Cyanotype – the classic process

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



26 Comments

  1. Posted January 8, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Deborah: Contact frame suppliers can be found here:
    http://www.alternativephotography.com/wp/directory-of-suppliers/darkroom

  2. Posted January 11, 2013 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    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 🙂

  3. Chloe
    Posted March 20, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

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

  4. Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    @Chloe: You can use any spoon. I’ve even mixed chemicals in a rusty old jar once, and it did affect the print but still printed:
    http://www.alternativephotography.com/wp/processes/cyanotype/cyanotype-chemicals-in-a-rusty-old-jar

  5. Cathy Ferguson
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    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

  6. Zinnia
    Posted July 29, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    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

  7. Cathy
    Posted August 1, 2013 at 12:58 am | Permalink

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

  8. Emily
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Try http://www.artvango.co.uk kits are ÂŁ7.25 and postage is basic Royal Mail.
    I put my Cyanotypes in the dark (a cupboard or under the stairs) for a few days to bring the colour back.

  9. alice
    Posted September 7, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Anyone know where to purchase the chemical in sg?

  10. Posted September 9, 2013 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    @alice: You can find plenty of suppliers of chemicals here, most ship anywhere:
    http://www.alternativephotography.com/wp/directory-of-suppliers/chemicals-kits

  11. Alice Goh
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    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?

  12. Alice Goh
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Will the brown Ferric ammonium citrate works as well?

  13. Posted October 13, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    @Alice Goh: Yes, brown Ferric Ammonium Citrate works too. Good luck.

  14. Kanika Sircar
    Posted October 22, 2013 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

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

  15. anisha
    Posted October 27, 2013 at 4:49 am | Permalink

    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?

  16. Posted August 23, 2014 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    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?

  17. Posted August 29, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

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

  18. sue corr
    Posted October 30, 2014 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    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…

  19. Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    Sue Corr: Not too light and not for too long, it will start to affect the paper eventually.

  20. N.I
    Posted July 14, 2015 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    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

  21. Posted July 17, 2015 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    @N.I: Yes, the green can be substituted for the brown and vice versa. Good luck!

  22. Zahra
    Posted February 4, 2016 at 2:39 am | Permalink

    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

  23. Blanka
    Posted May 14, 2016 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    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

  24. Cathy
    Posted May 16, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    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.

  25. Frances
    Posted July 2, 2016 at 3:49 am | Permalink

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

  26. Posted July 12, 2016 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    @Frances: No, not in my experience. You can use them right away.

20 Trackbacks

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  5. […] negatives. This is a very much debated issue. Most web sources will tell you to choose something reddish or yellowish while many people just use black. In my experience black will give very vivid contrast […]

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  19. By Unexplained shadows | MBart photo on July 4, 2015 at 9:05 pm

    […]  Cyanotype is a contact print process and you will need a negative the same size as the size of the print you want. A cyanotype with a blue image on a white background is obtained using a negative transparency. In order to obtain a pale white image on a blue background, a positive transparency must be used. Cyanotypes are created with a simple solution of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. […]

  20. […] M. and Fabbri, G.  (2013) Cyanotype – the classic process [online article].  Available at: http://www.alternativephotography.com/wp/processes/cyanotype/cyanotype-classic-process [Accessed 27 April […]

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