Cyanotypes: all you need to know
What was your New Year’s Resolution? If it was to learn a new craft skill, you’ve come to the right place because we’re rebooting our ‘Exploring Techniques’ series for 2021, delving into different craft techniques, talking to masters of that craft to discover more about their methodology, materials, inspiration, learn about the history of their craft and and hear their top tips.
In this first post for 2021, we’re looking at cyanotypes. We’ll cover what cyanotypes are, what the process involves, why you should give it a go, and share practical from some of our cyanotype artists on Folksy.
New year, new skills!
If there’s a particular craft you’d like to know more about, let us know by leaving a comment on this post.
What are cyanotypes?
First things first. What exactly is a cyanotype? At the most basic level, a cyanotype is a type of camera-less photography that involves using two chemicals and sunlight (or UV light) to create a cyan-blue print. Prints can be made on any natural fibre, such as paper, cotton, silk or wool. It’s the blue colour that gives the technique its name. The image is created using either a photographic negative or objects that block the light from reaching the surface of the print, leaving behind white silhouettes on a blue background.
Created by Sir John Herschel in 1842, cyanotypes were originally adopted as a copying technique to duplicate architectural and mechanical drawings, commonly referred to as a blueprint. Anna Atkins, an English Botanist, was an early adopter of the cyanotype. She used cyanotypes for scientific purposes, to label algae specimens, resulting in the earliest publication of a photo-book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions– the first time the world had seen a photographically illustrated book.
Cyanotypes soon grew in popularity because they were quick, precise and easy to create. Since then, they have become part of mainstream art and photography, valued especially for their distinctive blue colour, and used by photographers such as Man Ray and Adam Fuss.
How do you make a cyanotype?
A light-sensitive solution (a mix of Potassium Ferricyanide and Ammonium Citrate or one provided in a cyanotype kit) is applied to any porous surface (such as paper or fabric) and left to dry in the dark. When the solution is dry, you then lay your chosen objects on the surface and arrange the composition of your print before exposing it to UV light, which can come from either natural sunlight or a light box. Timings are important – the longer your cyanotype print is exposed to light, the deeper the blue. The solution is then rinsed off to reveal the distinctive blue tones.
Watch Laura Boffin from Boffin Photography create a cyanotype print on paper in this How To video. If the film doesn’t load, click here to watch it on YouTube >
In this video Laura has used the following materials and equipment to create her own cyanotype:
- 10g Potassium Ferricyanide
- 200ml Water (100ml per solution)
- 25g Ferric Ammonium Citrate
- Good quality watercolour paper (in this video Laura uses Fabiano paper)
- Plants or objects of your choice
- digital scales
- 2 stirring rods
- 1 wash tray
- 1 water jug
- 4 measuring cylinders
- 1 solution mixing pot
- 1 wide hake brush (or any wooden brush / sponge)
- UV source (here Laura uses a UV lightbox but for best results use sunshine)
- 1 contact frame holder
Times will vary depending on the freshness of the solution and strength of UV light. It’s always best to do a test print before coating a large pieces of paper. Exposure times can be anything from 5 minutes to 20 minutes.
If you want to give cyanotypes a go but don’t fancy measuring and mixing chemicals, Olivia Bliss Art has created a sunshine print kit to give you a taster. She has already prepared the paper with photo chemicals – all you need to do is collect interesting objects to create your composition and expose to sunlight to produce your very own cyanotype print. The kit comes with step-by-step instructions that break down the process and tell you everything you need to know. Buy the cyanotype kit here >
Why create cyanotypes?
We asked some of our cyanotype artists on Folksy what it is that they love about the technique and why they believe everyone should give it a try.
For Sarah Middleton from The Way To Blue it was the purity of the blue colour combined with the opportunity for playing with new materials that first attracted her to cyanotype process. She’s been creating cyanotypes for around eight years now and says she has never run out of things to experiment with. Like many crafts, you learn by doing and discover new effects as you go. As she explains: “As an artist I have always been drawn to the colour blue and its associations with nature and the infinite. I have also strived to capture light in my work, so upon discovering the cyanotype technique I was hooked by its many possibilities.” Helen from Delicate Stitches feels similarly about the possibilities offered by cyanotypes: “With practice and experience, the range of effects you can achieve is almost limitless.”
For Laurie from Loloprints, cynotypes are also a way to preserve memories, record a time, place or feeling, in a similar way to a diary, sketchbook or postcard. As she explains: “In 2017, I travelled to Brazil and Uruguay. Creating cyanotypes on the move was a nice way to discover a place. Instead of writing a travel journal, I’ve immortalised my trip with plants, flowers and also confetti from the carnival and beer bottles caps!”
For others, it’s the process itself that is fascinating and a little bit magical. As Helen from Delicate Stitches reveals: “I love harnessing the power of the sun to create blueprints of my favourite natural objects.” The moment when the image appears is another draw: “Watching the image develop is like dark room photography,” explains Laurie from Loloprints – and as Angela Harpham from foto art paper craft points out, that’s something you don’t get to do with digital photography. “In the digital era, people are addicted to screens and people are forgetting how to use their hands,” adds Laurie.
Another benefit of cyanotypes is that you don’t need to be able to draw or paint to create them – the skills is in the composition rather than the draftsmanship, so it’s great for people who feel daunted by a blank page or who might be limited in their physical abilities or fine motor skills. Aside from the light-sensitive solution, you don’t need any specialist digital equipment to create cyanotypes either, making it both accessible and portable. “You can get ready-coated papers and fabrics, so you don’t even have to mix up your own chemicals,” points out Helen, “you just need a bit of sunshine and some water.”
