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Summertime! Printing with the sun: making cyanotypes

Updated: Jul 31, 2021

… and collecting inspiration for your next lino prints

A cyanotype is a picture obtained by photographic printing process which was invented in the middle of the 19th century in England by John Herschel. In this article, I am explaining how to make a cyanotype step by step, and sharing with you the tips I learnt by doing...

Step 1 : Preparing the paper base (the day before)

A solution of potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate (easily available in specialised shops) is applied onto a sheet of paper so as to sensitise it. It is possible to apply two thin coats of solution for a more contrasted result. I use a foam brush and try to be very slow and careful while applying the solution to avoid brushstrokes to show ; I cross the brushstrokes.

For clear margins, I use washi tape around the edges. It will be removed easily and without tearing when the cyanotype is rinced.

I use strong (300 g per sq meter acid free watercolour paper with as little grain as possible. The paper must then be stored in the dark to dry ; it will stay in the dark until the day it is used.

Step 2 - Preparing the cyanotype
Plants laid out on sensitive paper to make cyanotypes

On a sunny day, around noon when the rays of the sun are as vertical as possible (to avoid shadows), place plants, objects or a negative onto the paper and expose it to the sun.

I like using freshly cut plants. I put a glass (not anti-UV treated of course) onto the plants to keep them flat and prevent them from moving in case of wind (that would produce a blurred effect).

Step 3 - Sun printing: the magic starts...

It is best use pegs to ensure that the glass is as close as possible to the board.

Ultraviolet light from the sun hits the exposed paper and reduces the iron of the solution. the paper turns dark blue green.

6 to 7 minutes of exposure are enough and sometimes less if the sun shines a lot (1 minute in case of a bright sun, 15 to 20 minutes if it is cloudy).

Cyanotypes being exposed to the sunrays

Step 4 - Developing the print with fresh water: the magic goes on
Cyanotypes being developed by being rinced in water

After having removed the plants, small objects or negative on the paper, rinse the paper with running water. To spare water I use a basin and move the water to prevent the white parts turning blue. I change the water three times and allow the paper to soak for at least five minutes.

Cynotypes drying on a drying line

Et voilà! Once dry, the cyanotype will have its final Prussian blue colour in about 24 hours.

What next? More creative ideas derived from cyanotype…

Some people do not like cyanotypes because they remind them of X-rays too much.

Some complain that cyanotypes are always blue. In a further blog post, I will show you how to change the blue color and turn it yellow by bleaching it or turning it brown to black by toning it.

Of course it is also always possible to be inspired by cyanotypes and recreate them as lino prints : this is what I did for my ‘en chemin’ series.

4 linoprints inspired by cyanotypes - yellow, dark red, turquoise, blue

The colour options are limitless. The only challenge is to print bold background colours in the printing process.


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