Playing with Cyanotype and Printmaking with the Sun

 In Cyanotype, Printmaking

What is Cyanotype

Cyanotype is a photographic printmaking process

Do you remember the blueprints of technical drawings and plans used by architects and engineers? I remember them well form my Dad’s office when I was a kid (he was an engineer). Blueprints were created using a photographic negative or film positive placed onto a UV (ultra violet) light-sensitive sheet of paper. This process allowed for accurate and fast reproduction of documents, at a low cost, charactarised by their blue colouring. They were first used in the 1830s.

A cyanotype is effectively a blueprint. But in addition to using film negatives and positives, plant material and a host of other 3 dimensional objects can be used to create interesting and artistic images and marks on paper, fabric and a range of other surfaces able to absorb the light-sensitive chemical solution.

Have a look at my Cyanotype Pinterest board for a range of different cyanotype images.

The Process of Creating a Cyanotype Print

The cyanotype printmaking process is actually quite simple. And as with many printmaking, the possibilities of what can be created are limited only by your imagination. Below are the basic steps to creating a cyanotype print:

  1. Mix the cyanotype light-sensitive chemical solution
  2. Coat your paper/fabric/absorbent canvas with the mixed solution and allow to dry. This should be done in a room with no UV light.
  3. Store the prepared surface in a light-fast bag or box until you are ready to use it
  4. When ready, arrange your objects on your prepared canvas and place under a UV light source (sun or lamps).
  5. After the desired exposure time, remove the objects and wash your canvas in water.
  6. Once thoroughly rinsed, allow your print to dry

When objects (film negative/positive and/or 3D) are placed on your prepared canvas and exposed to UV light, a chemical reaction takes place. Once the exposure is complete, the placed objects removed and the canvas placed in water, the chemical reaction is stopped.

To create a cyanotype you will need the following:

  1. Light-sensitive chemical solution
  2. A canvas to receive your image
  3. Objects or film negative/positive
  4. UV light source
  5. Fresh water

Light-sensitive Chemical Solution

The light-sensitive chemical solution is mixed from two different chemicals – ammonium ferric citrate and potassium ferricyanide. The chemicals are purchased in individual preparations then combined to create the light-sensitive solution to coat, sponge or brush over your canvas.

Cyanotype Light-sensitive Chemical Solution

Your Canvas

I love paper – so paper is my primary canvas for making cyanotypes.

When using paper, you need to be confident that it will handle the washout stage – meaning it will handle some time in water without degrading or damaging the paper. I use various printmaking papers, and various weights. Japanese Ho-Sho papers work well. While I play and experiment I am using primarily Stonehenge White 245gsm. I recommend experimenting with different paper types – different paper textures will yield different results.

Cyanotpye can be done on fabric, ceramic surfaces and eggshells! As long as the canvas surface can absorb and hold the light-sensitive solution, as well as hold the final image after the washout.

Preparing your Canvas

The material you choose to use for your canvas can be just about anything that will absorb the light-sensitive chemical solution and then handle a water wash-out. In my studio I create cyanotype images with quality printmaking papers, fabric and eggshells. Watercolour paper will work. This is where experimenting with different surfaces can be a lot of fun. I will be experimenting with cyanotype on porcelain and timbers in the near future.

Once you have decided on your canvas material, apply an even coating of the light-sensitive chemical solution to that surface. I use a hake brush. A sponge will do well too.

A thin even coating is needed. I like to experiment here – I like to play with thick and thin applications. I try to get an even coverage over my canvas, and also play with painterly effects, splashes and brush marks on my canvas.

I do this in my studio in the evening and with low lighting. I have no artificial UV light source in my studio, so the regular studio lighting is fine to work with, as there is no UV light to expose the canvas.

Once your canvas is coated, leave it to dry then place in a light-fast bag until you are ready to expose it.

What is a Hake brush?

