Cyanotypes can be printed on Japanese washi paper with added textures and fine results. But washing Japanese washi paper is a fine art in itself. Adam Welch shares his method.
Any logical person might ask “But why”? And who am I to disagree?
“In fact, it’s perfectly normal to wonder why someone would choose to place themselves in the way of a photographic quagmire such as this. Then again, as fans of historical and alternative processes, that’s why we’re here.”
I had originally stumbled upon the idea of printing cyanotypes on Japanese washi paper after watching Masayuki Nishimaru manifest a platinum/palladium print on tosa washi paper (https://youtu.be/CLIt_qD0JlU). The sheer delicacy of the procedure completely fascinated me. As I began to research washi paper I was dumbfounded over the inherent difficulty involved in simply manufacturing the paper itself, let alone how to go about printing a cyanotype on something that possessed the structural stability of wet toilet paper. Then it hit me: the very method of the paper’s construction could be what would enable me to print a cyanotype on this incredibly fragile substrate (when wet).
Then we have Bob Ross…
Wait. I can already tell I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s throw the cyanotype car into reverse and explain what exactly is going on here.
A Short Introduction to Washi Paper
Washi paper is used in a multitude of crafts applications ranging from origami, to book covers, to lampshades and window blinds. It is a paper that dates back over 1,300 years to the very beginning of paper-making in Japan. There are varying types and grades of washi but most are incredibly thin papers; some being translucent or near-translucent, all the while remaining deceptively strong.
Kozo is a type of Japanese mulberry shrub/bush and is one of the more common species of plants used in the manufacture of modern washi papers. It’s not for me to completely dissect specifics of traditional Kozo washi making but just take my word for it; the process itself is hypnotic to behold. You can see the entire production of traditional Japanese Kozo washi paper here:
In short, for our purposes today, just know that washi papers are beautifully textured, surprisingly durable mediums that look marvelous when integrated with a variety of photographic printing techniques. That is… when it’s dry. When it’s wet… it’s nothing short of an absolute nightmare.
Think wet toilet paper.
Think of the napkin under your drinks’ perspiring glass.
Think of the be-all and end-all of the worst possible things you could ever hope to print with.
When placed in water, the washi paper immediately becomes almost invisible.
Allow it to remain in the water for a minute or two and you’re left with this: a squishy, horrific mash of what once was paper.
Wet washi reverts back to the sum of its parts extremely quickly; to the point where the paper itself will quite literally dissolve when subjected to the amount of relatively heavy washing required for cyanotyping. And that’s what we’re primarily going to be investigating here today. How exactly can you print on something so nerve-shatteringly delicate that it will disintegrate in water?
Granted, and I don’t mind saying this, for my particular application I am using a rather low-grade washi paper (Link to Amazon). Still, the challenges faced and remedied here should sweep broad when working with any type of fragile photographic substrate regardless of process. Furthermore, higher quality/thicker washi papers will likely be more stable for washing. I will go as far as to proclaim that if you can successfully learn to print on cheap washi paper, you are essentially capable of printing on anything.
In our case, we will be making a cyanotype on a budget roll of washi which I highly recommend for practising this process, in order to save yourself a bit of money as high-grade washi papers are generally not inexpensive. The actual cyanotype process itself is nothing out of the ordinary as I follow Herschel’s original 1842 formula. There are a host of resources here on Alternative Photography to set you on your way to making beautiful cyanotypes already.
As such, we will be focusing on how to rinse, and ultimately dry, a cyanotype on washi paper. I have dubbed this technique “The Welch Method”… because I’m Adam Welch… and this is the method I’ve come up with. However, I am certain that at some point another person has surely cultivated an approach similar to mine although I haven’t been able to locate its record which, I suppose, is why you and I both are here. Now, onto the process.
Washing Washi in Cyanotype Process
I had initially attempted to wash the paper traditionally in a number of ways: laying the sheet flat and pouring water over the surface, weighting the edges while agitating, immersing in a high volume of water for a “diffusion” rinse, all failing horribly. It then occurred to me that the key to the entire washi cyanotype enterprise lies in keeping the paper completely static during the wash stage. This entails housing the exposed washi paper (which holds the latent image) in some sort of semi-permeable housing. My mind raced. Complicated thoughts of elaborate contraptions manifested at astounding speed. Then, it hit me: revert back to how the paper was made.
Washi is produced by essentially straining out the fibers from suspension using a finely woven bamboo screen. A screen. That was the answer. So, I quite literally ripped a vinyl screen off one of my windows (don’t judge me) and began experimenting. The final outcome, as terrestrially mundane as it might appear, works perfectly. Well, nearly perfectly.
These are the tools needed:
The “Welch Method” for washing cyanotypes printed on highly insubstantial substrates consists of only a few easily acquired elements:
- A fine mesh (preferably non-metallic)
- Two 135 format (35mm) film canisters (helpful but not required)
- A flat drying surface, in my case, a plexiglass sheet
- A rubber band (helpful but not required)
That’s all. Nothing fancy. Simple.
