Cyanotype basics: Making prints with light

Trendspotters tell us analog photography is back—shooting with film is cool again. And as long as we’re going retro, why not go alllllllllll the way back to cyanotype? One of the earliest forms of photography, it requires a couple of chemicals, paper (or another flat surface), household objects, and some sunlight and results in a contact print in a vivid blue. Hallmark photographer Kevin C. showed us how simple it is. 

Objects to use in making cyanotype prints

WHY TRY CYANOTYPE

Cyanotype is a really simple technique, and you get results very quickly. 

The cool thing is that it’s not just for artists. When I started photography, it was the very first class you took. Before you loaded up your camera and went through the whole development process, you did this simple form where you just use the chemicals and go out in the sun, then you put the paper in water and an image comes up…and it’s magic. 

Flowers, shoes, and fans to use in making cyanotype prints

Cyanotype print making supplies: trays, frames, chemicals, lamp

SUPPLIES FOR CYANOTYPE

  • SIMPLE, ICONIC OBJECTS
  • SOMETHING TO PRINT ON: PAPER (WATERCOLOR PAPER GIVES NICE RESULTS), FABRIC, PLAQUES
  • CYANOTYPE CHEMICAL SET*
  • JAR, OR AN OLD BOWL OR CUP
  • TWO-INCH PAINT BRUSH
  • HAIR DRYER
  • OR JUST USE PRE-TREATED PAPER
  • OPTIONAL: GLASS AT LEAST AS LARGE AS YOUR PRINT (LIKE FROM A FRAME)
  • WORK LIGHT WITH A UV BULB
  • SHALLOW TRAY OR CONTAINER LARGER THAN YOUR PRINTS, FILLED WITH WATER
  • CLOTHESLINE OR DRYING RACK

*Because “chemical set” sounds scary, here’s an explanation: It’s a two-part solution. Part A is ferric ammonium citrate, and Part B is potassium ferricyanide. Neither poses a serious health risk unless you’re one of the few who would have an allergic reaction to the chemistry. Ferric ammonium is often found in iron and vitamin supplements. Potassium ferricyanide only becomes a risk if heated to 300 degrees or is combined with an acid. (So, you know, don’t do that.)

Keys for use in cyanotype workshop

Objects to use in making cyanotype prints

I tell people to bring simple objects. Favorite flowers, tools, buttons, fabric, lace…anything translucent is really fun. Try the types of things that are fun to put on a piece of paper and get a silhouette. This exercise is all about experimentation.

Botanicals are very popular. It’s a beautiful form, and you can really concentrate on the shapes. If a flower’s petals are translucent, it really comes through and has a nice feel. 

Exposing cyanotype prints under UV light

CYANOTYPE, STEP BY STEP

  • Measure equal amounts of parts A and B in a small, nonmetallic container, such as an old bowl or cup. It’ll be good for a couple of hours after mixing together. 
  • Working in a low-light area, brush your paper (or fabric, or whatever) with the mixture—it’ll turn a real slight yellowish tone. (The light should be subdued because the chemical is sensitive to daylight.)
  • If you want to move a little faster, dry your material with a hairdryer.
  • Once it’s dry, arrange your objects on the printing material. If you’re using botanicals or something delicate, like lace, you can put a piece of glass on top to keep things in place. 

Exposing cyanotype print under UV light

  • Turn out the lights and turn on the UV lamp to expose your print—it should be directly over your print. Leave it under the lamp for about 15 minutes, or place it in the sunlight for five minutes.
  • Remove the objects, and “develop” your print in a tray filled with water. Wash it for a few minutes—the image should appear like magic.
  • Hang it to dry on a clothesline or drying rack.

Cyanotype workshop at Hallmark photo studio

Developing a cyanotype print in water

Drying cyanotype prints

I’ve taught this class three times—to high school kids, too. Kids really get into it. 

You can get on YouTube or Google and see all kinds of samples and examples of ways to do this—tint the colors, find different surfaces you can work with. It’s endless. The basics we use are just the beginning.

Cyanotype workshop results

CHANGING THE COLOR OF YOUR PRINTS

The common color is cobalt blue—a really strong, blue color. You can put hydrogen peroxide—about three tablespoons—in the water to get a deeper, richer hue. 

And you can soak your paper or fabric in coffee or tea before you paint it with the chemicals to change the color.

Cyanotype workshop results

Cyanotype workshop results

NEXT-LEVEL CYANOTYPE PRINTS

I was exploring ways to use photos I shot to create cyanotype prints. You could use any kind of artwork. I printed them on overhead projection film—ran them through a copier. Sandwich that in glass, then expose and develop it the same way.

You’re making a negative, so you may have to play around with the curves in a photo editing app to make the image light enough to work. You can also try inverting your image from positive to negative—sometimes that’s more striking.

And you may need to flip the image, or just turn over the transparency, so the image comes out the right way.

Cyanotype workshop results

There’s a huge resurgence of young people today trying analog photography. I think it has a lot to do with working with your hands, not just pushing a button. I get a great deal of satisfaction from working with my hands. And you can always scan a cyanotype print and play with mixed media—using the old way and the new way. It’s all up to your imagination. 

OK, so will you try it? We’d love to see the results! Tag us on Instagram at @think.make.share or share on our Facebook page.

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