Vandyke over cyanotype: a combination process with special effects

Elizabeth Graves examines the effects of ageing on the “blue vandyke” process, also called vandyke over cyanotype.

Writer and photography / Elizabeth Graves

The overexposed cyanotype.
The overexposed cyanotype.

There are many alternative process printmakers who combine two friendly processes to get results that bring out the best of both processes. There are many fine examples of gum over platinum, for example, which creates a look that neither process would achieve on its own. Vandyke and cyanotype are awkward to combine: the emulsions of one process bleach out the images made with the other, and strange effects appear in the highlights and mid-tones when they are printed atop each other. Some of the results are exotic looking, and so experimenting with this “blue vandyke”, or vandyke over cyanotype, combination can be worthwhile.

“Impermanence can be interesting.”

Out of curiosity, I combined these processes and then aged the results, to see how the chemical battle between the emulsions plays out over time.

Supplies for making a vandyke over cyanotype

To combine these processes, you’ll need:

  • an overexposed classic-formula cyanotype, one that is extremely dark, but has plenty of mid-tones
  • classic vandyke formula, diluted to 50% strength with distilled water
  • negative suitable for contact printing (perhaps the same one you used to make the cyanotype)
  • a printing frame
  • a brush (or the emulsion coating tool of your choice)
  • a UV light source
  • time to experiment.

The Process of vandyke over cyanotypes

First, coat your dark cyanotype with the diluted vandyke emulsion. Right away you’ll notice some bleaching, and the highlights of your print may disappear entirely. If you’d like a very abstract print, or are hoping for extensive bleaching, allow the print to dry (and bleach) overnight. Otherwise, just wait until the vandyke emulsion is dry.

Next, align your negative with the print in whatever fashion you choose. It is possible to create a variety of strange effects by intentionally mis-registering the negative in a dramatic fashion – some results look like images made for 3-D glasses. If you have plenty of mid-tones, you’ll be able to get interesting effects with correct registration of the same negative.

How the overexposed cyanotype looked after it had been coated with weak vandyke emulsion and developed in water.
How the overexposed cyanotype looked after it had been coated with weak vandyke emulsion and developed in water.

Take your aligned (or misaligned) negative on your coated print, place it in your contact printing frame, and expose it to UV light for about twice the amount of time you would ordinarily print a vandyke. These examples were exposed under a bank of BL bulbs that were about 20 cm away for 20 minutes.

After exposure, place the print in water, and rinsing and changing the water often, for 20 – 30 minutes. At this point, your ‘blue vandyke’ will be brighter and paler than in the dry print, but you’ll be able to get a preview of the overall relationships between the brown and blue sections of the print.

Hang the print out to dry, and then examine it to see if you like the results. If the cyanotype appears to be too dominant or if you are dissatisfied with the unusual greens which sometimes appear where the processes have combined, you can repeat the entire process, coating selectively if you want to modify portions of the print. You can print another layer of cyanotype over the print, to bring more of the blues back. You can also dilute the vandyke emulsion further and apply it again, to restrain the bleaching action. (Second coatings of vandyke emulsion often seem to bleach even more extensively, often resulting in a nearly illegible cyanotype beneath a pale orange-brown image.) You can use a different negative to take advantage of bleached out areas of the image. You can also attempt to fix the print as you ordinarily would, with your favorite sodium thiosulfate solution or other fixer.

I chose to wait, just to see if the print eventually becomes more complex as the emulsions continue to battle each other. I have aged this example for 8 months. The cyanotype is making a comeback, while the vandyke is getting paler in the mid-tones and holding the lightest parts of the prints a peculiar shade of pink. Some of my experimental prints have developed patches of a peculiar green where the emulsions have both stubbornly held their ground. On others I allowed the vandyke emulsion to bleach the cyanotype for so long that there is no clearly visible image in the final print. In many of my prints, the vandyke portions of the print appear to be spreading like rust.

The vandyke over cyanotype print on the morning after printing
The vandyke over cyanotype print on the morning after printing.
What the vandyke over cyanotype print looks like now – 8 month old.
What the vandyke over cyanotype print looks like now – 8 month old.

If you have overexposed cyanotypes available that you have no other plans for, consider printing a vandyke atop them to enjoy the impermanence of each stage of the chemical competition between the two emulsions.

Elizabeth Graves is an artist working with cyanotype, vandyke and collodion and a keen experimenter with all sorts of alternative photographic processes.

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All you need to get started with cyanotypes, full of information, tips and samples from artists.
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3 thoughts on “Vandyke over cyanotype: a combination process with special effects”

  1. This is a great article, I have been working on double exposures with vandykes over cyanotypes. Jaclyn if you have fixed the image in sodium thiosulfate it should be preserved.

  2. I love this combination! I accidentally made a combination print a few years back and hope to try it again purposefully soon. Do you know any ways to preserve the print? Or what type of material it should be framed with?


  3. I spent a great deal of time experimenting with the cyano-type van-dyke combination. I found that selectively applying the van-dyke after a full application and exposure of the cyano-type, with plenty of vinegar or citric acid, produced the most striking and vibrant results.

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