I hope that through this article, I’ll be able to convince you that cyanotypes can be done on a tight budget and without access to sunlight. Yes, even if you live in Mordor where the sun never shines.
Below, I’ll describe the process I use to make cyanotypes in 3 steps. I don’t pretend to be the ultimate expert or the sole keeper of truth, and if you have suggestions for an alternative or improved process, feel free to contribute with a civil comment below.
First, a quick word on safety…
The chemicals used to make cyanotypes are no more dangerous than most common household cleaning supplies, and even less dangerous than some. Nevertheless, please allow common sense to prevail, and handle them with care. You don’t want to eat, drink, inhale, cover your skin with or put any of the chemistry in your eyes.
- Work in a well-ventilated area.
- When mixing liquid chemicals, I recommend using gloves (I prefer nitrile ones, but latex ones are OK in most cases) and safety goggles.
- Wearing a mask is probably overkill unless you use powdered chemistry to make your solutions. In this case, it is recommended to at least use a dust protection mask.
- Wear some old clothes or some protective clothing like an apron or lab coat.
In this article, I will only talk about getting a cyanotype print on paper from a negative. but you can also make photograms/solargrams or print on fabric. I’ve never tried the latter but I may make some cotton tote bags for EMULSIVE Santa this year if my future tests are conclusive.
Here’s how this article breaks down.
Step 1: Selecting and preparing your image
Your first step is obviously to choose an image to print. Unless you already have your image as a film negative of the perfect size you want to print, you’ll have to create a digital negative. This is a fancy way of saying you will need to convert a scan into a digital file and print it as a negative on a transparent piece of acetate or something similar.
I use only black and white images as my source. If you choose to use a colour picture, you’ll have to add another step to convert it to black and white first.
I’ll demonstrate this process using XnViewMP (its batch conversion tool is really useful). You may use any other appropriate software if you prefer:
The steps are as follows:
- Select your image(s).
- Select Batch Convert.
- In the Actions tab, add actions for Negative and then Mirror (horizontal).
- Select your options in the output tab, then click Convert.
It’s worth stating that your image will probably work better if it’s a bit contrasty. Some people also improve their negatives to achieve better cyanotype prints. I don’t do this but invite you to refer to the further reading and resources section at the foot of this article for more information.
Once you have your JPG, PNG, TIF, etc., you now need to print it onto your transparent sheet. Depending on the printer I’ll use, I’ll get cheap A4 inkjet or laser printer ones from office supplies sellers. I have never had any issues with for example, Office Depot branded ones, but if you want to splurge for higher quality and more expensive photo quality one, I’d be interested in a comparison.
Bear in mind:
- You should keep your sheet dry. I had situations where the ink didn’t want to stay put if wet.
- Laser-printed transparencies can become wavy/warped due to the heat from the printing process. I’ve not noticed issues on the cyanotype prints if the “print sandwich” is properly assembled.
With your digital negative (fancy!) ready, it’s time to start on the fun part.
Gloves on, please.
Step 2: Selecting or preparing your cyanotype paper
There are three very simple options open to you:
- Buy pre-coated cyanotype paper (easy but boring, and probably more expensive). I will not talk about this option any further here, sorry.
- Buy one of many pre-mixed cyanotype solutions and coat your base paper yourself (easy and affordable).
- Buy powder chemicals, mix the solutions and coat paper yourself (still pretty easy and more affordable if you expect to print a lot).
Assuming you’ll be coating your own papers (option 2 or 3 above), you’ll need to follow the steps below.
Selecting your paper
You can use many different kinds of papers as the base for your cyanotype solution (experiments). Probably the most suitable is aquarelle. I prefer to use a fine grain, smooth textured paper and settled on this one from Clairefontaine.
It’s great but it’s not the cheapest option, so I’d try alternatives if I was on a tight budget.
Preparing stock solutions
If you are using a pre-mixed solution, jump to this section.
To mix the cyanotype chemistry yourself per option 3 above, you will need to prepare two solutions, A and B. For 250ml of each, you will need:
Pour 200ml of de-mineralized/distilled water at 20°C in a suitable bottle labelled “A”. A dark glass or opaque plastic container with a good seal will do. Next, add 50g of ammonium citrate (green), add water to make a total solution of 250ml.
For Solution B
Pour 200ml of de-mineralized/distilled water at 20°C in a suitable bottle labelled B, add 20g of potassium ferricyanide, add water to make a total solution of 250ml.
Both solutions can be prepared under ambient light. Once mixed, wait for 24 hours before use.
Solutions A and B have a good shelf life once opened if they are stored in a cool dark place. If some mold develops in the solutions after some time, pouring them through a coffee filter before use should do the trick. In fact, that’s what I do with the pre-mixed solutions I bought 2 years ago.
Coating your paper
Now that you have your solutions ready (homemade or ready-made), it’s time to prepare the coating solution and coat your paper.
If you didn’t buy a pre-mixed kit with most of the needed materials, you’ll need:
- 2x small glasses (e.g. plastic disposable shot glasses): label them A and B respectively.
- 2x 10ml plastic syringes: label them A and B respectively.
- A small plastic container or bowl.
- An eye dropper.
- A foam brush or colour shaper brush (I prefer the colour shaper brush).
IMPORTANT: Do not allow the solutions to come into contact with metal objects, as it can create unintended results.
With your materials and solutions ready, follow these simple instructions:
- First, pour a small amount of solution A into one of the small glasses, then the same with solution B in the other.
- Use the syringes to measure the same volume of each solution and mix equal volumes of solutions A and B in the small container. (I usually need around 2ml of the mixed solution to coat a 24x30cm sheet of paper.)
- Leave the mixed solution to cure for a few minutes in a dark place.
- Once cured, use the eyedropper to drop the mixed solution on the paper. In my experience, ~ 7-8 drops are needed for a postcard size sheet of paper, and ~30 drops for a 24x30cm sheet.
- Use the colour shaper brush (or foam brush) to spread the solution as evenly as you can on the paper.
- Depending on the relative sizes of your negative, paper and your tastes, you can coat the whole sheet, or leave a 1-2cm margin uncoated (a straight margin or irregular brush strokes shaped, it’s your choice).
- Let the coated paper dry in a dark place (it will depend on your conditions, but in my experience, it takes 15-30 minutes). Some people recommend doing a second coating once the first has dried. Try it for yourself and see what gives you better results.
You should be able to store dried paper for some time in a light-tight container. I coat just before use, so if you try this, please tell me if it works for you.
Step 3: Making a cyanotype print
Time to prepare your “print sandwich”! Load your coated paper and negative in your contact printer. No contact printer, no problem (keep reading).
A contact frame for the masses…if you don’t have a fancy contact printer, here is the cheap solution I use:
- An MDF wood board from a hardware store about 2cm larger on each side than the size of my sheet of coated paper. In my case, 28x34cm for my 24x30cm paper.
- A piece of regular glass (also from a hardware store), same size as the MDF board. It should also work with non-reflective glass, and maybe even with plexiglass but I’ve not tried it.
- Four big paper clips/clamps from an office supplies store.
- Optional: some blue tack to stick the coated paper to the MDF.
If you want to limit the risk of cutting yourself on the glass, smooth the edges with a quick pass with sandpaper. Or not. Your call.
With everything together, the order of your cyanotype sandwich should be:
- Backing board/base.
- Paper (coated side up).
- Negative/digital negative (emulsion side down, in contact with the paper).
- Glass sheet.
Now, since the basis of this article is to show you how to create a cyanotype print without sunlight, we’re going to need an alternative UV source.
Hacking together a “sun”
You can buy or build some fancy UV sources (see Further reading below), but if you want to do it on the cheap, you can get a secondhand tanning lamp or repurpose a small nail varnish curing lamp like I did.
My UV lamp has an opening large enough to insolate a postcard-size cyanotype. To insolate bigger prints, I built a light trap/extender out of foamcore and sheer determination. Here’s the set-up:
…and if you want to see a video of the light trap/extender in action:
It’s pretty simple to put one together, and if you want to build one you will need:
- 2x 25x34cm rectangular foamcore boards.
- 2x 28×15,7cm trapezoidal foamcore boards.
- Tinfoil (from your hat).
- Some glue and tape.
It’s ugly, but it is light, is stored easily, cheap, and with the nail varnish curing lamp, will insulate a 24x30cm sheet of paper in 15 minutes.
Let there be light
With your “sun” now built, point the glass part of your contact frame towards the UV source, and insulate for as long as needed. You’ll have to experiment but exposure times range from a few minutes with an artificial source of suitable power, to a few hours if the sun is not too bright.
Once you’ve made your exposure, you will need to develop the print. To do this, remove the paper from your frame/sandwich and wash it under running water for 5-15 minutes.
Alternatively, first dunk your paper in a solution of water and acetic acid and agitate for a few minutes, then wash it for 10-15 minutes in running water. I prefer this method, but try and compare for yourself. My “acetic acid” is common 8° white alcohol vinegar mixed 1 part of vinegar with 3 parts of water.
Any plastic basin can be used to wash your prints, provided it’s a bit bigger than your sheet of paper. I prefer to use darkroom printing trays, but I’ve done it in plastic basins, my kitchen sink and even in a bucket. (I don’t recommend the bucket, it’s impractical and can give uneven development if you don’t stay around to agitate the print the whole time.)
Once the print is properly washed, let it dry for between half a day and a day and then flatten it under a pile of books for a few days: you now have a cyanotype to share for the #CyanotypesPrintParteh.
What else can you make prints from aside from negatives? Lots of things! You could try solargrams / photograms with feathers and leaves, people or even algae like the famous Anna Atkins. You could try cyanotype printing on cloth like ready-coated bandanas, or trying to coat t-shirts or tote bags yourself (I will try this myself soon).
If you feel like playing the mad scientist, there is also much to try with toning and changing the colours of your cyanotypes from the typical blue to something else. Here are a few examples of mine – both “normal” and toned.
If you reached this stage of the article reading all of the above, congratulations! I hope that I convinced you that cyanotype is quite an easy process to experiment with, and can be done without breaking the bank.
Most important: cyanotypes are fun!
They’re also quick to learn. After an afternoon, you will have a feel for the basics, what changes when you increase/decrease your UV exposure time, how the contrast of your negative affects the result and hopefully, what you want to experiment with next. You can choose to stay lo-fi, or go fullly analytical and build accurate printing curves to “scientify” the process: your choice 🙂
The main thing I would say is to get out there and try, then see where the process takes you.
Thanks for reading. Links and resources follow below!
Further reading and resources
Here is a selection of tools, suppliers and resources on cyanotype printing I found or were shared by some Twitter pals. This is far from an exhaustive list, of course!
- XnViewMP: the free software I use for most simple batch editing.
- Disactis: French supplier of chemicals and lab equipment for alternative photographic processes.
- Spiral camera: maker of printing frames and UV printing units.
- How to build your own UV lightbox: option A, option B (in French), option C (in French),
- Extracts from The Book of Alternative Processes: 3rd Edition by Christopher James: the sample on cyanotypes is very informative, and I definitely need to buy this book.
- A great article on cyanotype printing (in French).
- Several articles on cyanotype printing here.
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