An extract from Ruth Brown’s book Cyanotypes on Fabric, A blueprint on how to produce… Blueprints! (no longer in print).
What’s a photogram? Well, it’s what you get if you lay a flower or other object over a sensitised surface and the shadow of the object makes the design during exposure to UV light – there is no negative or camera involved.
You can use anything that blocks light to make a photogram. Look for things with interesting edges such as ferns, brackens, flowers, leaves (especially sprays of small leaves), bamboo, insects, feathers and so on. A lot of weeds work well (see bottom left). Dried flowers and leaves can give some very nice effects.
Items like ferns, which have tiny fronds very close together may benefit from carefully snipping out some of the fronds so that the beauty and intricacy of the remaining ones are more easily seen.
Look for things that are transluscent or have transluscent sections. Some flowers give beautiful, ethereal images but also try things like bubble wrap, sellotape or small pieces of glass (for the edges).
Intricate materials like lace, netting, chicken wire and open weave fabrics or knitting can give interesting textures in their own right and can make very good ‘linking’ elements in a design.
You can also incorporate items like stick on letters, pasta shapes, small items like buttons, scissors, stencils, glasses, jewellery or small tools.
Just have a look round and see what you can find. I recently had a student who is also a potter and he brought some clay to a workshop and moulded shapes to use in his prints. Something else that occurred to me recently, which worked very well, was to sandwich some jam between two sheets of transparency film and press down, making patterns with my fingers… Then I thought what if I put some liquid between the sheets and then froze it….
This is one of my favourite ways of preparing a cyanotype, giving beautiful, subtle, results.
Remember that design elements that have edges which are in close contact with your treated fabric will give a crisp image whereas areas which stand away from the surface will give a softer or ‘ghosted’ effect.
As you’ll see from this photogram of a begonia, the outer edges of each leaf are fairly crisp since they were pinned down in close contact with the fabric. The inner edges, near the stems, were allowed to lift slightly off the fabric so the edge is softer or ghosted. The tiny flowers at the top were slightly transluscent so they appear softer as well.
These ‘hit and miss’ edges are, I think, why photograms of natural material appeal so much to me. Paper cutouts or a fern under a sheet of glass will produce a uniformly crisp outline but the natural spring and movement of a stem and leaves or flowers can be partly controlled and partly encouraged to produce something special.
For this process you will need:
- A support of some sort. I use pieces of polystyrene that are designed for insulating buildings. These are about an inch think and are stiff enough to support your fabric but soft enough for you to push pins in easily. Barbara Hewit uses fibreglass insulation board, removing the aluminium foil and covering it with newsprint or craft paper. See what is available locally; the only criteria are that it should be stiff enough not to bend if you want to prop it up, it should be soft enough to push pins in and it shouldn’t have any surface which might come off on your fabric or show through thin fabric. It should also be easy to cut to size for a particular project.
- Your choice of treated fabric.
- Pins, I like using sequein and bead pins best as thay are short and fine. However, you may need longer ones for some design elements.
- The elements of your design.
First of all tear or cut a piece of your treated fabric and place it onto your support. Put a pin in at each corner to hold it in place, keeping the grain of the fabric reasonably straight. Don’t forget that your fabric at this stage is light sensitive so you need to work in subdued light and that any treated fabric you are not going to use straight away needs to go back into its protective packaging so it doesn’t become exposed while it’s waiting to be used.
Make sure your leaves etc are dry before you place them onto your treated fabric. Any drops of moisture on your fabric will leave marks. The ends of stems are particularly susceptible to ooze marks. Place them between pieces of absorbent paper for a while to make sure they are dry. Alternatively put a layer of cling film or a sheet of acetate between the treated fabric and the design elements.
Once you have dried and arranged your items then you can pin them into place. Place pins directly next to stems and leaves at an angle so that they ‘lean’ over the items. If you look directly on top of your design, the pins should lie over the stems/leaves, not over the fabric.
You can pin all round your items so that all the edges are close to the fabric to give a crisp image or you can leave some edges loose so that they stand away from the fabric to give a ghosted image. Be careful about pinning through fleshy leaves or stems as the sap can give nasty blotches on your picture. Also, if you pin across translucent petals or similar you may be able to see the pins – obvious when you think about it but I recently ended up with a strangely spikey picture of poppies.
A few notes:
- If you haven’t got time to do a cyanotype of a particular flower when it’s in bloom then scan or photograph it and do the print from a negative later. The end result will be different but probably equally beautiful.
- While you are preparing your design materials on the sensitised fabric avoid direct sunlight and fluorescent light. If you need extra light to work by, use low wattage tungsten lighting.
- If you’re constructing a big design indoors, that you intend to expose outside in the sun, then make sure the base you’re working on will go through the doorway!
- If you are using something like a sunbed to expose several cyanotypes at the same time, don’t forget to cover anything you have finished preparing while you prepare the rest. I use light proof fabric that is sold for lining curtains and blinds to cover my ‘work in progress’ until I’m ready to expose it.
If the leaves have a ridged back and you want a crisp image turn them over so that the ridged side is uppermost and the leaf lies closer to the fabric. Similarly, if you want to use a flower that has a deep back to it, turn it over and put it face down on the fabric.
More of Ruth’s photograms: