The Making of a Cyanotype

One of my passions is creating traditional-chemical-based cyanotypes. This blue-toned printing process is a hands on art form in which an image is permanently printed on normal cotton rag fine art paper. Having grown up shooting film, processing the film myself, and printing the film in a traditional darkroom I love the ability to get my hands wet and create the final image rather than just “push print” and to yet again watch a latent image materialize at the bottom of a photo try after exposure to light. Since maintaining a full black+white wet darkroom based on a silver-halide process is now extremely impractical, cyanotypes allow me to tap into that magic again. Because of the chemical process it depends on cyanotypes can be done in a general purpose room and requires very little specialized gear.

Traditional Chemical Cyanotypes vs. Traditional B+W Darkroom

In a traditional darkroom you deal with smelly chemicals which stain anything and everything and are often carcinogenic.  You project the image from film through an enlarger, and enlargers are becoming harder to find/service/repair. You print only on special photographic paper the variety and availability of which is dwindling as the world moves away from film. You need developer, stop bath, fixer, and photoflo for the film and a different developer for paper. You are limited to the type of manipulations possible in a darkroom (dodging, burning, basic compositing, and some basic tonal-curve adjustments like contrast and shoulder/foot adjustments. You need to work in a nearly light-free environment with only amber photo-safe working lights and good ventilation is very important.

In a cyanotype workroom you deal with only two relatively benign chemicals. Stains can be washed out easily before they are exposed and with some effort once exposed. Since it is a contact-print print-process you don’t need an enlarger, just a sheet of plexi or glass. You print on any surface which will absorb liquid, so any fine art cotton paper or fabric will work. You create your own negative using Photoshop and an inkjet printer, meaning you have full control over contrast/tonal-curves/compositing/retouching. Finally you can work in a normal subdued-light room (you should pull the shades, but you don’t need to block out the windows and tape the corners of doors!).

The process is highly hands-on and producing consistent, high quality results is very hard and requires enormous patience, knowledge (luck doens’t hurt either!). However, just to get started and produce some half-decent prints is very easy.

Thanks to Stu, a good friend of mine in Miami, and my cousin Laura who helped me make this tutorial. Stu’s image of two female models is seen in the unprocessed cyanotype and intraneg. Laura was very patient and flexible when I suggested that we do this tutorial during her vacation visiting me in South Beach.

Materials List

Synopsis of Method

  1. Print a negative image on the transparency with an Epson inkjet
  2. Make 8% potassium ferricyanide solution with distilled water
  3. Make 20% ferric ammonium citrate with distilled water
  4. Combine the two and mixed well.
  5. Paint the paper with the combined solution with the brush
  6. Allow wet chemicals to dry onto paper
  7. Place negative on top of the paper and expose to sun for 15 minutes.
  8. Remove negative and place negative back into protective folio.
  9. Wash paper by cycling tap water until the water runs clear.
  10. If desired add a bit of diluted hydrogen peroxide to help darken the blue
  11. Hang the soaked print with clothespins to drain for a bit, and then lay it flat to dry
  12. Place a fabric layer (or two) followed by a large flat object on top of the print
  13. The print will dry flat and darken slightly

**Since the making of this tutorial I’ve found that the best/cheapest/most-flexible solution is to make a gaffer-tape-hinged plexiglass sandwhich. This way the size is arbitrary, perfect flatness is easy, and you can stack a matt inside if you want a framed effect.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *