Cyanotypes – A New Look at an Old Technique

The cyanotype thesis was written for an MA in Design Studies January 2000 at Central Saint Martin, London by Malin Hylén (now Malin Fabbri) that got the website started back in 2000.

Writer and photography / Malin Fabbri


Questions to Answer

  • Cyanotypes – a new look at an old technique

My Intentions

  • My motives

General Background and History

  • What is alternative photography?
  • What do we mean by photography?

My Research

  • Literature
  • Exhibitions – A game of hide-and-seek
  • Trying out the process
  • Photographers working with cyanotypes
  • How cyanotypes are used
  • Interview with a print expert
  • Graphic designers sourcing images
  • Photographic libraries lack of cyanotypes

The Artefact

  • What, why and how
  • Working with cyanotypes in design

The Artefact Questionnaire and it’s Responses

  • The audience
  • Analysing the results from the questionnaires


List of Illustrations

Bibliography / Research Resources

  • Galleries and exhibitions
  • Miscellaneous sources, associations and libraries
  • Books
  • Journals
  • Photographers and artists


“The “Alternative” Photographic processes popular today were actually on the cutting edge of yesterday’s technology”

Richard Farber, Historic Photographic Processes.


Cyanotypes – a new look at an old technique

I) Cyanotype self portrait, photography by and with kind permission of Jan Van Leeuwen ©
I) Cyanotype self portrait, photography by and with kind permission of Jan Van Leeuwen ©

The images are blue and white and have the feel of the sun creating patterns in a cumulus sky. When I ask myself what first caught my eye about these images, the answer is easy. They create shades of blue, my favourite colour. As I found out more about cyanotypes and entered into the rather close knit community of those still creating them I asked myself why more graphic designers weren’t using this simple and effective technique as part of their creative arsenal.These are the questions I set out to answer.Are cyanotypes simply unknown?

Are designers aware of them and do they even know that cyanotypes exist? Have cyanotypes had enough exposure to be considered?

Can the technology be used?Since it is an old process with different technology would today’s graphic designers be able to come to terms with it? Is there a contemporary method or process that could produce the same results?

Are they usable in design?

Would they add anything to the design, or simply hinder the message? Can cyanotypes bring back some life in the images? Can they improve the way graphic design looks? How do people react to them?

These are the questions I set out to answer.


My motives

II) Lillies, cyanotype, photography by and with kind permission of Mark Sink ©
II) Lillies, cyanotype, photography by and with kind permission of Mark Sink ©

In my previous work as a graphic designer for Time magazine I often commissioned photographic illustrations for articles. I once specified a modern and up-to-date look. What I received was an utterly boring photo collage, put together in Photoshop [2]. (This is not an attack on the illustrator or the tools used, just an example of what is perceived to be today’s modern illustrations.) There was nothing very interesting about the illustration. It lacked concept and personality and looked similar to what I have seen many times before. It had that computerised feel to it. It lacked texture and interest. As Robert A. Schaefer, photographer, said in an interview with World Arts Association: “…one big problem with working with photography in Photoshop is the ability to distort images by simply pressing one of the filter selections. This does not require much thought and not a whole lot of imagination. These images are usually so obvious and boring”.A few weeks later I went to a show organised by Creative Review called ‘Creative futures’. It was a small selection of the “bright-young-talents” of today. One piece of work that stuck in my mind after the show was a TV commercial made with scratches, similar to what you used to get on the 8 mm film when worn out. It had some typography and a bug running across the screen. The content was irrelevant. The quality and the feel of that film were what stood out in my mind.

These two events lead me to believe that there is a lot more scope for the old style processes, or alternative photography, as they are also known, to be used and perhaps bring back some of the textures and feel lost in today’s design. What is lacking in a lot of computerised images is the ‘feel’ and the textures you often get naturally with photography. (These textures can indeed also be created in the computer). In any case: I decided to examine and experiment with alternative photographic techniques [3] to see how they can be applied to graphic design today


What is alternative photography?

III) Lady with harp, photograhy by John Herschel
III) Lady with harp, photograhy by John Herschel

There are several alternative photographic processes available; Kallitypes, Gum Bicromate and Vandyke prints to name a few, all of which have been around since the invention of photography in 1827. To be able to go into depth on the subject I decided to concentrate on one of these processes. I chose one called cyanotypes. This process is easy to experiment with and has low toxicity. Another aspect that influenced my choice is that it is blue, and I love blue.

The cyanotype process has remained virtually unchanged since its invention. Although some recent updates have been made by Mike Ware [4]. Ware’s cyanotypes have less bleed, shorter exposures and higher density but use more toxic chemicals. It is quite an easy process: Potassium ferricyanide [5] and Ferric ammonium citrate (green) [6] are mixed with water separately. The two solutions are then mixed together. Paper, card, textiles or any other naturally absorbent material is coated and dried in the dark overnight. Objects and negatives [7] can be contact printed [8] on the material to create photograms[9] or prints. Cyanotypes are usually printed in the sun, but UV lamps can also be used. After exposure the material is rinsed in water, and a white print emerges on a blue background (assuming you used white material to start with). The final print can then be dried.

For more colour variation cyanotypes can also be printed on coloured material. Red material will give you purple and red print instead of blue and white. The blue colour can also be removed by washing in certain detergents [10]. The print then fades and takes on a yellow and white image (assuming that you used white material). This print can then be toned, using professional toners, or simpler ‘kitchen chemistry’ such as ordinary tea. The image then takes on a sepia toned, brownish look. A light blue on dark blue print can also be achieved by not using the coated material within a day, but letting it lie for longer.

The cyanotype process was invented in 1842 by astronomer John Herschel trying to find a way of copying his notes. The process got a kick-start with Anna Atkins [11] who produced and photographically illustrated a book of plants using the cyanotype process, or “shadowgraphs”. Pictorialists latched on to the idea and a special paper was even marketed for them. The process had limited use, probably because of its limited colour range, but was used extensively for copying architectural plans, also known as blueprints, until recently. It is becoming obsolete due to photocopying and printers. As a photographic medium cyanotypes were made redundant by the invention of black and white photography.

