Christina Z. Anderson spends her hard earned money ($1613) on paper research for cyanotype papers and generously shares the results.
Over the last twenty years of practicing alternative processes, good papers for alt have come and gone on the market—Weston Diploma Parchment being one example. Worse, formerly excellent papers have gone the buffered route to increase their archival properties—not good for many of the processes we practice—or changed somehow in composition to render them problematic, most often without any notice to the consumer. I remember years ago, teaching traditional cyanotype in my alt class, seeing a lot of minute white speckles cropping up on one particular paper that formerly had been a favorite. That, coupled with a pale, washed-out, blue-gray color was a deal-breaker. There is nothing more frustrating for a professor than recommending a paper on a syllabus and having students spend their limited dollars on something that ultimately produces poor-quality prints.
My processes of choice are gum, casein, salted paper, cyanotype, and to a lesser extent, platinum (most often in combination with cyanotype). When I wrote my gum books (Gum Printing and Other Amazing Contact Printing Processes and Gum Printing: A Step by Step Manual Highlighting Artists and Their Creative Practice), paper choices were simple: most 140 lb/300 gsm watercolor papers work because gum and casein mainly need good wet strength to withstand multiple water baths, and buffering does not present a problem. Often a sizing of gelatin or PVA is used which in a way “levels the playing field.” This is not so true for processes such as salted paper, cyanotype, argyrotype, Vandyke Brown, platinum, and ziatype. These processes can be paper picky. Fabriano Artistico is an excellent paper for gum and casein, for instance, but it isn’t good for other processes unless it is pre-acidified in a sulfamic acid bath before printing.
Some processes perform best on non-absorbent papers. Some perform best on absorbent papers. Salt does better when the silver nitrate stays on top of the paper surface and not within the paper fibers. Cyanotype does better when the chemistry absorbs within the paper fibers, within reason. In my Salted Paper Printing book, I greatly narrowed the paper choices to a few trouble-free papers: Hahnemühle Platinum Rag (my personal salt favorite), Arches Platine, Bergger Cot 320, and Revere Platinum, which are all specifically designed for alt processes. When I began extensive research into cyanotype to create new course content for a semester-long cyanotype-only class, I wanted to broaden my paper horizon beyond these “usual suspects.” At a mere nickel in cyanotype chemistry per 11×14 print (compare that to an NA2 palladium print of the same size!), it is easy to justify spending all that extra cash on paper exploration.
OK I admit it: paper testing became a bit of an obsession as my family and friends and credit card can attest. Over 100 papers were tested. About 20 were eliminated because the prints were grainy, pale gray-blue, dull, and underwhelming compared to the good papers. The final results will end up in a lengthy chapter one of these days, but my guess is that the reader of this article just wants a quick direction to a handful of foolproof papers to start, or improve, his or her cyanotype journey. Consider this a portion of my $1613.63 (and counting) worth of free advice and experience. If readers only knew the actual cost of research behind any writing, not to mention the time…
How the papers were tested
All papers were tested with traditional cyanotype 10% FAC:10% PF. I know this is a departure from the usual 20/10 or 20/8, but this proportion makes for a smoother, less grainy, and surprisingly faster print, albeit the blue is more turquoise and not as dark (dMax-ed) as the typical 20%/10% formula. I didn’t pull the formula out of thin air, but in my cyanotype research of 100+ formulas (there’s that 100 again) I found that the proportion of ferric ammonium citrate to potassium ferricyanide was all over the board. Thus, I thought I would start with equal proportions and then work up from there. However, I fell enamored with it! When I went back to the 20/10 formula at one point during my testing, grain, grit, white speckles, slow speed, high contrast, excessive wash off, and other problems reoccurred. I didn’t believe my results at first, since they were contrary to popular practice. I thought it was my dry climate here in Montana, or imperfect chemicals (FAC can be quite variable), but sure enough, it worked well. I draw no conclusions except that it warrants investigation.
All papers were developed in five ways: plain water, vinegar, citric, hydrochloric, and sulfamic acid. I settled with vinegar and citric as the most user-friendly with the least staining of the highlights.
All papers were exposed for 30 minutes in an Edwards UVBL unit, and then at each paper’s standard printing time deduced from a 31-step wedge print. Most papers printed between 19-24 minutes with a few very slow papers (38-60) and a few fast (8-12). Finally, all papers were printed with the same particular image that has lots of detailed, white highlights, midtones, and shadows. The image I use for all papers is the house/cloud image included here.
The all-inks negative was from an Epson 3880 at a -20% ink density, custom curved using the Precision Digital Negatives CCIII system (PrecisionDigitalNegatives.com). With an Epson P800 I had to lower the ink density to -30% to equate to the 3880 -20%. The P800 is a super printer.
Have fun experimenting with these 25 papers; some are very inexpensive, so you won’t have to break the bank as I did. Some are more readily available in Europe (lucky you!). Some are thin, some are thick, some are white, some are colored, there is something here for everyone.
