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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!

Read more about cyanotypes
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

67 thoughts on “Cyanotype – the classic process

  1. I have been having problems the entire print is washed away during th wash process. I have tried various papers from the recommended paper list to no avail. I am wondering if there is something in the water that is bleaching the print. Our water is pretty tasty and has no strong chlorine smell.

    Any Ideas?
    Thanks,
    Pete.

  2. @Pete
    I’m assuming you can see the print when you have exposed it?
    I would try some problem elimination. First get a 100% cotton material, wash it, and then try printing on it. If that works, you know it’s the wrong paper you are using.
    Second I would try using distilled water. If that works, you know it’s the water you are using.
    Let us know how it works out!

  3. @Judy Garin
    To coat cyanotypes, or work with the chemicals, no extra ventilation is needed, though it’s always good to have sufficient ventilation for other reasons! You don’t need red light to prep either, a dimmed room light is fine. Just be careful with using tungsten light, or daylight. Good luck!

  4. What type of photographs that works best with cyanotypes depends a little on what you are after. You can print a very contrasty negative and get good effects, though cyanotypes are also capable of a wide range of mid tones.
    As far as the motif goes, I think architecture and symmetry works really well in cyanotype. If you like toning them sepia, then portraits and landscapes are working well too, but it’s very subjective, and depends on what you like.

  5. I, like Pete above have had problems developing the print on
    ready prepared cyanotype paper.
    The image is there and then when rinsed, it disappears!
    How do you fix it, please.
    I am using a pack of ‘sunography’ paper

  6. @Karen
    How long did you expose the image for? Was there a clear print (green or yellow) before you started rinsing it?

  7. hi,

    I tried it various times, some for 30mins ( cloudy day) some for less time.
    The impression before rinsing was a pale white with bluish surround

  8. The things to check when your print disappear:
    The material: is it natural (if you are using pre coated paper this SHOULD be fine). If you are printing on cloth, make sure it’s not any synthetics in it, also wash it beforehand to remove any starch.
    If you are using paper, it may be sized. To remove any sizing, use a white vinegar soak.
    The coating: Make sure there is no white light, sunlight or tungsten lights that may affect your print.
    The exposure: Make sure it’s long enough. As a test, try exposing for an hour or so, and see if the same thing happens.
    The wash: Is your water alkaline? Can you try rinsing somewhere else to compare the result?
    I hope this works!

  9. The book is very good to start up with cyanotype. I’ve used it a lot, actually it’s my 1st book in this topic.

  10. I have brought all the things needed to make a cyanotype and i will make a start on it next week. One question, do you think it would be pssible to make a cyanotyp by enlarging onto the sensitized paper as if it was normal photosensitive paper?

  11. @ Oliver:
    I have not tried this, the process needs UV light. I doubt it will work, but please try and let us all know!

  12. I really like the cyanotype print blue color that appears after about 5′ of washing (after exposure). For me, it is much richer than the dark blue that comes when the print dries. Is there any way to get this softer, lighter blue print as a final picture? Thanks

  13. I’ve been making cyanotypes for a few months now, and I seem to have a re-occuring problem. When I look at my finshed prints there is purple in places it should be white. My instructor said it was from my canvas not being dry, but we both made sure it was 100% dry before exposing it. What could it be then?

  14. I use a negative produced off of photo shop, printed on canvas and I left it outside for about 35-40 mins. Most of it look normal except for one area that just a vivid puple

  15. Hello all,
    do cyanotypes have to be strictly done with negatives for best effect or are there other ways to get a larger print,
    I thought maybe placing a transparent print instead of a neg?
    And if so, how would i go about finding a method/service that does this.
    Any info appreciated.

  16. How long can you wait to expose your paper after you have allowed the chemistry to dry? Some of my prepared papers ( I’m coating 100% cotton paper ) are turning green overnight. What is the ideal amount of time between coating and exposing?

  17. @Tommy
    Most literature says you should expose the day after coating, or as soon as it’s dry enough. I am however doing some experiments on how long the coated paper will last. I keep it in a dark dry place and have so far used 5 year old paper with success. So, don’t feel too stressed about using the paper up right away! 🙂

  18. I just used this yesterday in a daring and dangerous camp we hold every summer. (All safety precautions were upheld.) It was great. A lot of the teens thought this was their favorite experiment of the day. I never imagined it would be so easy to make sunpaper. Thanks for posting the process!

  19. I am using 100% cotton and the print is just washing out. I’ve done this before but I bought the fabric pretreated. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. Help??

  20. I use this solution but when I brush it on the colour is a lot darker and bluer than the pictures show and I can’t figure out what went wrong.

  21. @Grace… the solution should be yellow or greenish when you brush it on. Blue when you have rinsed and a deeper blue after a day.

  22. Is it possible with a light fabric, like a silk scarf, to just dip the entire piece into a container of cyanotype solution (and maybe wring it out with gloves on?) rather than coating by brushing?

  23. I skimmed over all of these comments, but PEROXIDE is the ultimate blue booster. Once you put your print in some water with about a tablespoon of peroxide (don’t quote me on that) the blues just POP! Try it. It’s all an experiment anyway 🙂

  24. Should I use only a plastic spoon?
    I have stainless steel spoons. Do they affect the solutions?

  25. I have old cyanotypes that I made 30 years ago. They are fading. Someone told me that if I put them in the sunlight the blue would darken. Has anyone tried this? Someone else told me that if I put them in the dark they would darken – completely the opposite advice. I could experiment but I don’t want to damage the old images.
    Any ideas? Thanks

  26. Where can I buy the chemicals cheapest with Free or low UK postage? I’ve looked all over the place, I’m just looking for a reliable cheap website

  27. Re buying cyanotype chemicals – I bought mine from a chemical supplier – a company that supplies school and university science departments.

  28. I can only find Ammonium ferric citrate (brown), can this works for the blueprint.
    Or i should buy other chemical to have the blueprint effect?

  29. Can I coat porcelain tiles with the cyanotype chemicals and, using various masks, produce a cyanotype print on the tile?

  30. is it necessary that the photograph which we want to print should be a negative and should be printed on a transparent sheet kind of a thing?

  31. Hello,

    At my work, we held a children’s camp and made cyanotype t-shirts. Some of the solution fell onto the brick where it seems to be getting more potent, even though it has rained. Any suggestions on getting cyanotype solution off of brick?

  32. @ Stacey: that sounds like a lot of fun! Try bleaching it with bicarbonate soda, just like when bleaching a print for toning.

  33. I have a place to dry the coated emulsion on the paper in the bathroom. It is almost dark apart from the edges of the door frame just a tiny bit of light comes through…..will this be a problem…

  34. Hello.
    I wanted to know if the green version of ferric ammonium citrate can be substituted with the brown version of ferric ammonium citrate. I can’t get my hands on the green version.

    Thanks for your help

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