Discovered by Sir John Herschel in 1842, the cyanotype process is still used today in its original formula, and it possesses the unique ability to render subjects in a rich range of beautiful blues—a notable feature that distinguishes the cyanotype from its counterpart processes. Anna Atkins, the first female photographer, actually dedicated a great deal of her life to this alternative photographic process, printing and publishing exquisite photograms of various algae and ferns. As one of the oldest non-silver processes in the history of photography, it is difficult to resist the charm of a cyanotype image.
Cyanotype is very affordable and user-friendly, making it ideal for beginners and at the same time appealing to the seasoned printer. Neither a camera nor a darkroom is required for this process, and you can print an image on just about anything. To begin, you must purchase 2 chemicals: Ferric Ammonium Citrate (Solution A) and Potassium Ferricyanide (Solution B). I highly recommend the traditional cyanotype formula available in ready-to-use liquid kits from www.photoformulary.com for only $19.95. Or, you can order pre-coated surfaces from www.blueprintsonfabric.com to avoid the use of chemicals. Keep in mind that this is a contact printing process; meaning your negative will result in a printed image of the same size. So, you can experiment with film negatives, digital negatives, paper negatives and even transparency drawings in addition to everyday household items (for photograms).
Next, select a printing substrate with the strength to endure lengthy water immersion. A few rag paper suggestions are Southworth Resume, Canson Montval Watercolor and Fabriano Artistico. Most watercolor papers and neutral pH papers are suitable, but you are free to explore just about any nontraditional surface including fabric, newsprint, stoneware, plastic and wood. I have been working with the cyanotype process for nearly 12 years now, and I am still surprised by the unending number of applications that my students discover over the course of one semester.
Now for hand-coating the emulsion, a foam or Hake brush works well (label it for Cyanotype only). Don’t forget to have some mixing containers, eye droppers and print trays on hand too. Additionally, you should buy or build a contact printing frame to hold your negative and coated paper firmly in place; although, this is not mandatory. I also advise using a watch with a second hand to document exposure times (and maintain accurate notes!). Lastly, you will require a ultra-violet light source such as sunlight or a UV exposure unit.
When preparing the emulsion, work in dim light and on a protected surface. Mix equal parts of solutions A and B for immediate use. Each drop of solution will cover roughly 2 square inches. For example, 5 drops (A) plus 5 drops (B) will coat a 4” x 5” image. The first print will likely need a little more solution since the brush is dry. Coat your paper quickly and evenly, and then allow it to dry flat in total darkness. Drying may be accelerated with a fan or hair dryer on a low heat or cool air setting. Make sure the paper is thoroughly dry, or it may ruin your negative. Unexposed emulsion will appear bright yellow/green. If desired, a second coat can be applied for a richer blue. Coat and expose within a few hours, as fogging can occur over time.
Now, place the negative in contact with the coated emulsion under your chosen light source. During a study abroad program in Italy, my students simply exposed their cyanotype images on a windowsill in direct sunlight. Cyanotype is a printing-out process, so you can actually evaluate exposure by watching your print transform before your eyes! Exposures will vary greatly (3 to 20 minutes or more) depending on the light source and negative density; test prints are always helpful. A properly exposed, undeveloped image will look light gray with blue/green in the highlights.
The cyanotype image will reveal itself after “development” in water. Simply wash the print in a tray of room temperature tap water for 5 to 10 minutes or until the highlights clear. Several drops of 3% hydrogen peroxide in a second water wash will oxidize the print allowing for an immediate preview of the final blue image. Conclude with a running water rinse and then dry (the image will darken as it dries). If you decide that blue is not your color afterall, no worries! Cyanotypes can also be toned to acquire a variety of hues and may be easily combined with other alternative photographic processes (please refer to “The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes” by Christopher James for an exciting range of possibilities).
Note of Caution: Please handle all chemistry with proper safety precautions in mind; use of protective gloves and apron are recommended. Keep chemicals labeled correctly and stored in a dark, dry, cool environment. Make sure all brushes and containers are cleaned and washed well. Chemicals will stain clothing and other surfaces if not washed immediately.