How to print an Anna Atkins cyanotype

Apart from being a brilliant scientist and botanist, Anna Atkins was also an artist. She created numerous prints from plants, lace and feather arrangements. This is how you can print your own cyanotypes in Anna Atkins’ style. We have done research, but not managed to find out a lot on paper or oils used, so if you possess ANY knowledge at all in terms of which paper or oil was used in the 1840s, please comment below.

Writer and photography / Malin Fabbri, and Anna Atkins images from Creative Commons


Anna Atkins created the first book of photographs in 1843. She did this by placing plants, lace and feather on cyanotype paper, using the classic cyanotype process and thus creating photograms of the object. Atkins labelled most of her prints of plant specimens with the scientific name of the plant, and she did this by creating a label, see the example below. If you want to create a cyanotype in this way, this article shows you how you can create a print and a label in Anna Atkins’s style.

Print from Anna Atkins' book "Photographs of British Algae – Cyanotype Impressions"
Print from Anna Atkins’ book Photographs of British Algae – Cyanotype Impressions which can be read and downloaded free here: http://specialeditionartproject.com/the-special-edition-art/making-of-the-arts/photographs-of-british.html.

Now, before you start printing your cyanotype, there is some preparation to be done by creating a label for the print that will identify the plant specimen in the same way as  Anna Atkins used labels. The labels Anna Atkins created could be done using tracing paper, and tracing paper can be made by coating paper with oil, thus making it transparent. Another option could be to use paper vellum which is quite translucent, tracing paper or very thin paper. Since we are now 180 years from 1843 when Anna Atkins created her book, the materials used in this article will be different from the ones Anna Atkins used. 

Papers used for the label

The aim of this article is to show the practical application of the process of making labels in Anna Atkins’ style, and not a research account of the history of paper making so the papers used will be different. The papers I found to work best is simple photocopy paper, and then I tried a wide range of papers such as several aquarelle papers, a piece of baking paper and a handmade japanese washi paper made using fibres from the inner bark of the Gampi tree. This was not the case in Brittain in the 1840s. According to the account of AJ Valente in Changes in Print Paper During the 19th Century papers at the time could be made from “rag, straw, manila and wood pulp”(1). I have not been able to find any documentation of exactly what Anna Atkins used, the only reference to this i can find is in Larry J. Schaaf’s book Sun Gardens (only available second-hand at crazy prices!)

“…that the label is invariably on a separate small slip of oiled paper was (whose texture is clearly evident) could mean that there was no larger sheet present to write on.”
“The text pages would have presented no problem. The original would have been written in opaque ink on a thin sheet of paper, the paper made transparent and then printed quite normally.”

Larry J. Schaaf in Sun Gardens, published by Aperture, New York, 1985. p.32

The oil

The oil used for creating tracing paper in Victorian England is something I can only guess. There were many oils used at the time such as kerosene oil for lamps and imported olive oil – if you could afford it – for cooking and other vegetable oils. My best guess is that Anna Atkins may have used linseed oil which was used in the wood trade at the time, but as stated, it is just a guess.
In this experiment, I will be using boiled linseed oil. There are of course several more oils that will be suitable for making paper transplant. Any oil that is easily absorbed by the paper can be used, baby oil is another example. I would not recommend cooking oil, since it seems to “float on the surface” of the paper.

Anna Atkins created labels with the specimen's scientific name at the bottom of the page.
Anna Atkins created labels with the specimen’s scientific name at the bottom of the page.

How to create labels in Anna Atkins’ style

Supplies needed for the label:

  • Paper (plain copy paper works fine)
  • Scissors
  • Permanent marker
  • A rag (to be discarded afterwards)
  • Linseed oil

How to create the label

  1. Take a permanent marker and write the text you want on the label. Let the text dry.
  2. A label for printing cyanotypes in Anna Atkins style
    To create the label, write the scientific name on a paper and cut it to size.

    Cut the paper to the size you want it.

  3. Cover your work surface, it may get oily.
  4. Take a rag and dip it lightly in linseed oil. Work the oil into the label by rubbing in strokes or gentle circles. Take care not to add too much oil and do not pool it. If you do, use household paper to soak it up. You will notice the label is starting to become transparent. Once the label is completely covered in oil you are done. 
  5. Make sure you dispose of the rag safely by drenching it in water and sealing it – still soaked wet – in a plastic bag. Linseed oil left on rags or on paper towels can generate heat as it dries and if unlucky gets hot enough to burst into flames.
  6. Leave the label to dry overnight or longer. You will notice that the paper becomes more transparent as it dries. The oil needs to dry completely or it may stick to the cyanotype paper. This can take up to 24 hours. To quicken the process you can put it in the sun, but if the sun is too hot, it may “boil” the oil, so it’s better just to be a little patient.
Oiled paper left to dry
Leave the paper to dry overnight, or preferably for 24 hours.

“Once the coating* was dry the specimen and label would be carefully placed directly on the cyanotype paper sheet, put under pressure by a sheet of glass to insure good contact, and the whole arrangement placed in the sun”.

Larry J. Schaaf in Sun Gardens, published by Aperture, New York, 1985. p.33

* Referring to the cyanotype coat

How to create a cyanotype in Anna Atkins style

Assuming you are familiar with the cyanotype process and have prepared a paper to be printed on you are set to go. If not, coat a piece of paper to prepare for printing a cyanotype or buy pre-coated cyanotype paper. Make sure you have what you need to print the cyanotype, such as a glass frame for exposing the print, sunlight or a UV light, and somewhere to rinse and dry the print.

  1. Take your cyanotype paper and create your arrangement of plants or objects.
  2. Place your label at the bottom of the arrangement.
  3. Expose the Anna Atkins cyanotype in the sun
    Place the label and the plant under a piece of glass and expose the cyanotype in the sun.

    Carefully sandwich the arrangement in a glass frame and hold it together with clips. Please note that there will be a difference in the final print depending on how you treat the plant. Take a look at the images below. For the left one the plant was added “as is”. For the right one, the plant was pressed between two boards before printing, making the print clearer, but if you look at the details, also leaking some liquid that affected the print.

  4. Expose the cyanotype in the sun until the paper turns a greenish tint or as you would normally expose your cyanotype.
  5. Wash the cyanotype in water.
  6. Dry the print on a flat surface. Done.
  7. Added bonus: If you are a Supporting member and have completed the print before the 16th of March 2023, make sure you send it in to our Anna Atkins’ tribute event.
Photographic print done in the same style as an Anna Atkins cyanotype
Final print as an “Anna Atkins cyanotype”. The plant was added “as is”
Anna Atkins style print
The plant was pressed between two boards before printing, making the print clearer, but if you look at the details, also leaking some liquid that affected the print.
 

Enjoy your Anna Atkins’ style print and if you possess ANY knowledge at all in terms of which paper or oil was used in the 1840s, please comment below.

Anna Atkins included notes in her book "Photographs of British Algae" too, created in the same way as the labels.
Anna Atkins included notes in her book “Photographs of British Algae” too, created in the same way as the labels.
Even letters were included in Anna Atkins's books, also made translucent to be able to print them.
Even letters were included in Anna Atkins’s books, also made translucent to be able to print them.

Reference

  1. Changes in Print Paper During the 19th Century written by AJ Valente, published by Charleston Library Conference
    https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1124&context=charleston
    Accessed on the 19 February 2023
  2. Sun Gardens by Larry J. Schaaf, published by Aperture Books in New York.

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