Unbuffered papers are few and far between, but certain manufacturers have made papers specifically for our market. I applaud and support these companies wholeheartedly. If you were to stick with only the following papers, you will do well. Notice the use of “platinum” in their titles to indicate a paper made for alt. If it’s good for platinum, it is good for cyanotype.
- Arches Platine, two weights (I love the thinner weight for cyanotype)
- Awagami Platinum Gampi, two weights (bite the bullet and buy the heavier 60 gsm)
- Awagami Platinum Mitsumata (I much prefer the Gampi, above)
- Bergger Cot 320, two weights (similar to Platine)
- Hahnemühle Platinum Rag (firm sizing, beautiful turquoise with the 10/10)
- Herschel Platinotype (for Europeans mostly; delivery time longer for U.S.)
- Legion Revere Platinum (USA-made; coat carefully so it doesn’t “splotch”)
Papers that work well “out of the box”
The next category includes papers that work well “out of the box.” Buffering may or may not be present—often manufacturers do not state this outright—but in my tests they were keepers.
- Arches Aquarelle (also, can pre-acidify with sulfamic acid; gorgeous deep blue)
- Canson Bristol Recycled (the whitest paper of all, sort of day-glo, and cheap)
- Canson XL Watercolor (prints deep black-blue, better if pre-acidified, unique striated texture)
- Hahnemühle Cezanne (mini-bumpy, textured surface, deep, velvety blues)
- Hahnemühle Lanaquarelle (smooth watercolor paper good for multiple coat cyano-plati)
- Legion Rising Drawing Bristol (remarkably beautiful even if it is buffered)
- Strathmore 500 Series Bristol (for me, one of the few suitable Strathmores)
Thinner papers and washi
The papers listed below provide a good sampling of washi, vellum, thin weight papers, watercolor papers, inexpensive and expensive papers, ranging in price from 7¢ to $17 a sheet.
Some of these papers do not specify content or archivalness (e.g. Canson Mix Media, Universal Sketch) which is never a good thing, but they work well for entry level cyanotype printing and are very inexpensive. For those of you who sell work, you will most likely choose the more expensive archival papers made from cotton, gampi, mitsumata, high alpha cellulose, etc., fibers. Note that washi needs a bit more finesse in coating and handling, sometimes requiring pouring the solution on a piece of glass and letting the paper absorb it, or taping the paper down for coating, or brush coating with a minimally loaded brush.
- Arches Text Wove (text or book weight papers are great for cyanotype)
- Bienfang Graphics 360 (similar to Clearprint 1020H but if I had to choose, it’d be Clearprint)
- Canson Mi-Teintes (if you want color, here it is in all sorts)
- Canson Mix Media (cheap and easy entry level paper but expose looong e.g. 48 mn)
- Canson Opalux vellum (stubborn but unique; tape down when coating and iron when dry)
- Canson Universal Sketch (cheap and easy entry level paper)
- Clearprint 1020H drafting vellum (100% cotton, archival, prints beautiful blue)
- Fabriano Tiziano (all kinds of colors and inexpensive to boot)
- Hahnemühle Sumi-e (a thirsty washi, unbuffered (yay), prints perfectly smooth tones)
- Legion Masa (if you want a very white masa this is it)
- Legion Thai Kozo (thin but strong)
Not included in this article are a list of papers that work excellently when pre-acidified in sulfamic acid, something for another discussion and level of practice.
Sources for papers
I have most experience with U.S. paper retailers. Freestyle sells the Awagami paper. Dick Blick sells lots of different papers and labels them individually if you request it.
Bostick & Sullivan (New Mexico): www.bostick-sullivan.com
Dick Blick (all over US): www.dickblick.com
Freestyle Photographic (California): www.freestylephoto.biz
Jerry’s Artarama (all over US): www.jerrysartarama.com
Michael’s (all over US): www.michaels.com
Talas (New York): www.talasonline.com
Aboveground Art Supplies: www.abovegroundartsupplies.com
Artist’s Emporium: www.artistsemporium.net
Japanese Paper Place: www.japanesepaperplace.com
Opus Art Supplies: www.opusartsupplies.com
Studio Six: www.studio-six.com
De Middelste Molen (Netherlands): www.deMiddelsteMolen.nl
John Purcell (England): www.johnpurcell.net
Moulin de Larroque (France): www.MoulindeLarroque.com
Peter van Ginkel (Netherlands): www.petervanginkel.nl
Polymetaal (Netherlands): www.polymetaal.nl
Ruscombe Paper (France): www.ruscombepaper.com uk
Schut Paper (Netherlands): www.schutpapier.nl
Van Beek Art Supplies (Netherlands): www.vanbeekart.nl
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All you need to get started with cyanotypes, full of information, tips and samples from artists.
An excellent beginners’ guide to cyanotypes!