A cyanotype is a type of photographic printmaking method where you use light sensitive chemicals to produce a cyan/white image.
Over the past 200 years, printmakers have used cyanotype printmaking for copying notes, printing botanicals, and so many more interesting things. Continue below to learn more about what exactly cyanotypes are and where they come from.
History of Cyanotypes
Cyanotypes were originally invented in 1842 by astronomer and scientist, Sir John Herschel. Herschel originally used his printing method to reproduce notes, but in 1843, botanist and friend, Anna Atkins used his same process to produce an album of algae specimens.
Cyanotype printing became a common process just three years after the invention of photography and still to this day is used by professionals and curious beginners as well!
How to Make a Cyanotype
- Dark Room Area
- Watercolor / Heavy Craft Paper (anything that can withstand water)
- Foam Brush / Paint Brush
- Glass Board / Contact Printing Frame
- UV Lightbox / Sunlight
- Water Tray / Sink / Hose for Washing Prints
Now that you have an idea of the equipment / tools you’ll need to make your own cyanotypes, lets get into the cyanotype printmaking process!
Step 1: Select Negatives / Objects To Print
To start out, you’ll need to decide what you’d like to print. You could use raw film negatives, transparency paper with basically any design on top, or even botanicals / items from the garden!
Once you’ve decided what you’ll be printing, this will help you out with understanding what size paper you’ll need.
Step 2: Mix Chemicals + Coat Your Paper
The next step is going to be getting the chemicals mixed together (equal amounts of both). Be sure to only mix as much as you’ll for this round of printing, because you don’t want to leave the pre-mixed chemicals sitting out for too long. (no more than 4 hours).
Once properly mixed, in a room with subdued light, apply the chemical onto your paper using a foam brush. Be sure to evenly coat the paper, leaving no bubbles or streak marks. Make sure to brush vertically and horizontally to ensure a smooth, even application of the light sensitive materials.
Step 3: Let Paper Dry (or experiment with wet cyanotype printing!)
After applying the light-sensitive chemicals to your paper, leave everything to dry for the next 10+ minutes in a completely dark room. Feel free to turn a fan on in the room to make for quicker drying times.
You can also try to experiment with wet cyanotype printing, but we’ll discuss that another day!
Step 4: Arrange Negatives / Botanicals on Paper
The last step before exposing your prints is organizing your negatives / botanicals onto your light-sensitive paper. This part is a little tedious because your paper has probably curled up while drying, and if you don’t have a contact printing frame like me, then you need to eyeball everything.
Regardless, you can use tape to hold your paper down if that’s easier. For me, I normally just lay my negatives on top of the paper and then place a piece of glass on top of everything to make sure it is all flat and pressed again the paper.
If your objects are not firm against the light-sensitive paper, then you will be printing the shadow of the image/object instead of the sharp detail in your negative.
Step 5: Expose Paper to Light
Now is the part where we start to really experiment!
Depending on whether you are using sunlight or a UV lamp your exposure times will definitely vary. I can tell you that anywhere from 3 mins. – 30 mins. should be good, but for my sunlight exposures I usually go with 15+ minutes. My UV lamp exposures I usually go for 30+ min exposures.
Things that all play a role in exposure time to be mindful of:
- distance from sunlight (closer to the equator will be less exposure time)
- weather (overcast will take longer)
- distance from UV bulb
- type of UV bulb
- amount of chemicals applied to the paper
Step 6: Wash Prints
Now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for – washing the prints to see what we got.
To wash out your prints, find a sink, hose, or small washing tray and place your print into the cool water as fast as possible after taking the negative off of the paper.
If you add a few drops of hydrogen peroxide, your prints will quickly change to that deep, cyan color you’re looking for; however using water will work just fine, too.
Step 7: Dry Prints
Once you’ve washed your prints for about 5 mins or until the water in your tray runs clear, hang dry the prints or place them on a drying rack.
Let them sit until completely dry over the next 12-24 hours. After 24 hours, your prints should be a full, bold cyan color.
Step 8: Review Prints + Record Data
The last step in your cyanotype printmaking process is to review all of your prints and record any data / new info that you learned.
For me, this batch of prints was quite experimental so I don’t want to forget what I learned. For example, here are some of my notes:
The prints below were created from a 10 min. sunlight exposure, using transparency paper negatives.
As you can see, the detail in the print is quite washed and would need a much longer exposure to see more detail. After reviewing other prints, this also could be caused by the low black point on the transparency negatives.
Next, the prints below (self portraits), were also developed using a 10 min. sunlight exposure; however, these prints were created with raw medium format BW negatives.
As you can see in the prints, there is much more detail and tonal range. The exposure time looks to be near correct; however I would add 5-10 mins for another round of experimentation to see if we can boost the shadows a bit.
One thing to look observe in this set of prints above is that they were created with raw negatives. After seeing the same 10 minute exposure not work for transparency paper, I can conclude that raw BW negatives have a much higher black point.
Lastly, as a fun project, I tried out using a small flower as well. This print below is an outdoor exposure for 15 mins and was created with a small flower.
There is not too much fact to conclude to, but in my opinion, I love the abstract qualities that this print offers, as well as the color fades. In the future I will experiment with moving the flower around during the exposure and also with longer / shorter exposures to see the differences.
To conclude our printmaking experimentation, we hope that you learned something interesting today and can find a way to apply it to your work!
It’s an incredible process and can be fun for everyone! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below, or check out our full video on how to make cyanotype prints!