Exploring Cyanotype

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What is Cyanotype?

Cyanotype is a photographic printing process that produces a cyan-blue print.  The basic premise involves coating a surface with a 1:1 solution of Potassium Ferricyanide and Ammonium Ferric (III) Citrate.  This surface must dry in a dark place.  Prints can be made using negatives or placing everyday objects on the surface to block the light.  A positive image can be produced by exposing it to a source of ultraviolet light such as sunlight.

Cyanotype is a camera-less technique that involves many of the traditional chemical practices of photography, without the need for a darkroom space.  You can mix this yourself with the help of your science department, or purchase ready-made kits.

Cyanotype Kit

You can get the kit above on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk #ad. It’s a great starter kit if you want to experiment yourself before you try this with a class.

It is therefore a gateway process to chemical photography, but also offers an ability to create interdisciplinary forms of artwork that can easily extend students’ ideas.

Most people will be aware of architectural ‘blueprints’, which used the cyanotype process to reproduce a technical drawing or engineering design – a very early form of photocopying. The process was originally discovered in 1842 by Sir John Herschel, an English scientist who became interested in the process of iron salts. The botanist Anna Atkins is well-known for recording different plant specimens through creating photograms. With modern technologies, cyanotype is able to offer the possibility of using digitally manipulated and printed negatives, in order to create contact prints of items, drawings and photographic images.

Cyanotype by Anna Atkins
Cyanotype by Anna Atkins

Through delivering workshops to staff and students, it is clear that the technique forms a hybrid between traditional and contemporary photographic practices. It allows Art & Design students to apply their learning through their own mistakes; exploring the range of outcomes that the process can help to produce through both accidental and deliberate actions.

Here’s how you can further explore cyanotype with your Art and Photography students.

The basic process is straightforward and quick

Where light is blocked, chemicals remain unreacted and wash away with water. Here, the student coated a large piece of fabric with the chemical solution. Stencils were then used to create architectural shapes.

Exploring Cyanotype
Year 10 Work (Age Approx 15)

All students use photography

The cyanotype process can develop digital photographs into more extended outcomes. A digital image can be desaturated and ‘inverted’ to create a negative, which can then be printed onto acetate. Placing this negative onto a coated surface and exposing to UV light will result in an alternative image. The chemicals themselves can pool and leave additional marks, quite often creating haunting images of interiors.

What is a cyanotype?

Students enjoy exploring and experimenting

A fear of failure often holds students back from testing all the possibilities of traditional media. The process is so quick that once a student has created a negative it can lead to a number of varied outcomes that explore different intents. This could be through using mark-making when applying chemicals, or exploring different surfaces such as toned papers or fabric. The chemical solution’s reaction to the surface you’re working with is part of the joy of the process – you never quite know how the paper or fabric will react. Applying with a brush, compared to a sponge can create different edges to the image, or you can mask off areas for a neat and controlled layer. In addition, using a hairdryer to help dry out the surface before exposure to light can push chemicals around, leading to more unusual marks.

Be experimental!

Exploring Cyanotype

Exploring Cyanotype by Combining Media

Cyanotype can be combined with a whole host of traditional media including painting, printmaking and textiles. This enables students to take even further ownership of the unique development of their work. Much of this is again down to trial and error. Producing cyanotypes on paper means most traditional dry media can be applied as an additional layer on top of the photographic surface.

Cyanotype with Oil PaintingA Level work – In the piece above, the student created a large-scale fabric cyanotype, which was stretched as a canvas. This allowed the silhouette of the figure to be primed in acrylic, before painting the final layer in oils.

Combined with Drypoint Etching

A level work – The piece above was created from a digital photomontage, using cyanotype on paper. The piece was then added to with drypoint printmaking. A difficult process to register the print, but an exciting challenge nonetheless!

You don’t always need a photograph

You can use stencils, or hand-drawn negatives to explore qualities of line and texture onto your chemically coated surfaces. To make hand-drawn pieces, all you need is tracing paper and a black fine liner, much like architectural blueprints. It’s an easy introduction into the basic science of chemical photography and allows students to explore concepts of positives and negatives.

Print made from a line drawing.
@jamesmillichamp

I hope this exploring cyanotypes blog post has answered your question of what cyanotype is.  If you have any top tips for creating cyanotypes please comment below.  Or if you’d like to be kept up-to-date with The Arty Teacher blog posts, register here.

Emma Bowater

Emma Bowater is Head of Art at a high school in the West Midlands, England. She is an advocate of experimental photographic processes and enjoys exploring the possibilities of developing students' work from photography through to other artistic media.

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