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Cyanotype – the classic process

Writer / Malin Fabbri and Gary Fabbri
Photography / Malin Fabbri

Cyanotype process – a modified extract from the book Blueprint to cyanotypes describing the classic or traditional cyanotype process.

Always be careful when handling chemicals. Read the health and safety instructions.


Hang a cyanotype to dryUnlike photographs set in silver, like in black and white photography, cyanotypes are using a solution of iron compounds.

The photograph can be taken with a camera, like a digital camera, and the resulting photo turned into a negative that can be used to make a cyanotype.

The basic cyanotype recipe has not changed very much since Sir John Herschel introduced it in 1842. However, some advances have been made by Mike Ware in what is referred to as the New cyanotype process. Ware’s cyanotype formula has less bleed, shorter exposure times and a longer density range than Herschel’s, but it is also slightly more complicated to mix and uses more toxic chemicals.

The cyanotype process at a glance

The cyanotype process is simple. It can be done easily in a few steps:

Mixing chemicals
The cyanotype is made up of two simple solutions.

  • Potassium ferricyanide and Ferric ammonium citrate (green) are mixed with water separately.
  • The two solutions are then blended together in equal parts.

Preparing the canvas

  • Paper, card, textiles or any other naturally absorbent material is coated with the solution and dried in the dark.

Printing the cyanotype

  • Objects or negatives are placed on the material to make a print. The cyanotype is printed using UV light, such as the sun, a light box or a UV lamp.

Processing and drying

  • After exposure the material is processed by simply rinsing it in water. A white print emerges on a blue background.
  • The final print is dried and admired.

What you need

Before you start, get all the items you need together.

  • 25 grams of Ferric ammonium citrate (green)
  • 10 grams of Potassium ferricyanide
  • Water (distilled if possible)
  • Scale or measuring spoons
  • Measuring jug
  • 3 glass containers for mixing ingredients
  • Plastic spoons
  • Face mask (DIY style)
  • Goggles
  • Rubber gloves
  • Apron or old shirt
  • Newspaper to cover work surface
  • Cleaning cloth
  • Brushes or coating rod
  • Clothes pegs (plastic)
  • Washing line or rope (plastic)
  • Art paper or fabric for coating
  • Glass or a contact print frame
  • Sunshine or a UV light source

Mixing chemicals

Cyanotype is a very simple process. It involves treating a surface with iron salts that reacts to UV light. Wear a face mask and rubber gloves when working with chemicals. In this case, Ammonium ferric citrate and Potassium ferricyanide. Two separate solutions are made and then equal quantities of each solution is mixed together in a third container.

The formula

This recipe makes approximately 50 8×10 inch prints. The cyanotype is made up of two simple solutions:

  • Solution A: 25 grams Ferric ammonium citrate (green) and 100 ml. water.
  • Solution B: 10 grams Potassium ferricyanide and 100 ml. water.

1Mixing cyanotype chemicalsMixing the chemicals
Dissolve the chemicals in water to make two separate solutions. Add Ammonium ferric citrate to water into one container and Potassium ferricyanide to water in another. Stir with a plastic spoon until the chemicals dissolve. Mix equal quantities of each solution together in a third container. Unused solutions can be stored separately in brown bottles away from light, but will not last very long once they have been mixed. Dispose of any unused chemicals in a sensible and environmentally friendly way!
 
Your work area
Your floors, carpets, walls, work surfaces, clothes and skin can be stained by the chemicals. Cover all possible areas, use rubber gloves and an apron or an old shirt to work in. If you have the space, choose an area where you can spread out. Ordinary light bulbs or tungsten light is safe to use, but UV light will affect your prints. Some fluorescent lighting may also affect your prints.

2Coating cyanotype paperPreparing the canvas
Using a brush, simply paint the chemicals onto the material. Paper, card, textiles or any natural material can be used to print on. Decide how big your print is going to be, and cut your material to size. Make sure your working area is dimly lit, or lit with a low-level tungsten bulb. Once the material is coated, leave it to dry in the dark.