What kind of objects work well for cyanotypes?
Many cyanotype artists are inspired by nature, like Sarah from The Way to Blue, who finds inspiration “amongst the hedgerows, changing seasons and white flowers”. Olivia Bliss feels a particular affinity for ferns, which are well-suited for cyanotype prints: “The detailed flat outline and decorative form works really well for cyanotype. The fact that they are over 145 million years old too is pretty extraordinary!” Feathers, leaves and shells work well too but you could equally use found or manmade objects.
When choosing objects, think about the shapes and the silhouettes that they will create. Denser objects will block out more light so will result in more solid areas of white, whereas more translucent objects or objects with finer strands like grasses or feathers will let more UV light through, so the image left behind will have more variation in colour.
The joy here is in experimentation, seeing the different results and having fun with it.
I love using lines of stitch to bring the different elements of my prints together, adding a further layer of interest and meaning.Helen Walsh, Delicate Stitches
Other ways to use cyanotypes
Although cyanotypes make beautiful artworks in their own right, you can also use them in combination with other crafts or use the print as the basis for other products and designs. For example, Helen from Delicate Stitches works on fabric, printing with natural objects she has collected on her walks, and then stitches over her prints with hand embroidery. As she explains: “Stitching gives that connection between us and nature. I see it a little like I’m stitching us together and keeping us connected. I love using lines of stitch to bring the different elements of my prints together, adding a further layer of interest and meaning.”
Cyanotypes can capture the intricate details of nature and, with imagination, you can create different designs.Sarah from The Way to Blue
Sarah from The Way to Blue uses cyanotypes as designs for a variety of homeware and gifts, including vases, lanterns, tea light holders, framed prints and cards. Her entire range of products is blue and white and based on her cyanotypes, which she scans and enhances digitally to combine the original cyanotype image with her illustrations and text. The latest products in Sarah’s range are fine china mugs, where the delicate silhouettes of seed heads, plants, butterflies and birds are printed on the outside as well as the inside of the rim. “My delicate blue and white cyanotype designs naturally lend themselves to being applied to pottery and have proved very popular,” says Sarah.
Likewise, Laura from Boffin Photography enjoys exploring different materials. “I’ve printed cyanotypes on to tote bags, as well as cotton that I’ve then place into an embroidery hoop. It’s another way to display an image without the restrictions of a frame.” Laura also prints her cyanotypes on coasters, mugs and even turns them into jewellery.
Cyanotype tips and tricks
Like all new skills, learning how to make cyanotypes involves trial and error, so don’t panic if it’s not perfect straight away – nothing ever is and you learn as you go! But to help you get started, we asked our makers to share their top types for creating successful cyanotypes.
- If using fabric, wash it to remove any pre-treatments and leave to dry overnight before using.
- If you’re printing on paper, Sarah from Way to Blue recommends Bockingford 300gsm watercolour paper as it’s a delicate handmade paper with lovely texture.
- When mixing the chemicals, use lukewarm water rather than cold.
- For a stronger, bolder image, apply and dry the light-sensitive solution to your surface four times.
- Use a soft, wide brush to apply the solution.
- Find somewhere dark enough to leave coated materials to dry, as any exposure to UV light will cause the solution to start reacting.
- As this a fast-moving process, lay out the objects you want to use in your print and have your composition in mind before you take out your prepared paper because it will start to develop as soon as it’s exposed to any light.
- Secure your cyanotype surface and materials in place by using a flat piece of board, bulldog clips and a clear sheet of glass or perspex, so they don’t accidentally move during exposure.
- Be accurate in your timings, and record the exposure times, so can you start building a reference guide to colour intensity.
- For best results, expose in the midday sun. If using artificial light, a light box allows for more controlled exposure, which is particularly useful with negatives.
- To reveal the cyanotype image, wash in cold water for 5 minutes until the water runs clear.
- If you’re looking for a cheap and easy way to dry and store your cyanotypes, Helen from Delicate Stitches suggests using an improvised black bin bag ‘tent’ over a clothes airer.
If you’re looking for books to guide you through the cyanotype process, Angela from Fotoartpapercraft recommends Cyanotypes on Fabric: A Blueprint on How to Produce Blueprints by Ruth Brown, while Laura Boffin highly recommends Experimental Photography: A Handbook of Techniques by Luca Bendandi & Macro Antonini.
Folksy sellers can by cyanotype chemicals from Fred Aldous at 10% off – or 25% off if it’s your first order! More details about this offer here – https://blog.folksy.com/2016/03/14/fred-aldous-discount-for-folksy-sellers
If you’re having trouble with your cyanotypes, here are some common problems and solutions:
- If you’re cyanotype is too pale, it could be that the light-sensitive solution is too diluted.
- If your cyanotype lacks contrast, your water might be too alkaline, so add a little vinegar and lemon juice to raise the acidity slightly.
- If leaves, grasses and flowers are creating steam between the glass and the fabric or paper, try pressing kitchen paper or a soft towel between them to reduce their moisture content.
- If a cyanotype lack structure and detail, it could be that it has been overexposed, so reduce the time it’s exposed to sunlight.
- If your cyanotype has an inconsistent, dull or green finish, try rinsing it again in cold water. It could be that the solution hasn’t been fully rinsed off.
Discover UK cyanotype makers on Folksy
If you want to see more work by the cyanotype artists interviewed in this article, follow these links:
Boffin Photography – shop now >
Delicate Stitches – shop now >
Foto art paper craft – shop now >
Loloprints – shop now >
Olivia Bliss Art – shop now >
The Way to Blue – shop now >