking to get creative with you wardrobe too, wear an apron to protect your clothing and be aware of the environment you are working in.
If you’ve enjoyed this post and would like to support my work you could buy a greetings card if you would like for less than the price of a cup of your favourite coffee at Love from the Artist.