What do we mean by photography?

IV) Lee Miller photographs © Lee Miller Archives, used by kind permission of the Lee Miller Archives, England, photography by Lee Miller
IV) Lee Miller photographs © Lee Miller Archives, used by kind permission of the Lee Miller Archives, England, photography by Lee Miller.

By photography we generally mean silver based journalistic photography – including documentary photography, fashion photography, portrait & wedding photography and landscape photography. But also photography as art. Of these forms of photography, art is where the cyanotypes fit in most easily.
Until the 1960’s [12] most photography was used as a portrayal of reality – a reflection of facts and situations. The other category of photography was still life art, where photography was used in the same way as painting. Daguerre’s earliest surviving daguerrotype from 1837 illustrates this, as well as Rejlander’s portrait from 1856 of two girls in a composition copying a detail in Raphael’s sistine Madonna. It took a long time for photography to find its own voice. In 1954 the director of the V&A said that photography is ‘a purely mechanical process into which the artist does not enter’. Photography as art existed on a small scale, but it was not until schools started encouraging creativity as well as technical competence that the field exploded.

The common use of photography as art in its own shape and form is a recent occurrence. Previously photography copied art in poses and style as much as possible. In my opinion, Paul Strand’s photographs, such as ‘The white fence’ in 1916, as well as his abstract patterns and staircases in 1915, were amongst the first to have an individual artistic feel. Alvin Langdon Coburn claims to have produced the first abstract photograph in 1917. Whichever came first is irrelevant. What is more important is that photography started to have its own voice at this time. Man Ray followed suit in the 20’s and 30’s as one of the better known abstract photographers. Other photographers like Andrè Kertèsz, Helmut Gernsheim, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Tina Modotti and L. Moholy-Nagy were also amongst those who demonstrated an individual vision. Darkroom techniques such as double exposures developed with surrealists such as Casson in 1935. Lee Miller’s [Figure IV] and Man Ray’s solarisation [13] that changed the look of photographs radically was also used by Edminston in 1934 and photomontage was popular with Angus McBean in 1938 (although it was used as early as 1868). Some of the processes these photographers used would be classified as alternative photographic processes.



My first excursion to libraries and well-stocked photography book shops turned out to be a disappointment, since I was able to find only a few books on the subject. They either dealt with cyanotypes when they were invented or were mainly descriptions of the technical process. Neither dealt with the actual images and what they mean today or how they could be used. Through art indexes I also found some articles dealing with the subject. Again, they were either technical discussions or showed a certain photographer’s portfolio. None discussed need or usability. I plugged through the technicalities, knowing they would become very useful when it came to making cyanotypes myself.

Exhibitions – A game of hide-and-seek

I wanted to find out how readily available alternative photography and cyanotypes are: How would graphic designers be able to source these type of images? I was ready to see some exhibitions. I decided to check out the ‘Silver and syrup’ at the V&A [14]. It promised a historical exhibition starting with the birth of photography until today. Not surprisingly, none of the modern photographs featured alternative photography. I began to doubt the existence of the real image. The only exhibitions that featured cyanotypes were the ones on the internet as digital reproductions. Although good for reference I had yet to see a ‘live’ one. This was turning into a game of hide-and-seek. But luck changed when I went to a photographic flower show at the Zelda Cheatle gallery [15], showing the work of Jill Staples and Joy Gregory. The prints were in the same style as Anna Atkins prints, and hadn’t really moved on from the first cyanotypes in history.

I also went to the Royal College of Arts final year show and spoke to Wendy Wilson, a textile designer. Her project used cyanotypes and one other alternative photographic process to print wall hangings and soft furnishings. She made original use of cyanotypes, dressing a sofa in the material. Wilson found the cyanotypes a good medium for her project because of their simplicity. She also preferred their texture and feel to that of computer generated images. She told me that she liked the unpredictability of the process. I feel she utilised the process very well, since printing on textiles adds a certain quality with the image sitting inside the material.

The lack of information worried me at first. Is there really no interest in this, or is it something people do and do not write about? Once I found someone using cyanotypes, albeit to create furniture coverings, I knew the process wasn’t completely disregarded for use in design projects, but what about as a graphic design tool? The enthusiastic response from the photographers convinced me that there is certainly interest in this, although quite specialised. The people involved with them were exceptionally enthusiastic.

Trying out the process

V) Outline of rope in cyanotype, photography by Malin Hylén ©
V) Outline of rope in cyanotype, photography by Malin Hylén ©

I really wanted to test the cyanotype process to see what it had to offer. I got chemicals from Silverprint [16]. They were easy to use and the technicalities easy to comprehend. I spent a night coating watercolour paper and cotton cloth, slept while the material dried in my dark loft and printed the following day.There are two ways of recreating an image using the cyanotype process. You can either use an enlarged negative that is placed on the material which will create a positive the same size as the negative. Or, you can place objects directly on top of the material and recreate their shadows and outlines. This is called a photogram.

I mainly produced photograms, so I wouldn’t have to worry about producing enlarged negatives on my first attempt. It took some time to get exposure times right. When the sun was in zenith half the exposure time was enough compared to later in the afternoon. The long exposure times of up to an hour also meant that in a whole day I only produced six prints. In the winter the exposure time can be up to three hours long, or it may not be possible to print at all [17] without an UV lamp. If you also take into consideration the time for coating the material and drying it, it turned out to be quite a time consuming process. You would also be restricted by rain washing away the chemicals.

I also found it hard to predict the final result, to visualise what a the flat shadow of an object will look like. What you see when looking at an object is its textures as well as its 3-dimensional shape. For example [Figure V] where you see the texture on a rope in real life, the photogram will show the outline of the rope, or the shadow of the rope. You will still see texture along the edges, but the opaque middle will be a flat white colour.