A hake brush is an oriental-style wash brush on a long flat handle. The brush bristles, normally goat hair, are bound into the flat, natural wood handle, with fine wire. These brushes are ideally suited for painting large areas of color, for wetting large surfaces, and for absorbing excess media, washes and glazing.

Hake brush for cyanotype

Objects for the Exposure

I use many different objects to create my images.

  • Film negatives and film positives printed both on my own laserprinter and inkjet printer, using compatible transparent film
  • Commercially printed cellophane used to wrap floral bunches. The graphic shapes and bold contract of black against clear cellophane give strong graphic results.
  • Organic matter such as leaves, flowers and branches branches
  • Other 3D objects such as feathers, shells, glass, lace, papers or just about anything that will fit on your surface and block of filter UV light will work.
  • And this is where you can really experiment with different objects and exposure times to create interesting, spontaneous and unpredictable results.

I place the objects on my canvas, preparing the arrangement in my dimly lit studio. Once I am happy with the arrangement I place the canvas on a table in full sun.

I like to place a sheet of glass over my objects to keep them in place and as close as possible to the canvas. The closer the object, the less UV light that can filter in around the object, then the sharper the image. Sometimes I use a sheet of loose plastic or acetate to protect my objects from the wind, but allowing space between them and the surface.

Again, this step invites a lot of experimentation to see what sort of results can be achieved with different materials and different arrangements.

Recent exposures using feathers, flowers, lace and lace paper

UV Light Source

UV light is Ultra Violet light. The natural source for UV light is the sun. Special light bulbs can also produce UV light as an artificial but controlled environment. I like to use the sun as my UV light source.

Using a UV lightbox with a controlled UV light source will allow you control and recreate cyanotype prints.

Using the sun as your light source can create some unexpected and delighful results. Different times of day and different times of the year will produce different intensities of UV light – and this will have a direct impact on the exposure times required to achieve the final result you want.

I have used midday sun, morning sun and the afternoon sun. The more you play with the process yourself you will get a feel for how long to expose your canvas at different times of day for different results. In summer, where I live, I can use the sun from 9am-4pm with consistent results.

Add to a sunny day some clouds, and longer exposure times, and the final colour and exposed image can take on a new look and feel.

I have been experimenting with ‘wet cyan’ and long exposures on overcast days. But more on that in another article.

UV light source - the sun

Cyanotype Washout

This is where you stop the chemical reaction and your image will start to reveal itself.

Water will stop the UV light reaction with the light-sensitive solution. Once you  have reached the desired exposure time, remove the object/s from your canvas and place the canvas in water.

This could be under running water in a tub, sink or from a hose. Or immerse your canvas in a tub of water.

From once the objects are removed to the final washed out image you will see your image transform. Depending how long you left it exposing, and the intensity of the UV light source, the image may show strong dark blue with yellow/green highlights, or pale yellow/neutral tones. As the water works with the surface of your canvas, the typical blue will reveal itself on the canvas surface.

Watch the colours change during the washout stage

So What’s Next?

Play! I am experimenting! I am playing with wet cyanotype and applying the cyanotype process to other surfaces. Last week I played with cyanotype on eggshells. I am also playing with wet cyanotype, experimenting with toning and colouring the cyanotype prints, and mixing other wet and dry elements into the exposures for interesting results. Watch this space … I’ll document more experiments over time.

Experimenting with Wet Cyanotype and printing on eggshells ... watch this space!

Cyanotype Workshops

I am running 1 and 2 day cyanotype workshops in Maleny, up in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland. In these workshops you will learn how to create your own cyanotypes and leave armed with a shopping list of what to buy where so you can continue to play with cyanotype at home or in your own studio.

