Cyanotype Adventures

We offer classes and workshops at the Roswell Museum and Art Center in a variety of topics, from painting to tai-chi. While I generally stick with the ceramics classes myself, I did recently participate in a marvelous cyanotype workshop by David Emtt Adams, the photographer behind Power.

Anna Atkins, print from Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1843. Image courtesy of

Cyanotypes have been around since the 19th century, and are recognized for their brilliant blue color. They are photograms, which means they are made without a camera. Instead, you set objects on top of paper that has been coated with light-sensitive chemicals. When exposed to light, the chemicals darken, while the opacity of the object on top protects the areas it covers. When rinsed, the chemicals unaffected by the sun wash away while the sun-exposed chemicals turn blue, resulting in a bright while impression against a blue ground. The process is not unlike creating a silkscreen, which also relies on photo-sensitive chemicals.

 Among the first photographers to make use of the process was Anna Atkins, who published a book documenting British algae species in 1843. It was also used well into the 20th century to make architectural blueprints.  I've always loved these prints for their intense color and historical associations with natural history, so when I saw that David was going to teach a workshop before deinstalling his exhibition, I signed up for it.

The first step to making a cyanotype is to mix the chemicals. In this case, they're ammonium iron (iii) citrate and potassium ferricyanide (you can buy them here). We mixed them in a one-to-one ratio, which made the process really simple. The chemicals themselves are relatively harmless but can stain, so if you're trying this process for yourself you should either wear gloves or wash your hands often. Having only seen finished cyanotypes, I was surprised to learn that the chemical mixture starts out a bright yellow-green. When you're mixing, be sure to work in a dark space, lest the chemicals begin processing prematurely.

Once you mixed the chemicals, pour a small amount on the paper you're printing with, about nickel to quarter-sized, and use a foam brush or similar tool to evenly coat the sheet. Then you let it dry, either on its own or with a hair dryer. Since the chemicals are light sensitive you should keep the conditions as dark as possible. Once it's dry you've got about 2-4 hours to finish you prints.

Once your printing sheet is dry, choose a flat object you'd like to print, such as a leaf, and put it on the paper. Given their historical association with natural history and botany, cyanotypes remain a popular means of printing organic objects such as leaves and flowers, but you can pretty much use anything that's flat, including mesh, cut paper, and so forth.

Next, cover the paper with Plexiglas, set the sheet on a piece of cardboard or foamcore, and pin it down with clips. All of this helps to keep the object flat against the paper, providing as much opacity as possible. Ideally you should go for a piece of Plex and support that's bigger than the paper, otherwise the clips will show up in your print.

Once you've secured your print, set it out in the sun for 15-25 minutes or so, depending on how intense the sunlight is. I live in New Mexico, so I can count on bright sunshine for over 300 days a year, but it might be different where you live. After your print has been outside, bring it back it and set it in a water bath. The chemicals will have turned from bright green to a dull gray yellow, but once you set it in water it will begin to turn blue.

After the print has been immersed in water for a few minutes, submerge it in a bath of hydrogen peroxide. This accelerates the chemical process, turning the print a deep indigo blue in a matter of seconds. If you prefer a lighter blue, you can skip this step. If you do immerse it, put it in a second water bath for about 15 minutes, then pull it out to dry.

Here are some of the prints I made:

This one came out a little too light, but it was the first attempt.

I was surprised at how easy this process really is. Having been invented in the 1840s, the chemicals and the ratios required to make it happen are well established. Sun print kits have made it even easier, if you want to avoid brushing it on altogether. My understanding is pretty basic, you can change the color of the print through bleaching and other techniques, for instance, but I definitely want to keep exploring it. 

In fact, the next day I began painting flowers and grasses onto the prints, combining photograms with drawn images:

I'm always amazed at how much learning a new process can recharge your creativity. It's a welcome change from established routines, and has helped me to see old sketches and drawings I thought I'd never use through fresh eyes. I'm already experimenting with some new cyanotypes I made recently, so keep an eye out for that in the future.