Cyanotypes have a short and steep tonal scale, creating a high contrast image of whites,with varying shades of blue. The longer the exposure time, the deeper the blue. If you prefer another colour to blue simply change the colour of the material you are printing on. For instance, printing on red material results in a red and purple image, but it will always be a duotone.

One of the things I found most refreshing about the process is the unpredictability of the results. Because the exposure time can be so long and you can wait most of the day to find out you have forgotten to cover a bit of the material, and you end up with a white spot rather than your carefully composed design. Some of my best results were the product of careful planning and ‘happy accidents’. The point is that in creating cyanotypes there is an element of chance, a far cry from your 99 layers of ‘undo’ in photoshop [18].

There are several other technical hurdles to overcome. For example: unless the object has very defined edges and is in immediate contact with the material, the print also comes out slightly blurry, or soft. This is due to exposure times of 40 minutes to an hour, during which time the sun has time to change position. When the sun moves the shadow it casts naturally moves with it, thus creating a blurry shadow on the print. Some light also gets scattered or reflected, exposing and softening the edges. This problem can be avoided with a UV lamp.

On a more positive point, you don’t need a darkroom, enlargers or any other expensive equipment for this process, as long as you can darken a room to dry the coated material. The chemicals are also cheap, making the whole process inexpensive. I do not think the process is too complicated or different for graphic designers to use.

VI) Vesselfire: Cyanotype on wood, photography by and with kind permission of Patrick Hilferty ©
VI) Vesselfire: Cyanotype on wood, photography by and with kind permission of Patrick Hilferty ©

You have great flexibility with material, you can print on anything made of natural fibre. Cotton, linen, silk, handmade paper, watercolour paper and rags are just a few of the materials that can be used. An artist called Patrick Hilferty even prints on wood! [Figure VI]

Each cyanotype is also unique: the brush strokes when you coat the material is different each time. The image tone will be different as the light changes. Cyanotypes also have a handmade feel to them because of the hand coated material. You can certainly re-produce the cyanotype or any other process in the computer [19]. You can add scratches and textures. However, you lose the handmade element, and the element of chance.

You can certainly reproduce something that would look similar on the computer. But if you were to print the result of your digital creation you would use a four colour process called CMYK [20]. This would print your image on top of a paper mixing the inks, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black together. When using the cyanotype process the image is actually retained inside the material rather than on top of it. You would not be able to reproduce this effect with the four colour process used to print computer generated images.

VIII) Cyanotypes made as photograhs seem to float, photography by Malin Hylén ©
VIII) Cyanotypes made as photograhs seem to float, photography by Malin Hylén ©

Cyanotypes have quite a dreamy, floating feel to them [Figure VII]. The varying shades of blue are like a sky on a clear sunny day. If you make photograms, rather than print from negatives, the objects also appear to be floating, since there is no horizon placing them in relative space.

Through these photographers’ experience I was hoping to establish areas of graphic design that use these images. The problem was that not many of the photographers had had their images used in designs. Barbara Hewitt, author of ‘Blueprints on fabric’ [22], has a shop in America selling materials for printing cyanotypes. She told me that cyanotypes are a very popular method of making quilts in America. There is a group of people making quilts for their homes. Hewitt found that the cyanotypes were very popular with these people for their low toxicity and their ease to use. She also sells her cyanotype supplies and cyanotyped t-shirts at fairs. This application of cyanotypes is still art or decoration, rather than work in a design project. It is more of a hobby to these people than a professional application and use of cyanotypes. I was not able to find any actual design projects using cyanotypes.

A quarter of a billion pictures are taken every day[21], and with the amount of images our brains have to process daily on television, the internet, adverts and magazines I also feel a distinctive image would have a better chance of being remembered. Cyanotypes would stand out with their unique colour and textures. They have a different feel to that of silver based photography.

Photographers working with cyanotypes

Having seen how the process works I wanted to know how other people use it, and see if I could find anyone actually using the process in their designs.

VIII) Berlin blau, photography by and with kind permission of Robert A. Schaefer Jr. ©
VIII) Berlin blau, photography by and with kind permission of Robert A. Schaefer Jr. ©

I searched the internet for people working with cyanotypes. I contacted the photographers I found. I asked them what made them work with alternative processes such as cyanotypes, what the response to their work has been and how it has been used. Most of them replied within a few days, and with enthusiasm. Some also recommended other people, websites and exhibitions in Europe. I found a lot of information on the internet about the processes and a lot of technical data. Not much on the use or the aesthetic values was available, so the ability to discuss this with practitioners is invaluable. I also found a chat group that seemed happy to share their views on the alternative photographic processes and give me feedback and criticism.One observation that struck me when talking to people about my project was that they either have no idea what a cyanotype is, or they know everything there is to know about the subject. It seemed to be very black and white – or blue and white!

How cyanotypes are used

The photographers I contacted were all very positive to cyanotypes. They also reported that they all have had a very positive response to their cyanotype work. With the response they have had you would think that they would sell like hot cakes, but to the question if they had, most gave a plain and simple ‘no’. Some also hinted that it was hard to make a living out of this sort of photography.

Cyanotypes are used very successfully as an art form. Jean Eger, Jan van Leeuwen and Ann McDowell are amongst some of the photographers and artists that have had a very positive response to their cyanotypes and sold them as art. Robert Schaefer has used cyanotypes successfully in conjunction with architecture [Figure VIII]. An image of architectural buildings coupled with the blue (and perhaps the associations with the architectural blueprint) was a success. Jerry Orabona’s cyanotypes illustrated a medical newsletter and Judy Seigel’s work has been published in several photographic magazines. Apart from being used as art or to illustrate articles in photographic magazines (usually when the article is debating cyanotypes or alternative photography) they are not used at all. John Benjafield [23], who deals in historical prints on Portobello Road market also reports an increased interest in cyanotypes, or “those blue prints” as most of his customers refer to them. His prints are however sold as art.

