Wet Cyanotype Painting: Fun under the sun

Once you’ve explored classic cyanotype photograms, OHP negatives, UV light boxes or wet cyanotypes, you may be interested in having even more fun with wet cyanotype painting. Dennis Humphrey began his explorations between 2018 and 2020. Basically, it is spontaneous painting with liquid cyanotype emulsion, on paper, under the sun—a fun, serendipitous process.

Writer and photography / Dennis Humphrey


What is a wet cyanotype painting?

It is painting, drawing, pouring, dripping, dribbling, splashing, spraying and spilling the liquid cyanotype emulsion (A & B) on thick watercolour or other paper of your choice. Also, you will enjoy doing all this outdoors, then watching the print develop before your eyes, in the sun (vs darkroom or dim room).

It’s a direct, dynamic, engaging, gestural, painterly, collaborative (sun & you) process where great and unexpected things can happen. Also, it takes place over time—a few hours under a bright sun with high UV. You will be part of the process at the beginning, then allow the print to bake in the sun on its own for the remainder of the exposure. At different intervals, you can place and move objects around on the print if you wish to create a sense of motion.

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” — James Joyce, Ulysses

“Alchemy is a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination.” — English Oxford Dictionary

“We love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.” — Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

“What people call serendipity sometimes is just having your eyes open.” — Jose Manuel Barroso

Some examples of my wet cyanotype paintings

Cyanoscapes: cosmic landscapes

Cyanoscape: Approaching Curcumin, wet cyanotype painting, 10” x 8”, 2018, Hannemühle Platinum Rag 300 gsm, 2018
Cyanoscape: Stellar Splashes, wet cyanotype painting, 10” x 8”, 2018, on Hannemühle Platinum Rag, 300 gsm, 2018
Cyanoscape: Tendril Forest, wet cyanotype painting, 10” x 8”, 2018, on Hannemühle Platinum Rag, 300 gsm, 2019
Cyanoscape: Cosmic Journey, wet cyanotype painting, 10” x 8”, 2018, on Hannemühle Platinum Rag, 300 gsm, 2019
Maple key triptych, wet cyanotype painting with photogram, 4″ x 6.5”, 2019, handmade tesuki cards, (kozo, mitsumata, wood), 200 gsm, 2020
 

What do I need to make a wet cyanotype painting?

  • Heavier watercolour or other paper (200- 300 gsm);
  • Masking tape to fix your paper on all four sides so that it does not fly away or crinkle as much;
  • Flat board or backing onto which you will place and tape down your paper;
  • Cyanotype liquids A & B to create the emulsion: enough for the number of prints you will make, but less than usual because you are not covering the entire sheet with emulsion, only certain areas;
  • Small, opaque container with a loose lid to hold your liquid emulsion; you do not want your emulsion to sit in the bright sun for an extended period of time, to evaporate or to be affected by the sun’s UV rays before you apply the mixture;
  • Brushes, eye dropper, spray bottle, bamboo sticks, cotton swabs, sponge to apply ingredients or move the emulsion around;
  • Objects to place and move around the cyanotype emulsion during exposure, such as a clear plastic drinking cup, glass container or petri dish;
  • (Optional) Kitchen ingredients to apply to the emulsion, such as coarse sea salt, liquid detergent bubbles, vinegar, diluted turmeric powder or baking powder: these will react chemically with the liquids, changing their pH value;
  • (Optional) Clear cellophane sleeve or bag to fit your print with its backing;
  • Sunscreen, head covering, long-sleeved shirt, rubber gloves if you need them.

How do I make one?

The following describes how I made my wet cyanotype paintings.

What I did inside, in a dim room

  • Applied masking tape to the four sides of the blank paper to fix it to a flat surface or backing; this prevented the paper from crinkling or flying away in the wind.

What I did outside, in the sun

  • Had all my materials at hand;
  • Relaxed, thought about what I wanted to do. I was not interested in depicting a real landscape. For my Cyanoscapes series,  I simply wanted to play with shapes and imagine alien, cosmic worlds;
  • Dipped my brush in the emulsion and loosely painted on the blank sheet, leaving lots of white space; I applied small amounts of liquid at a time, so as not to create puddles;
  • Expanded some of the emulsion pools with the tip of a brush, bamboo sticks, Q-Tips, drawing shapes and squiggles;
  • Used an eyedropper to drip diluted turmeric powder on certain areas; mixed liquid soap with water and created a bubble froth, then used a spoon to apply the bubbles to certain areas; dropped coarse sea salt granules onto certain areas; sprayed a bit of diluted vinegar or baking powder on other areas (see Cosmic Journey);
  • Lifted the print and its backing slightly to let some of the emulsion puddles trickle down;
  • Placed objects on the wet print and traced the outer edge with my brush to create an outline (see Approaching Curcumin and Cosmic Journey);
  • Watched the emulsion as it turned darker and the ingredients reacted with one another in the sun;
  • Continued the above process or extended the pools of emulsion as they dried;
  • Let the print absorb and react with the emulsion, and  slow-cook in the sun for several hours, checking now and then to see if I wanted to do more.

Notes

For several of my paintings, I had to work with very low UV, so I increased the exposure to 6 hours.

Placing a sheet of glass over the print after you have finished playing with it will press down and squish the liquids, erasing any fine details you may have applied while interacting with your painting. I suggest you simply leave it uncovered and out of the rain, or place it and its backing in a clear cellophane sleeve or bag for the remainder of the exposure.

Final thoughts

After a few hours (up to six hours, depending on the brightness of the sun), or once you think the colours have darkened and changed to your liking, bring the cyanotype print inside, remove the masking tape and the larger debris gently. Then, rinse the print under water to allow it to develop, letting it soak; then, blot it gently and hang it to dry, or use an air dryer. You can also place your damp print on a glass panel or window to dry flat.

I have done variations of wet cyanotype painting. I have included photograms, as in Maple key triptych. For others, I covered the cyanotype painting with glass and clamped it down at some point, then placed objects (such as twigs, a shadow puppet or other botanicals) on top of the glass to complete the exposure over several hours, sometimes 8 or more.

I do hope you’ll enjoy the process of making your wet cyanotype painting and have fun discovering interesting, unexpected imagery!

You can find interesting cyanotype paintings on Instagram if you search for tags such as #cyanotypepainting.

Lanterne poems, from BLUE PRINTS 青写真 artist book, Dennis Humphrey, 2019

Dennis Humphrey is an interdisciplinary artist from Vancouver, Canada. He practises contemporary and alternative photography (cyanotype, anthotype, integral film, photo-based encaustics, transfers), as well as printmaking, writing poetry and making handmade artist books. He describes himself as “A mature art amateur, maker of pictures, boxes, cards, books and other paper things“.
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All images and text © Dennis Humphrey, 2022