3Exposing a digital negative on cyanotypePrinting the cyanotype
Print a cyanotype by placing your negative (to reproduce a photograph) or object (to make a photogram) in contact with your coated paper or fabric. Sandwich it with a piece of glass. Expose the sandwich to UV light. Natural sunlight is the traditional light source, but UV lamps can also be used. A photogram can also be made by placing items on the surface. Plants, decorative items or other objects can be used to create silhouettes or interesting shapes. Exposure times can vary from a few minutes to several hours, depending on how strong your lightsource is or the season where you are printing.

4Processing and drying
When the print has been exposed, process your print by rinsing it in cold water. The wash also removes any unexposed chemicals. Wash for at least 5 minutes, until all chemicals are removed and the water runs clear. Oxidation is also hastened this way – bringing out the blue color. The final print can now be hung to dry and be admired.

Good luck!

Beginners guide to cyanotypesBlueprint to cyanotypes – Exploring a historical alternative photographic process
by Malin Fabbri and Gary Fabbri
A well illustrated step-by-step guide to cyanotypes.
 
A lot more information on the process, chemicals, coating, exposure, printing, making negatives, washing and troubleshooting is available in this book.
 
Strongly recommended for beginners

59 thoughts on “Cyanotype – the classic process

  1. Hello! I want to make large cyanotype images of my naked body onto fabric (Currently studying Fine Art in University if that explains anything haha!), and I don’t exactly live in a private area so I don’t want to be bathing naked in the sun where my neighbours can see me!
    Is there alternative solution to developing the image from UV light in-doors? I’m not sure if the bulbs I can buy on websites like Amazon or eBay are strong enough or legitimate UV Bulbs for obvious reasons (i.e. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Black-lightbulb-violet-energy-Bayonet/dp/B000L97W74). Would I even be able to use these kind of bulbs just to make smaller projects?

    Any advice would be much appreciated! Thank you

  2. Hi, could you please help me? I was trying with paper, when it’s exposed it looks good, but then i washed it and it washes basically everything even the blue and the picture disappears. Can the paper be a problem?
    Thanks

  3. Hi Blanka,

    I have not had trouble…
    Are you using pre-sensitised paper or are you painting on the cyanotype solution yourself?
    If you are painting it on yourself, perhaps you don’t have the correct chemical ratios.
    Are you painting it on in the dark and leaving it until it is completely dry before exposing to sunlight?
    I have had the best results with a heavy textured watercolour paper.

  4. Do the sensitizing chemicals need to “cure” for a certain length of time before mixing and using on fabric?

  5. Can anyone comment on what affects the intensity of the blue color in a cyanotype? Today I created three images. Same paper, same exposure time in the same UV exposure unit. The paper was coated about 11am, and I made the first print around 1:30. By 2:30, all three prints were done. The coating in each case was 12 drops each of Solutions A & B, taken from the same containers with the same uncontaminated eyedroppers (one dedicated to each solution). Each bottle of solution was well-shaken each time it was used. All three digital negatives were made by the same process, and printed on the same type of film by the same printer. The coating on the dried sheets, when pulled out of my dark drying area were yellowy-green – none appeared to be fogged. One of the prints is a rich, dark blue. The other two are anemic, even around the edges where absolutely nothing was printed on the film. Even the brushstrokes that extend beyond the area covered by the film are anemic. Any ideas?

  6. I am using cyanotype for the first time to print my Christmas Cards.
    What will be the difference between using tap water or distilled?

    How do I stop the prints fading?

  7. @Sally-Jane. That is a nice idea.
    Tap water vs distilled: I have not done an archival test to test tap vs distilled, but unless your water contains a lot of strange chemicals, use ordinary tap water. To rinse in distilled water would take a lot of water. If your water contains a lot of chemicals, you may want to mix the solutions with distilled water though.
    Keeping from fading: You can use a UV-spray to extend the non-fading time. If a cyanotype fades, the beauty of it is that you can put it back in the dark and it will come back. Magic!
    Good luck.

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