The constant need for new images, also commented on by Francis Hodgson [24], the manager of Photonica photographic library is a positive thing for this project Says Francis: “Commercial clients need above all to distinguish themselves from their competitors, what you call alternative processes can help to do that.” As cyanotypes are quite distinctive and stark they stand out.

Creative awards tend to favour original approaches, and more often than not, reward different looking photographs. I think this supports the case for cyanotypes. With more people trying to create original looking images the market seems to be almost expecting something different every time. It seems open to change and new approaches.

Interview with a print expert

On recommendation from one of the photographers, I contacted Metro Art [25]. Metro is an imaging company, which prints photographers’ work. I spoke to Steve Macleod who has worked for Metro for about a year, but started printing some nine years ago. I asked him if he knew of or had been working on any projects using cyanotypes or alternative photography commercially. He could think of two using alternative photography:

A photographer had taken marine photographs that had been used for a watch company’s annual report. The design agency had seen the photographs at Hamilton gallery and commissioned the photographer to shoot pictures for the report. Although they fell into the category of alternative photography, they were not cyanotypes. They were silver prints. The other example he could think of were some cyanotypes that he had printed for Linda McCarthy as promotional material for her work.

Macleod felt that one of the problems with cyanotypes was that the quality of the prints did not translate properly into reproduction. The image of the photographic prints is held inside the material as well as on top of it, whereas with ink printing the print is on top of the surface of the material. The reproduced print loses the depth and the quality of the original print and flattens out. He thought that although these are concerns of photographers and artists, the general public would probably not notice the difference between the two.

Another drawback of the printing process is the time. Macleod would spend one day making up enlarged negatives, one day testing them and one day printing them, taking the minimum time the printing could be done to three days. However, considering other work loads the real lead-time is actually two weeks, which for many people is too long for their deadlines.

So, Macleod felt that the reason graphic designers don’t use cyanotypes in their work is mainly the time, money and quality. The time it takes to produce would interfere with deadlines. Money spent on printing could be wasted since people do not notice the difference in quality lost in the flattened repro process and the printing process.

I asked him if he thought alternative photography has had enough exposure for graphic designers to know that the process exists. He thought it was seen more as a form of fine art than design. Metro’s marketing department tends to target galleries and photographers rather than graphic designers, which supports the argument that graphic designers are not exposed to them.

So far I had established that the cyanotype process and technology is easy to use and that photographers and artists get a positive response from their work. I was left wondering why graphic designers had not picked up on this type of image. This called for further investigation.

Graphic designers sourcing images

I had to establish if cyanotypes were not used because of their unsuitability, or if it was because graphic designers were not aware of them. Perhaps they are too hard to find, since they are not readily available at exhibitions or in literature. I created a questionnaire targeting graphic designers. I asked them about their design experience, if in all those years of experience they ever came across cyanotypes, and also where they source their images. The result confirmed my suspicion that the main source of images is in fact photographic libraries.

19 of 32 designers use photographic libraries as one of their main sources of images. 14 commission illustrators and photographers with specific briefs, 9 use the internet as one of their sources and 17 also use other sources such as in-house libraries, video grabs, 3d models, books, magazines or make the images themselves.

The designers had an average of 8.4 years experience, that is 269 years of accumulated design experience! Only 5 had ever come across cyanotypes, and then only in photographic environments. One had heard of an instance where cyanotypes had been used in design, in a corporate brochure for the Natural History Museum four years ago. The point is that the designers exposure to cyanotypes is very limited.

My own experience also confirms that graphic designers tend to favour photographic libraries as their source. They use the stock photography as their base and improve the way it looks with effects. They manipulate it and retouch it to suit a certain style. Since photographic libraries do not stock cyanotypes they are not the sort of image that graphic designers would stumble over. Designers that actively seek new images by perhaps commissioning photographers, going to exhibitions and looking at new photographic trends might come across them. Perhaps if photographers working with cyanotypes had a more proactive approach, and if graphic designers in turn sought out alternative sources for their images cyanotypes would be used more. Photographers I speak to also say they wish they had more time working with their images and less time spent on marketing. Time is probably the biggest factor here, since sourcing new images is a time consuming task. The imbalance of the two seems to be down to time pressure. Photographic libraries do not stock cyanotypes. They tend to stock more generic looking images. Most of the photographers I have spoken to also consider their cyanotypes as art rather than commercial photography, which might mean they are reluctant to put them into photographic libraries.

The next logical step was to speak to the photographic libraries, to see why they do not stock cyanotypes.

Photographic libraries lack of cyanotypes

Maria Wood, the Picture editor at Time magazine constantly deals with photographic libraries. In 11 years of experience she has never heard of a photographic library that stocks any cyanotypes.

Wood recommended I contact Photonica photographic library. I asked Francis Hodgson, the manager, some questions. Photonica specialises in different looking images. If any photographic library stocks cyanotypes it would be this one. They work on the principle that “photographers have something to say, and express their opinion with their images, as opposed to the view that the object photographed carries an emotional or psychological message. Photonica assumes the opposite, that the object is unimportant, but what the photographer thinks about it is fundamental.” Hodgson thinks that “alternative photography can add a lot, but it could also be a ‘pretentious waste of time’. If it helps the photographer as a technique it makes all the difference, if it’s an obsession with process it obstructs the viewers thoughts.” Hodgson also thought that “alternative processes can aid commercial clients’ needs to distinguish themselves from competitors. Photonica do not stock alternative photographic images for the sake of having alternative photography on their books, but if it is included in an image as a whole.” Hodgson thinks that “process itself is of no interest to viewers, they want to know what the photographer meant by an image. We are supposed to respond to photographs at the level of their very intimate and yet wonderfully indirect relation to reality / fact. ‘What a wonderful image’ often means no more than ‘What a wonderful thing is tape-recorded in it’. For a viewer, to acknowledge the importance of process would be to admit that what he was looking at was metaphorical, not factual: difficult or impossible. Photographers, quite uniquely in the communication media, think that those bones [referring to processes] are themselves of interest to their viewers.”

Hodgson could not think of any examples of cyanotypes kept in their library. They seem to be a non-entity in the photographic libraries.


What, why and how

Having seen how effective the cyanotype process could be and after hearing photographers’ enthusiasm I knew that they could be used successfully in graphic design projects. Designers made it clear that they are not used in graphic design because they are unheard of rather than unusable.

During my research I kept in mind that I wanted to produce an artefact to test my argument: are cyanotypes suitable for design? I needed to create something that could help the interviewees compare and judge the difference between stock images and cyanotypes in an actual design project, rather than as a work of art.

I wanted to find out if there was a reason why graphic designers should use cyanotypes rather than stock photography. Do they visually improve the design, or communicate the concepts better? Can they add something to the the graphic? I feel that using stock photography and manipulating it creates a very ‘samey’ quality to the designs. Perhaps because most designers tend to use the same tools and software, with the same filters. To be able to prove if cyanotypes are useable in design I needed to measure and analyse the audiences response to them. An artefact would be a perfect medium for this.

IXa) Retouched stock photography sting ©
IXa) Retouched stock photography sting ©
IXb) Unretouched stock photography sting ©
IXb) Unretouched stock photography sting ©
IXc) Cyanotype sting ©
IXc) Cyanotype sting ©

Now working as a graphic designer for television I decided to do something called a sting. A sting is basically industry jargon for a short advert or promotion for a programme, similar to a trailer for a movie. It can be anything from a couple of seconds to a minute long, and usually gets scheduled just before the programme. The idea of a sting is to introduce and entice the viewer to the programme. The imagery and the text should therefore be relevant to the content. I decided to do a 10 second sting for a music and pop culture programme called ‘Culture Club’. I produced three different stings, using different photography:

  1. Using Unretouched stock photography
  2. Using Retouched stock photography
  3. Using Cyanotypes.
Xa) Retouched stock photography sting ©
Xa) Retouched stock photography sting ©
Xb) Unretouched stock photography sting ©
Xb) Unretouched stock photography sting ©
Xc) Cyanotype sting ©
Xc) Cyanotype sting ©

With the sting using Unretouched stock photography I wanted to prove how imperfect and unusable the photographs that come straight out of photographic libraries are in their original form. The one using Retouched stock photography is, as I have established, how most graphic designers work. They take the images from the libraries and add textures and interest to them on the computer. The one using Cyanotypes would also be as unretouched as possible, to prove that cyanotypes are usable in their original form. In order to maintain some control I built a template for the design using the same background and typography for all three versions. The three stings were then identical except for the images. The difference was the process of how the images were made. The more similar the images were in shape and form, the easier it would be to establish the usability of the process rather than the content, when comparing them.

XIa) Retouched stock photography sting ©
XIa) Retouched stock photography sting ©
XIb) Unretouched stock photography sting ©
XIb) Unretouched stock photography sting ©
XIc) Cyanotype sting ©
XIc) Cyanotype sting ©

Working with cyanotypes in design

As I was making the artefact I also found out how the cyanotypes compare to other images when you work with them in a design project.

The first obstacle I ran into was the colour restriction. I wanted to have a warm orange feel to the sting, and the cyanotypes are blue. This could be easily solved with retouching, but as I wanted to use the cyanotype in is original form I was stuck with the blue. I used an orange background for the cyanotypes which complemented the blue well. Due to the soft printing of cyanotypes when objects are printed they sometimes turn into unrecognisable shades or textures. This is a very nice effect that I found usable on screen. However I can see how this can be a problem is you want to be able to see clearly what the object is.

As with most photography and illustration, the richness of the cyanotype print can only be shown in the original. When re-produced in print or on screen some of the quality of the original print and its textures are lost, primarily because the RGB [26] colour range used for screens is shorter than the original prints.


The audience

The main target group was the younger generation, since the sting is for a music and culture, or youth culture based programme. I was able to conduct some of the research in a school in Sweden with teenagers aged between 15 and 17. This was a very useful opportunity since they are the age group that would have the most exposure to this sort of sting. I feel that the teenage generation of today is largely the same in Europe, so whether the research was conducted in Sweden, England or anywhere else in Europe would not influence the result very much. They are all fed the same sort of TV and adverts, and wear the same fashion. The other people targeted were ordinary consumers of all ages, from 9 to 56. I wanted to include people of all ages, although not as the main group. Despite being of different ages, some would still watch this sort of programme.

I designed a questionnaire as a basis for the analysis. I explained what a sting is and showed the three different versions, (the Retouched stock photography one, the Unretouched stock photography one, and the one with Cyanotypes). This way I got an initial impression from the person interviewed. The questions following analysed this reaction. The artefact has been made for TV, and the media is very fast; one sting follows another, an advert or a programme. As you only have a couple of seconds to give an impression I felt that the first reaction was very important. I then exposed the viewer to the stings three more times. This helped to establish what that first reaction was based on, or if the first impression would change over time. In practice stings are repeated many times and I thought it would be important to get a reaction based on a ‘realistic scenario’, as if the sting was actually for a television programme.

Analysing the results from the questionnaires

100 people saw the artefact. Of these people 57% were men and 43% women. Their average age was 25 years old. I felt that it would be interesting to see if there was a difference of opinion with age and sex, and included these questions on the questionnaires.

XII) Analysing chart
XII) Analysing chart

On the first viewing 24% thought that the Retouched stock photography sting was the most successful design. The average age of this group was 25.1 years. 15 or 26.3% of the men and 9 or 20.9% of the women were of this opinion. The comments varied from “More harmonical, not so messy” and “Visually clearer, more defined” and “More interesting” and “Warmer colours” and “More lively pictures” and “Better consistency with colours” to “Sharp outlines”.

13% favoured the Unretouched photography sting. Their average age was 33.4 years and 9 of the men – 15.8% and 4 of the women – 9.3% preferred this option. The reasons mentioned were “Better colours” and “Smoothest transitions” and “Most solid pictures” and “Easy on the eye” and “Sharper pictures”.

27% thought the Cyanotype sting was the best one. The average age of the interviewees was 22.1 years. 14, or 24.6% of the men and 13, or 30.2% of the women chose this option. Comments on this design ranged from “Clearer pictures” and “Different, more distinct” and “Nicest pictures” to “More serious, contrasts stand out” and one person said that “Textures made it more lively”. Another comment was that “Stock photography feels flat in comparison; retouched offered some changes; greatest contrast with cyanotypes.”

However, 36% thought that there was no difference at all between the three stings. The average age of people of this opinion was 24.1 years, and 19 or 33.3% of the men and 17 or 39.5% of the women chose this option on the questionnaire.

After three viewings only 16 people changed their minds about which sting they preferred. 6 favoured the Retouched stock photography sting after repeated viewings, 4 the Unretouched stock photography version, 5 the Cyanotype sting and 1 person reverted from favouring the Unretouched stock photography sting to saying there was no difference between the three stings.

Most tended to stick with their initial impression, which shows that the first impression is a very important one, and that the time you have to make an impression is very short. This argues again for using a different feel or look to stand out. Of the people who could tell the difference between the three stings, the highest percentage chose the Cyanotype version. This supports the argument for using them.

I feel that the difference in textures and its original look will make it easier to be remembered than the more obvious and straight forward images. If you react to an image because it looks different you remember it easier than an image that causes no reaction. I feel that even if the reaction is a slightly negative one, it is still more effective than a bland one.

Another interesting fact that came from this survey was that of the people who did see a difference, the average age of people who preferred the more obvious and straight forward Unretouched photography sting was significantly higher than for the other two. The average age for the Retouched photography sting was 25.1 and for the Cyanotype photography sting 22.1 but for the Unretouched photography sting it was as high as 33.4 years. Possibly, younger people, who have been more exposed to popular culture and MTV expects images to look different. That the images can be used as textures. In the older age groups, comments were made that they wanted to see the images more clearly. Since the cyanotypes tend to be more fuzzy they are perhaps more suited for a younger audience.


Today’s designers have access to extensive photographic libraries and image banks. But, I feel that there is something lacking in the choice of images used in contemporary graphic design. Perhaps it is the ‘real’ feel of physical material rather than pixelated images that I miss in a lot of the work I see. This project offered me the opportunity to see if some of the craftsmanship of an old technology could add a new dimension to contemporary graphic design. Is it practical for a designer to switch off his or her computer, get some ink under the fingernails, and still come up with the goods at the end of the day? And if a designer powered down where would they find a how-to-guide to alternative photography? It felt like an eternity from the time that the first blue and white reproduction of a cyanotype caught my eye until I saw the real thing. So, how can one expect a graphic designer working to short time scales to find these images?

I approached this project with several questions. Why are cyanotypes not used by contemporary designers? The answer is that they are generally unheard of. Very few photographic exhibitions show them and there are very few books dealing with the subject.

Apart from the photographers working with the process very few people are aware of their existence. As a graphic designer you would have to be very persistent and really know where to go to find them. There is no ‘natural’ exposure to them. The main source of images for graphic designers is photographic libraries. Photographic libraries do not tend to stock cyanotypes because there is no demand for them. Because most graphic designers use photographic libraries as a main source of images, and since the photographic libraries do not stock cyanotypes graphic designers would not come across them in the same way as they would with silver based photography. If an image is hard, or near impossible to find, it would not be used in the design. I drew the conclusion that since the cyanotype process produces different looking images, and would therefore appeal to graphic designers, the main reason graphic designers do not use them is that they simply do not know about them.

Photographers I spoke to have had a very enthusiastic response to their work, and they sell well as art, but still, they are rarely used in design projects. The enthusiastic response the photographers received made me believe that there was something about the cyanotype image that would benefit design projects.

I also asked if the technology is easy enough for graphic designers to use and if they would be able to use it. It is an old process and apart from some recent updates by Mike Ware [27], it has remained virtually unchanged since John Herschel discovered it in 1842.

The process is easy to use, inexpensive and requires little equipment. It has some drawbacks, such as long exposure times making the time they take to produce longer than for silver based photography. It is also a little hard to control the exposure time if you use the sun as your light source. This problem can be overcome by using an UV lamp.

There is also a colour restriction attached to the process. You are restricted to blue, unless you tone the cyanotypes or use different coloured material to print them on. A similar image can be produced by using computer technology, although you would loose the unique quality and the depth that the cyanotype image has, because it is embedded in the material. They have a different feel from silver based photography as they hold the image inside the material rather than on top of it. Cyanotypes also have very original textures that set them apart from silver based photography.

Most of the problems can be overcome. With a bit of planning, the time scales would not be too much of an obstacle. The colour limitations could be surmounted by toning the images, or by retouching, in the same way as graphic designers retouch stock photography. The loss of quality in the print process and on screen is probably the greatest problem, but you do get this with conventional silver based photography as well. It is not a problem specifically associated with cyanotypes. A reproduced photograph in a magazine or a TV programme rarely has the same detail and depth as the original. So, from a technical point of view, the process is very usable.

The last question I wanted to answer was if cyanotypes can be used in design, and if they would appeal to the audience. Of the test group that was shown the three different stings (the Retouched stock photography sting, the Unretouched stock photography sting and the Cyanotype sting) a significant percentage, 36% could not see a difference between the three different stings at all. Steve Macleod [28] was right when he said that “Money spent on printing [the cyanotypes] could be wasted since people don’t notice the difference…”.

However, setting the indifferent people aside and analysing the remaining 64% of the people who could see a difference, most favoured the cyanotypes. Over a quarter of the total target group preferred the cyanotypes. Judging by this it is still worth the extra effort of finding images that are different, that stand out and that stick in people’s minds. I feel the cyanotype is this sort of image. Graphic design, to be able to sell a product, a magazine or a TV programme, has to be noticed and remembered. With stings, the time you have to make an impression can be as short as 5 seconds, you have a very short time to make a difference. As graphic design is usually made up by two elements: type and images I think it is fair to say that the choice of images is of significance to the final result. The choice of images is very important. If graphic designers can use an image that looks different, that has something original about it, or stands out in any other way, then I believe it has a better chance of getting remembered and sticking in people’s minds for longer than a straight forward conventional image.

Another interesting observation that came from the research is that there was an age difference in the target groups that choose cyanotypes and the ones who choose Unretouched stock photography. The average age of the people who choose cyanotypes was 22.1 and for the Unretouched stock photography it was 33.4. I could therefore draw the conclusion that cyanotypes are better suited for a younger audience.

The so called MTV generation has developed a higher tolerance for graphic images used as textures, whereas the older generation want to be able to see what the images actually portray. People exposed to today’s popular culture are accustomed to a fast turnover in images, and more readily expect them to look different. For this reason cyanotypes seem to be more effective when designing for a younger audience.

This thesis deals with the process of making an image rather than the message or the content of the image. I feel that I have proven that the execution of how an image is produced makes a difference, not to everyone, but to a significant number of people to be of importance. I think the fact that over a quarter of the group choose the Cyanotype sting supports the argument for using them. They are different in their look and feel. This is reason enough to keep making different images to make the design look original.


[1] Cyanotypes – sometimes referred to as iron printing and blue printing.

[2] Photoshop r Adobe Photoshop is a software programme used by designers for image manipulation.

[3] Alternative photography is photography not using conventional silver based chemicals.

[4] Mike Ware, A new blueprint for cyanotypes, AG+ phtographic, Timothy Benn publishing, volume7
[5] (K3Fe(CN)6) also known as red prusiate of potash, generally low toxicity, but can release hydrocyanic acid (cyanide gas) when exposed to strong acids (e.g. glacial acetic) or ultraviolet light.

[6]Ferric ammonium citrate, also known as iron ammonium citrate, ammonium iron (III) citrate and ammonium ferric citrate. Slightly toxic. Prolonged contact can cause skin irritation, or irritation to eyes and respiratory system. Store sealed in a dark and dry area. It is also used as an iron and vitamin supplement.

[7] Negative: The two main ingredients of photographic emulsion are gelatin and silver halides. These are coated onto glass, polyacetate or paper to make negatives, transparencies and photographic paper.
[8] Contact prints are make by placing negatives directly onto the photographic paper. They are then exposed in the same way as when prints are made, creating photographic positive prints of the same size as the negative.
[9] Photograms were made famous by Man Ray (as Rayograms) in the 1930’s. The technique is as old as photography. An image is conceived by placing an object directly onto the surface of a photographic paper and exposing it to light, printing the object rather than a negative.
[10] Barbara Hewitt (1995) Blueprints on Fabric: innovative uses for cyanotype, Interweave press.
[11] Anna Atkins (1985) Sun Gardens – Victorian Photograms, Phaidon Press Ltd
[12] Helmut Gernsheim (1961) Creative photography – Aesthetic trends 1839 – 1960, Dover publications.

[13] From Anthony Penrose, Lee Miller Archives, Farley Farmhouse, Muddles Green, Chiddingly, East Sussex, BN8 6HW by e-mail: “Lee Miller claimed she invented solarisation when she was a student with Man Ray in Paris between 1929 and 1932. It is sometimes claimed that the effect was already known and was called The Sabatier Effect. Suffice it to say that Lee discovered it for herself, and she and Man Ray were the first people to make good use of the technique.”

[14] Silver and Syrup exhibition, Canon photography exhibition room, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW7
[15] Flower show, Zelda Cheatle gallery, 99 Mount Street, London, W1. Cyanotypes by Jill Staples and Joy Gregory, 30th August 1999

[16] Silverprint Ltd, 12 Valentine Place, London, SE1 8QH (Update: New address can be found here)

[17] Michael Mauder, Mad dogs and Englishmen – Insight into sunlight, its content, its angle and its effect on photography, AG+ photographic, Timothy Benn publishing, volume 13

[18] When using the software Adobe Photoshop ou can go back 99 steps of the work you have done if you change your mind, giving you full control of the process.

[19] Tim Daly, A modern vintage, British Journal of Photography 27.01.99

[20] CMYK is a printing process where all the printing is done with only four colours; Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (K is for black, B was already taken for Blue) since not all printing inks are pure it is hard to reproduce the exact colour.

[21] Stefan Nilsson, Foto har inget med scanning att göra, Nerikes Allehanda, 7.11.98 (Swedish daily broadsheet newspaper)

[22] Barbara Hewitt (1995) Blueprints on fabric: innovative uses for cyanotypes, Interweave press.

[23] Personal conversation with John Benjafield, Historic Impressions, 176 Portobello Road, London, W1

[24] Francis Hodgson (Photography Manager), Photonica Europe Ltd

[25] Steve Macleod, Metro Art.

[26] RGB is a colour system used for screens. It uses Red, Green and Blue light to reproduce images you see on a television screen or monitor.

[27] Mike Ware (1999)
Cyantype: the history, science and art of photographic printing in Prussian blue, the Science Museum and the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television.

[28] Steve Macleod, Metro Art.


