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How to Create a Cyanotype Print

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I dabble in a few photography techniques and cyanotype is one of the most unique and easy ways to make your photographs have a fun look.

What Is a Cyanotype?

A cyanotype is a photographic printing process that produces cyan/blue colored prints. Most people would recognize the technique from looking at blueprints of a building or cable diagrams for electric wires. Cyanotype can be used for so much more.

The process uses two chemicals: ammonium iron(III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide. They are easily available. The easiest way to obtain these two chemicals is just to order a cyanotype kit from an online retailer.

How to Create a Cyanotype Print

After obtaining or purchasing the kit, follow the directions written on the instruction manual the came with the bottles on how to mix and prepare it.

Necessary Supplies

  • Cyanotype kit
  • Rubber gloves and safety glasses (these are chemicals you are working with, so always remember, safety first!)
  • Sturdy white paper (like drawing pads, any size but normally notebook size)
  • Transparency sheets (for the negatives)
  • Glass case (like a large photo frame)
  • Flat tray or empty sink (to pour water in for rinsing the chemicals)

I took a photography class in college with the instructor in the following video. In this video, Michael Kloth will walk you through step by step in preparing the paper and chemicals. You may use alternative supplies if you do not have the same materials he has.

Prepping the Paper

There are some things that need to be done in between the prepping and the printing. You will need to transfer your photograph into negatives on the transparent sheets. If you do not want to use a photograph transferred to a transparent sheet, you can actually use still life such as a leaf or flower directly.

Example of Photo transferred to a transparent sheet

Example of Photo transferred to a transparent sheet

I managed to get my negative photos transferred to transparent sheets at a printing shop like Kinko's at a reasonable price. Hopefully you can find a print shop that can do this for you. With the still life, you would just place the leaf or whatever you decided to place in the glass case directly on the cyanotype soaked paper and then enclosed the still life and paper inside the case. The glass case I used was just the biggest photo frame I had lying around the house. I took out the picture from it and placed my cyanotypes one at time and let it get some sun rays.

The beauty of cyanotype is that you can experiment with it until you are satisfied with the outcome. You can tweak it by the way you brush on the chemical. Another way to vary the results is the time of exposure to sunlight. Yet another way is the medium. You don't have to use just paper; People have made cyanotype designs on t-shirts, handkerchiefs, handbags and much more. Just play around with it. Even children will enjoy designing their own cyanotype art.

The next video will explain the printing of the cyanotype. The process is pretty simple. There are shorter videos on YouTube that can explain the cyanotype creation process but Michael Kloth is a professional photographer and college professor that makes his videos easy to follow and understand.

Exposure and Wash

Results of My Cyanotypes

Cyanotype is a very alluring style. I enjoyed doing this project but not all the results. I will share the reasons I think my results varied. I was ecstatic about the results of my first two pictures: Daughter in the Sun and Mother and Son. They may be a little overdeveloped but I was pleased with the details. The other two images, Riverboat and Showerhead, had the opposite effects. I feel they were underdeveloped and lost a good amount of details.

In "Mother and Son," the color and contrast are near perfect.

In "Mother and Son," the color and contrast are near perfect.

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I ended up doing this project at two separate times. As a consequence of this, I had the results varying in detail. Mother and Son and Daughter in the Sun were the first pictures I did. It was sort of cloudy that day and I was worried that they were going to be underexposed. I left each one out in the sun for about 15 minutes each and as I was rinsing the chemicals off, I was extremely surprised how well they came out.

When they dried, I was even happier. I thought to myself that this was going to be an easy project. There were parts of both pictures that were underexposed but overall I thought they came out pretty good. The background of Mother and Son is too white and the window panels and the trees are hard to distinguish but I feel the subject came out rather decent.

Mother and Son appeared to be a 3-D charcoal sketch. Daughter in the Sun has a little over-exposure at the foreground railing. I feel the over-exposed results couldn’t be helped and is just a minuscule issue. The cross thatching came as a great contrast and composition to my daughter.

"Daughter in the Sun." I was very pleased with the results of contrast, composition, and space.

"Daughter in the Sun." I was very pleased with the results of contrast, composition, and space.

The reason I had to split up the days of the cyanotype project was that I had other obligations where I had to drop what I was doing. When I had a chance to get back to the project, I planned on doing it on the weekend. I couldn’t do the project throughout the week because I had to go to school and go to work full-time. Luckily it wasn’t an ideal condition to do the project anyway. It was cloudy and rainy all week and by the time I was done with school and work, it was too dark to work on the project.

When the weekend came around, I redid the process of the chemicals thinking it wasn’t going to rain, just clouds again like the last time I worked on the project, I was dumbfounded that it was cloudy, windy, and rainy all weekend. I had to postpone the project and took time off from work and school so I could complete the other two cyanotype pictures during good weather.

"Showerhead." The balance and symmetry are good but the color seems dull.

"Showerhead." The balance and symmetry are good but the color seems dull.

I was hoping to recreate the same conditions that resulted in my pleasing contrasts of the first two pictures. That did not happen. What I got was a darker series. In the first two images, they looked bright and light that showed great detail in the contrast of lines. I feel that was the opposite of what I got in the Riverboat and Showerhead.

The riverboat itself looks detailed but slightly overexposed but the sky in the background has no detail at all. It was a clear sunny day when the picture was taking but it can’t really be distinguished. The foreground, which is the dock, along with the bottom of the boat and the bottom border, are the same color so it is difficult to tell where each item starts or ends.

What I really liked about the picture is that the cyanotype adds a vintage looked to the image as if the picture was taking in the 1930s or '40s even though I took this picture in Richland, Washington, a few weeks ago. The Showerhead resulted from the same problem of underdevelopment. The pump came out with a great gleam but the showerhead itself is sort of lost in the contrast. What is funny about this picture is that the cyanotype made the Riverboat vintage, but the Showerhead is actually vintage. It is the original showerhead of the Portland Pittock Mansion which is now a museum.

"Riverboat." The form is nice but there is too much contrast.

"Riverboat." The form is nice but there is too much contrast.

Riverboat and Showerhead were attempted so many times. I think I made about eight images each and was still unsatisfied with the final results but was running out of chemicals and watercolor paper. I only made three images each for the first two series until I was satisfied. I varied the times and the exposures with the last two images and still was disappointed with the final cut. I just didn’t understand what my problem was.

Overall, I enjoyed the whole experience and will try it again from time to time just for kicks. I never developed pictures before they became digital and this experience made me feel like I was creating something from scratch. It was good times even with overwhelming frustrations.

Questions & Answers

Question: How many A4 cyanotype pages can be painted with 100ml of the mix of chemicals?

Answer: That can make about 40 to 50 prints with that paper size

© 2014 Ken