This is how it’s all done.
The Welch method requires relatively very little water; which makes it an efficient choice for smaller or more mobile print setups. I perform the entire process in my bathroom sink. First, carefully roll the exposed cyanotype, emulsion side UP (this will be important later), within the screen material. The material should be cut to approximately double the length of the longest edge of your print with no less than half an inch (1.27cm) greater than its width. This is, of course, just a guideline. I have washed larger and smaller prints with no discernable difference in outcome using the same screen.
Note that I have glued a small wooden dowel to one end of my screen. This helps tremendously in starting the rolling but is not overly necessary. Just take care not to fold the print onto itself when beginning the rolling process. Once the entire print has been encased within the screen, cap each end of the roll with the empty film canisters.
The film canisters serve to keep the rolled print held in place, but a rubber band or string can serve just as well. Once secured, it’s time to wash the print. I simply fill the sink with water and agitate the roll for approximately one minute. I prefer to use an approximate 1:10 water/acetic acid (4-5% white vinegar) bath as the first wash to increase contrast as my tap water is extremely alkaline.
The film canisters also serve as a convenient way to set the roll aside while changing wash baths.
After the initial wash, the water is drained and replaced and the process is repeated twice more. Depending on the density/size of your print, the wash time could be more or less. Just continue until the water is clear. However, it is advisable to limit the washing of the print to the shortest possible time as the longer the paper is washed the more likely it is to be damaged.
Once the print has been washed, a solution of 3% hydrogen peroxide can be poured over the roll to expedite oxidation in order to produce a more richly saturated blue tone. This step is not necessary but it is one that I employ with all of my cyanotype prints.
Following the H2O2 bath, the print is given a final rinse in distilled water. A darkroom tray or other container can be used to capture the H2O2 bath for reuse.
Now comes what is perhaps the most crucial and most delicate stage of the wash process: unrolling the print for drying. Before we go any further, allow me to say this. Everything will be alright. This will work. However… you will likely ruin a few prints before you familiarize yourself with the process. Which is fine. Everything is fine.
Removing the Print for Drying
Much like my initial experiments with the wash process itself, I was completely confused about how to actually remove the print from the screen. After all, at this point, the paper is in its most fragile state: essentially existing as a wet, congealed mash clinging to the screen. This is where the wisdom of Bob Ross swooped in to save the day… as often happens. I remembered Bob Ross’s words: “a thin paint sticks to a thick paint.” For our purposes, the thin paint is the insanely delicate, highly saturated washi paper, and the thick paint is the drying surface.
GENTLY unroll the screen containing the print to the point where the first edge of the paper is slightly visible. Flip the screen over. GENTLY press the end of the print to the drying surface and begin rolling the screen in the opposite direction, all the while keeping the surface of the paper contacted with the surface of the drying platform. If the edge of the paper fails to adhere to the drying surface, GENTLY use your finger to peel it from the screen and onto the drying surface.
The print WILL stick to the surface (as long as it’s clean) and detach itself from the screen. Again, great care should be taken here. Even then, it is not uncommon for a wrinkle to appear here and there. When this happens, just remember a few other sage words from Bob.
“It doesn’t matter. Doesn’t even matter.”
I have experimented with using the plexiglass surface pre-wetted as well as dry and have observed no real difference in the adherence of the paper to the surface. However, I have noticed more tearing mishaps with the plexiglass being dry. Generally, I now wet the surface prior to unrolling the washi.
If you recall from earlier, it was indicated that the print should be placed on the screen with the emulsion facing up. The reason for this becomes apparent now because once the print is unfurled from the screen it will be facing with the emulsion side down onto the drying surface. By doing so, this will help to minimize any “cross hatching” imprints from the screen. A wet Brayer roller (along with a piece of clean cloth or paper towel) can then be used to carefully iron out any remaining imprints and excess water if desired. However, I have found that simply leaving the print to dry face down on my plexiglass often leaves very little remnants of the screen indentations and avoids any mishaps that might arise from the roller contacting the paper.
Here is the finished, dried print.
You can find a step-by-step video of my “Welch Method” for washing cyanotypes printed on washi paper below:
Further tests will no doubt add refinements to this method of washing cyanotype prints on washi and other fragile papers. I am currently testing various methods of toning and spot-bleaching the washi paper cyanotypes. Thus far, I have seen no ill results from allowing the paper to dry and then re-rolling it onto the screen for toning. I’m investigating other techniques which will allow for visual inspection during toning or bleaching. Thus far, the results have been promising and have yielded unexpected results in the reduction of wrinkles in the washi as well.
The “Welch Method” is suitable for the wash stage of other processes aside from cyanotype when the substrate indicates the employment of a highly static washing platform. This technique is also especially useful for use with home printing setups or when space and supplies are limited.
I welcome questions on the washing process and I’ll attempt to help or elaborate on any areas that I can. Please note, however, I am by no means an expert in the total history and manufacture of washi papers.