  • Figure I: Jan Van Leeuwen, Cyanotype self portrait
  • Figure II: Mark Sink, Lillies
  • Figure III: John Herschel, Lady with harp
  • Figure IV: Lee Miller, Untitled
  • Figure V: Malin Hylén, Outline of rope
  • Figure VI: Patrick Hilferty, Vesselfire: Cyanotype on wood
  • Figure VII: Malin Hylén, Floating glasses
  • Figure VIII: Robert Schaefer, Berlin Blau
  • Figure IXa: Still from Retouched photography sting
  • Figure IXb: Still from Unretouched photography sting
  • Figure IXc: Still from Cyanotype sting
  • Figure Xa: Still from Retouched photography sting
  • Figure Xb: Still from Unretouched photography sting
  • Figure Xc: Still from Cyanotype sting
  • Figure XIa: Still from Retouched photography sting
  • Figure XIb: Still from Unretouched photography sting
  • Figure XIc: Still from Cyanotype sting
  • Figure XII: Malin Hylén, Analysing chart


Galleries and exhibitions

  • Flower show, Zelda Cheatle gallery, 99 Mount Street, London, W1. Cyanotypes by Jill Staples and Joy Gregory, 30th August 1999
  • The Print Room at the Photographer’s Gallery, Newport Street, London, WC1. Hold some of Lee Miller’s prints.
  • Silver and Syrup exhibition, Canon photography exhibition room, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW7

Miscellaneous sources, associations and libraries

  • John Benjafield, Historic Impressions, 176 Portobello Road, W1. Personal conversation on the 30th of October 1999. Deals in historical prints, probably the only one in London to stock cyanotypes.
  • Francis Hodgson (Photography Manager), Photonica Europe Limited (photographic library), 10 Regents Wharf, All Saints Street, London, N1 9RL, 020 – 7278 4117
  • Steve Macleod, Metro Art (Part of Metro Imaging), Basement, 31 Great Sutton Street, London, EC1V 0DX, 020 – 7865 0000 Interview on Friday the 5th of March 1999, 10-11am.
  • Anthony Penrose, Lee Miller Archives, Farley Farmhouse, Muddles Green, Chiddingly, East Sussex, BN8 6HW. 01825 – 872691. Was in contact with Antony Penrose about solarisation. Permission given for quoting.


  • Adobe Systems incorporated (1997) Adobe Photoshop 5.0 user manual
  • Jan Arnow (1982) Handbook of Alternative Photographic Processes, Van Nostrand Reinhold
  • Anna Atkins (1985) Sun Gardens – Victorian photograms, Phaidon Press Ltd Reproduction of the first book published using cyanotypes.
  • Brian Coe and Mark Haworth-Booth (1983) A guide to early photographic processes, Victoria & Albert Museum
  • William Crawford (1979) The keepers of light – A history & working guide to early photographic processes, Morgan & Morgan
  • David Daye (1998) Special effects photography, Rotovision SA
  • Richard Farber (1998) Historic Photographic Processes – A Guide to Creating Handmade Photographic Images, Allworth Press
  • Peter Fredrick (1980) Creative sunprinting – early photographic printing processes rediscovered, Focal press Ltd
  • Helmut Gernsheim (1961) Creative Photography – Aesthetic trends 1839-1960, Dover Publications
  • Ron Graham and Virginia Bolton (1990) Focus on photography, Hodder & Soughton
  • Barbara Hewitt (1995) Blueprints on fabric: innovative uses for cyanotype, Interweave press. Barbara Hewitt, 1400-A Marsten Road, Burlingame, CA 94010 Permission given for quoting.
  • Life library of photography (1970) Light and film, Time Inc.
  • Life library of photography (1976) The print, Time Inc.
  • Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations (1996), Oxford University Press
  • Kent Wade (1978) Alternative photographic processes, Morgan&Morgan
  • Mike Ware (1999) Cyanotype: the history, science and art of photographic printing in Prussian blue, the Science Museum and the National Museum of Photography Film and Television


  • Agfa, Negative density range
  • library/basics/basic04.html
  • Tafi Brown, Blueprints > Buildings > Quilts, Surface Design Journal vol. 19 no. 3 Spring 1995 (US textile artist discusses work which incorporates cyanotypes and photograms.)
  • Tim Daly, A modern vintage, British Journal of Photography 27.01.99 Tim Daly explains how to recreate early photographic printing processes in Photoshop.
  • Martin Evening, Digital Futures, British Journal of Photography 09.05.98
  • Hope Kingsley, Silverprint Catalogue 1997-1998, Silverprint Ltd, 12 Valentine Place, London, SE1 8QH. 0171 – 620 0844
  • Michael Maunder, Mad dogs and Englishmen – Insight into sunlight, its content, its angle and its effect on photography, AG+ photographic, Timothy Benn publishing, volume 13
  • Stefan Nilsson, Foto har inget med scanning att göra (Photography has nothing to do with scanning), Nerikes Allehanda, Sweden, Saturday 7 November 1998
  • Jon Tarrant, Something special – five out of the ordinary methods of creating photographic images, Hotshoe International, Sept/Oct 1998 issue 98
  • Mike Ware, A new blueprint for cyanotypes, AG+ photographic, Timothy Benn publishing, volume 7 Article about the new cyanotype process.

Photographers and artists

The very helpful photographers that I have been in contact with, discussing processes and values, are marked with *, the other ones I used their work as a reference. Addresses correct at time of research.

  • Kimberly Austin
  • Agustin Baron
  • Eric Boutilier-Brown*
  • Jan-Olov Bovin
  • Larry Bullis*
  • Anne Deniau
  • John Dugdale
  • Jean Eger*
  • Robert Farber
  • Kenneth Geiger*
  • Patrick Hilferty*
  • Risa Horowitz
  • Terry King*
  • Jan van Leeuwen*
  • James Luciana*
  • Ann McDowell*
  • Susan Moran
  • Wim van Oest*
  • Jerry Orabona*
  • Sheila Pepe
  • Glen Rogers Perotto
  • Nancy Rosing-St.Paul
  • Jack R. Rupert*
  • Robert Schaefer*
  • Judy Seigel*
  • Mary K. Shisler
  • Mark Sink*
  • Joe Smigiel
  • Jeff Stanford
  • Per Volledal
  • Mike Ware*
  • Wendy Wilson*


“How sweet to be a Cloud
Floating in the Blue
It makes him very proud
To be a little cloud”

Winnie-the-Pooh (1926 ch.I), A.A. Milne 1882-1956.

Malin Fabbri is the editor of and the author of several books – one of them on cyanotypes see below.

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