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Showing 12 comments
  • anne clague

    Thank you for this information . I have had success with cyanotype on paper but am attempting to print a silk scarf . it is difficult to dry a long piece of fabric so I laid the printing material(feathers) on the wet surface and left it . Being winter it was still damp when I removed the feathers but the silk had changed colour significantly. I thought this would be enough . on rinsing the fabric I was left with a delicate shade of the palest blue and only a hint of the prin!. Question does the surface have to be dry initially to take the print? thank you so much best wishes anne

    • Kim Herringe

      Hi Anne, I don’t have too much experience with cyanotype on fabric – yet! I suspect that maybe there is a coating or something on the silk that is stopping the fibre from absorbing the chemical. I did some cyanotype on unglazed porcelain a while ago – the colours changes went to plan during the exposure, but washed out almost completely at the washout stage. I put that down to the fact that the porous porcelain held the chemical, but didn’t absorb it, therefore if was washout out very easily. Did that make sense? I find the same on egg shells. Its tricky to get the timing of exposure and washout right so that you don’t lose all of the blue. And I have found that the egg shells fade over a series of weeks too.

      Being wet to start will dilute the chemical on the fabric – and produce some different and interesting colour results. Try it with dry silk. And/or try washing the silk first, or try some different silks.

      I am planning a lot of experimentation through December, so I’ll comment back here when I have some more useful information for you. I’d love for you to share any findings you make in your own workings.

    • charlotte

      Hi Anne,

      you are correct, try drying the silk first in a dark room before exposing the print on to it. You shouldn’t have a problem then getting the sharp image.

      • Kim Herringe

        Thanks Charlotte. I had a play with cyanotype on silk and cotton in February. yummy! I didn’t pre-wash anything, but I did let the solution dry overnight. I don’t have a cupboard space to dry it in, so I left it outside by moonlight, bought is an packed away once dried, then used it the next day. This link will take you to a Facebook post where I uploaded some cyanotype prints on silk. Some are straight cyanotype, some are wet cyanotype.

  • Courtenay

    In your feathered images with the circles, did you do that with oil pastel, wax, liquid latex or something? Really great read – thanks.

    • Kim Herringe

      Hi Courtenay, I love working with lace papers with my cyanotype. The circles on that print are made with a lace paper that I then placed feathers on top of. I buy the papers from an art store. The lace papers are delicate and prettier than paper doillies.

  • Rafa

    Do you have any tips on how to keep the paper flat – like a nice “photo-print”. After washing it in water after exposure?

    • Kim Herringe

      Hi Rafa, I like to dry my prints between layers of towel or newsprint. That helps keep them flat. Otherwise I will iron them, ironing the back side of the print. I also find, that once dried, and when I store them in folders, they flatten naturally then too. I store my work in large folders with plastic sleeves – there is a fair amount of weight in them so that helps flatten them out too. I hope that helps. cheers, Kim

  • gretchen vos

    Is there a way to draw an image on some kind of acetate or plastic (with sharpies?) and place that on top of treated paper? I’d like to do this with 6th grade students!

    • Kim Herringe

      Hi Gretchen, yes, absolutely! You can buy acetate film the will take ink and sharpie drawings beautifully, but it can be expensive for a pack of 20 sheets. Your school may be able to get hold of it form school suppliers. But have a go drawing onto some cheaper acetate sheets. If it holds – all you have to do is place the acetate over the cyanotype solution coated paper, make sure the acetate has good contact with the paper (so no light gets in between the drawn lines and the paper itself), then expose. This is a perfect project to do with students to introduce them to playing with cyanotype 🙂

  • Tommy Bennett

    Enjoyed your article. I haven’t made any prints yet but. I am waiting for my chemicals to come in. I want to try printing on hand made paper. I think I would like being able to produce everything part of the print.

    • Kim Herringe

      Hi Tommy, cyanotype would look beautiful on hand made paper. The only thing to be mindful of is how well the paper will hold up during the washout. Handmade papers generally have short fibres so may tear or fall apart in the water. Give it a go as you might with any other paper to see how it holds up. It might help to back the paper on to some acetate or something to help hold it together during washout. I’d love to see what you create. Please share 🙂

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work in progress for After Dark, a new printmaking exhibition