Cuprotype history from 1850s until present

A Cuprotype is a photographic print of Copper II Ferrocyanide on paper or fabric. Jim Patterson gives us a history of the Cuprotype process.

Writer / Jim Patterson with help from Niranjan Patel, Peter Friedrichsen, Frank Gorga, and Alberto Novo
Photography / Jim Patterson, Peter Friedrichsen, Alberto Novo, Niranjan Patel and Frank Gorga


Cuprotype by Jim Patterson
Cuprotype by Jim Patterson

A Cuprotype is a photographic print of Copper II Ferrocyanide on paper or fabric. Cuprum = copper in Latin and the chemical symbol for copper is Cu, not Co which is cobalt. So Cuprotype translates to Copper Print in English. Copper II Ferrocyanide is a reddish brown colour and is also called Hatchett’s Brown.

Cuprotype history

Pigment in Cuprotype (Copper II Ferrocyanide) was developed and promoted by Charles Hatchett, Fellow Royal Society, in the early 1800s as a superb brown pigment with a lilac tint(1). It was later designated Pigment Brown 9 and has been used in oil and watercolour painting.

C J Burnett coined the term Cuprotype about 1856(2) for a print of Copper II Ferrocyanide (Hatchett’s Brown) on paper or fabric. It was also called Burnett’s Copper Process. He originally used a solution of Potassium Dichromate and Copper Sulfate coated on paper, dried, exposed to UV light through a negative, washed, and toned in Potassium Ferricyanide solution.

Later, Burnett used Uranyl Nitrate with Copper Nitrate(3), to arrive at a similar print of Hatchett’s Brown. Neither of these is recommended due to the toxic, carcinogenic materials.

John Mercer, a dye chemist and fabric printer experimented with Cuprotype in about 1857(4). He used Ferric Oxalate and Cupric Thiocyanate, then toned with Ferricyanide after the removal of iron salts. Little notice seems to have occurred.

In 1863 J B Obernetter used Ferric (Iron III) Chloride with Copper II Chloride as the Sensitizer, developed with a sulfuric acid/Thiocyanate solution, then toned with Potassium Ferricyanide to arrive at the same Hatchett’s Brown pigment on paper. It was called Obernetter’s Ferro-Cupric process(3). This works, but is very slow and stains easily.

A 1978 Popular Photography How to Guide had formulas for Copper Print that used Potassium Ferricyanide as the light-sensitive agent with copper complexed with citrate. Chris Patton and Cor Breukel experimented with this process. The image was a Cuprotype.

In 2007, I updated Obernetter’s process by using a mixture of Ferric Ammonium Citrate, green and Copper II Sulfate as the Sensitizer. It is developed in Ammonium Thiocyanate/Citric acid solution and toned with Potassium Ferricyanide for the same Cuprotype image. Details at www.darkroomdoc.com.

In 2022 Jan de Jong posted prints on Photrio made with Ferric Ammonium Citrate, Copper Sulfate, and Sodium Thiosulfate as the Sensitizer, exposed to UV, washed in water and dried. Niranjan Patel recognized how this could be a new version of Cuprotype by toning with Potassium Ferricyanide. An added benefit is that a Citric Acid wash increases the density and darkens the tone.

Niranjan Patel, Peter Friedrichsen, and Frank Gorga have experimented with the New Cuprotype. Below are prints from Frank Gorga.

Cuprotype by Frank Gorga
Cuprotype by Frank Gorga, made using the ‘new’ thiosulfate version of cuprotype.
Cuprotype by Frank Gorga
Cuprotype by Frank Gorga, made using the ‘new’ thiosulfate version of cuprotype and toned with citric acid.
Cuprotype by Frank Gorga
Cuprotype by Frank Gorga, made using the ‘new’ thiosulfate version of cuprotype and iron-toned. The recipe used was from Jan Arnow’s 1982 “Handbook of Alternative Photographic Processes”, pp 113-114 (out of print).

This is an excellent process for beginners of alt photo. It works analogously to Cyanotype:
Part A: 15 % FAC + 12% CuSO4.5H2O
Part B: 10% Sodium Thiosulfate penta-hydrate
Mix 1 volume A with 1 volume B, coat paper, dry. Expose through a negative to UV. Wash in water to remove excess chemicals. Tone in 2% Potassium Ferricyanide. Wash in water. Tone in 1% Citric Acid solution for a darker tone. Wash, dry.

In all cases, the light-sensitive agent (potassium dichromate, uranyl nitrate, ferric chloride, Ferricyanide, ferric oxalate, or ferric ammonium citrate) reacts with UV light to result in a poorly soluble Copper I compound that converts to Copper II Ferrocyanide (Hatchett’s Brown) on toning with Potassium Ferricyanide. The image on paper, cotton fabric or other support appears quite stable. I have Cuprotypes from 2007 that appear very stable in color.

Three Trees, Cuprotype on Canson XL cold press by Peter Friedrichsen.
Three Trees, Cuprotype on Canson XL cold press by Peter Friedrichsen. Peter Friedrichsen’s cuprotype process can make a very red cuprotype and uses a copper – alkali metal complex and potassium ferricyanide. It has high metamerism. This image was photographed with sunlight. Peter Friedrichsen used his iPhone to get an accurate hue and no adjustments were made other than crop. Under LED or other artificial lights, it can shift to more of a dirty orange, or even reddish-brown, so it carries its own mood! Under halogen it is closer to what you see but still slightly warmer.
Cuprotype by Alberto Novo.
Cuprotype by Alberto Novo 2009, Campo San Trovaso.
The print comes from a shot on photographic paper with a curved plane pinhole camera (about 120°), then scanned 1:1 and transformed into a digital negative for contact printing. The paper was agar sized and the print was quickly rinsed in a diluted ammonia solution to clean up the highlights. The hue has also become more reddish.
Cuprotype by Niranjan Patel.
Cuprotype by Niranjan Patel. Stormy Sunset over Pacific. Hypo-Cuprotype toned with citric acid on Bergger COT 320.
Cuprotype by Niranjan Patel.
Cuprotype by Niranjan Patel. Water Lily. Hypo-Cuprotype toned with sulfonic acid on Canson XL watercolor paper.

References:

  1. The Philosophical Magazine, 1803, vol. 14, #56, pp 359-360.
  2. Photographic Notes, 1856, correspondence from C J Burnett.
  3. Photographic Reproduction Processes, 1891, by PC Duchochois.
  4. The Life and Labours of John Mercer by Edward A Parnell, 1886, pp 226-228.

Jim Patterson is from New Orleans, is a semi-retired physician working work 3 days a week in an urgent care. Jim has a lifelong love of analog, alt photo, and the chemistry of it. See his website here.
Frank Gorga is a retired chemistry professor working in several alt. proc. processes. Frank Gorga’s website can be found here.
Peter Friedrichsen is a photographer and alternative printmaker based in Toronto, Canada. He uses a minimalist approach to isolate subject matter while defocusing the complexity that surrounds it. Peter Friedrichsen’s website can be found here.
Alberto Novo is a chemist – fond of mountains and photography, and born in Venice, Italy. And a member of the Rodolfo Namias Group.
Niranjan Patel is a photographer based in Frederick, MD, USA who has dabbled in various processes like P.O.P, cyanotypes, salt prints, and Pt/Pd, in addition to more recent stumbling into cuprotypes. His work can be followed at: https://niranjanpatel.zenfolio.com/f887316328

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