Artist and teacher Christina Z. Anderson refers to cyanotypes (also known as Sun prints) as a “gateway drug” for alternative photography. As in, stick a toe in that deep blue ocean and next thing you know you’ve turned your basement into a dim room, McGyvered a UV exposure box out of an old tanning lamp, and Googled information on locations with the greatest number of sunny days per year. Cheap, easy, flexible, relatively non-toxic, cyanotype combines fun with surprising beauty.
EMULSIVE already has an excellent how-to on making cyanotype prints with digital negatives using a UV light source other than the sun, and there are countless online resources about how to make cyanotype prints.
This is not a how-to. It is a why. Here’s what I cover:
The WHY of Cyanotype
Cyanotype is an excellent medium for exploring some elemental aspects of photography. I think of cyanotypes in comparison to traditional darkroom prints as photography with lenses is to pinhole: a way to strip away the gear and the tech and consider how light behaves. They are a dance of light and time.
While I will eventually bring this around to using cyanotype with digital or analog negatives, I want to start where the mother of cyanotype art Anna Atkins started, with simple solargrams.
What is a solargram?
A solargram is any image created by placing an object on top of a support (usually paper) that has been made UV-light sensitive, and then putting it out in the sun to expose. Because cyanotype lends itself well to this process, many solargrams are also cyanotypes. But not all! Solargrams made on photographic enlarging paper are often called lumen prints, and have a special appeal all their own.
The cyanotype process was discovered by Sir John Herschel in 1842. Atkins’ family were neighbors and friends of Herschel. And Atkins learned of the process early on. Over a period of years, she used cyanotype to create “British Algae, Cyanotype Impressions”; three volumes and hundreds of images, considered the first published work to use a photographic process for scientific illustration.
A solargram is the image the results when an object is placed in contact with a UV-sensitized support – usually paper or fabric – and exposed to the sun. The image has characteristics of a negative – the parts of an object that allow light to pass through will go dark, those that block it stay light. A solargram will be chronically lacking in detail in those areas where the light cannot go.
With this in mind, you should think about what will work and be fun. Poke around in the woods, in a field, in your kitchen cupboard and the drawer that holds all the unsortable stuff of your life. Will the light go through or around it, in some places at least?
Here are some things I have tried, with happy results: bits of lace fabric, maple syrup, rock salt, dead bugs, feathers, a bird’s nest, dandelion and milkweed fluff, thin sliced grapefruit, old eyeglasses, the shed skin of a garter snake, “paper” from a paper wasps’ nest.
Things that are wet or moist can be separated from the cyanotype support by a thin sheet of clear plastic or glass. Thin, lightweight materials can be weighed down by a top sheet of glass, to ensure closer contact and a clearer image.
And what about your support, your print medium? You will get an image on just about any type of paper that will allow the cyanotype solution to soak in – to some degree. Some wet strength is a requirement. Papers that are super-absorbent — like coffee filters and rice paper — need a longer time to dry but can provide some wonderfully deep blues. A good watercolor paper is perfect when you are feeling seriously artistic and want to spend the money.
Note: papers that are alkaline will react with the chemistry and give a dull, grayish tone. Fabriano Artistico is an example of this, so you may or may not want to stay clear of them in the beginning.
When starting out, I would say use something cheap enough that you are comfortable sensitizing lots of paper and experimenting with abandon.
A quick detour on coating your own paper…
I coat my papers in regular room light with a foam or soft bristle brush. I use pre-mixed cyanotype solutions from Photographer’s Formulary, and mix solutions A and B in a 1:1 dilution a few minutes before coating.
Once coated, I put the paper in the dark to dry — in a drawer, under a cardboard box, hanging from a clothesline in the little bathroom with no window. Let your support dry thoroughly — damp areas will create spots later. Sensitized paper also holds up well stored in a black plastic envelope. Cyanotype formula keeps well but tends to grow mold, so run it through a coffee filter before using. I develop in two trays of water, but if you have running water, one tray with a trickle running through is perfect.)
Seeing vs recording
What about the difference between what we see, and what a particular process records? As a photographer, I am perpetually surprised by the distance between what I see and what I get. With solargrams, this distance is front and center.
Below is a solargram of a small glass jar partly filled with water and pink rock salt. The rising columns of darkness emerging from the bottom of the jar are how the cyanotype responded to sunlight passing through columns of saltier water rising from the dissolving salt crystals. An unexpected lesson in either optics or chemistry, I don’t know which.
The crispness of a solargram falls off sharply with distance. If there is not good contact between your materials and the support, there will be blurry areas. Is this a problem? Not always.
This is one of a set of old hand-painted, gilt-rimmed glasses I inherited from my grandfather. I sensitized some paper and taped it to the inside of the glass, and then exposed it.
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The result is a typical of cyanotype surprise: the horse and jockey have been stripped down to a kind of cave-painting simplicity of gesture, and the gilt edge of the glass has created a lightning streak over their heads.
Cyanotypes from (digital) negatives
The ease and simplicity of cyanotype make it a welcoming starting point for learning how to make digital negatives that suit your images and your artistic intent.
You are probably going to want to go bigger than the negatives you already have — though my first-ever cyanotype made with a negative was this little print I made from an old family photograph, probably once a tintype, that someone had re-photographed in 35 mm.
You do not need to print your negatives on transparent materials. Any smooth paper will do. A translucent paper like velum works well and helps keep exposure times within reasonable limits. A transparent material like Pictorico OHP or Fixxons (a very reasonably-priced option) will give you a shorter exposure time and a somewhat crisper image, but not every image wants to be crisp.
But be warned: paper negatives WILL require long exposures, sometimes an hour or more. It’s common to apply oil or wax to the back (so oil does not contact the cyanotype) of a paper negative to increase transparency. I oiled just part of the paper negative here to show the effect.
One advantage of using paper rather than transparency material is that you can, quite cheaply, go VERY BIG with your negative. One of my projects in Summer 2020 is going to be a giant cyanotype on an old door. I’ll let you know how it goes….)
In whatever photo-editing software you are comfortable with, the essential steps are these:
- First, adjust your image until you like how it looks. Often it helps to convert your image to black-and-white, so you are looking at a monochrome image as you make your adjustments.
- Invert it, and flip it on its horizontal axis so that when you make your print, which you will do using the negative face-down on your paper, the image is properly oriented the way it was shot. (This is clearly most important if your image has any writing in it.)
- Finally, print it on whatever material you have chosen, and let it dry for at least an hour.
The steps for exposing and developing are the same as for a solargram.
- Coat your paper.
- Let it dry in the dark.
- Place your negative printed-side down on the paper.
I usually tape my negative in place before putting the negative/paper combo under glass. Use what you have!
If you are working with the sun, have a relaxed approach to time. Some images will take a long time, but even if the sun is not shining, they will eventually emerge.
I strongly recommend writing down relevant info on the back of each print:
- How long was your exposure?
- What time of day?
- Was it sunny, overcast, cloudy, mixed?
I do this before putting the exposed print in water to develop.
Another important thing I should mention before finishing up: you won’t be happy with every print.
…but every single one has something to teach you.
Sometimes when I look again at a print that I felt unhappy with, I find it has something to say. These young dancers impressed me with their focus and intensity, and I’ve come to see that the deep blues harmonize with that.
Mixing It Up
For me, a big part of the joy I get from cyanotype comes from the ease of making them in the first place. The process gives me permission to play. I can take old negatives, cut them into pieces, and combine them with objects to make a cyanotype collage. I can take a print that came out weak and wimpy and hand-color it with water-color pens.
I can lay an old round glass tabletop over a sensitized piece of cotton sheet strewn with wildflowers, and I can try to convince the dog to sit on top long enough to leave her shadow.
Sometimes my photographic practice frustrates me, as my pictures fall short of my imaginings. Mixing it up with cyanotype takes me back to the magic and the science of the many ways the world can be seen, illuminated by the sun.
If in doubt, be like Zen monkey.
Cyanotype and Solargram FAQs
What is a solargram?
What is a cyanotype?
What is a sun print?
What’s the difference between a solargram and a cyanotype?
Who created the cyanotype process?
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