Cyanotypes use sunlight to create vivid blue, graphic prints. Follow these easy steps from printmaker Rachel Moore to start creating your own photographic prints to liven up your walls at home.
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The sun is out, which means most people will be spending their time sunbathing and relaxing in the heat. But how about doing something a little more creative? In fact, there is one creative activity that is centred around the sun.
Cyanotype is a form of photographic printing that uses sunlight to create vivid cyan-blue prints with blistering white designs. First developed in 1842, it was initially used to create copies of drawings and diagrams – giving us the word blueprint.
It works by coating paper, or any porous surface, with two chemicals: ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. When the chemicals are mixed together and exposed to sunlight, they react to create a deep-blue hue. By placing objects on the chemical-treated paper and blocking out the light in certain areas you can create startling designs and patterns.
Anna Atkins, who is considered to be the first female photographer, created the first-ever photo book with cyanotypes documenting her extensive seaweed collection. Over the decades, it’s also been used by artists and photographers like Linda McCartney and Annie Lopez.
“It’s pure magic,” says Rachel Moore, a printmaker who left her job as an accountant to found iPrintedThat, which runs hands-on printmaking workshops across the country. “A cyanotype turns something ordinary, into something extraordinary.”
“You never know quite what it’s going to look like until it’s finished, which is what makes it all the more special,” says Rachel. “As adults, we forget to play and cyanotype is all about experimenting and playing around to get the result you want.”
What’s more, you don’t need to be especially artistic to create exciting cyanotype prints. “Art is all about breaking the rules, and with cyanotype, there are no rules,” says Rachel.
Here, Rachel explains everything you need to know about to make cyanotype prints at home, including tips for making your designs look elegant and professional.
What you’ll need to make a cyanotype print
- Pre-prepared cyanotype paper (you can buy this online and in craft shops)
- A selection of objects you want to print
- A piece of cardboard or MDF
- Clear acrylic or perspex sheet
- Bulldog clips
If you’re making the cyanotype solution yourself you will also need:
- Ferric ammonium citrate
- Potassium ferricyanide (you can buy these chemicals online and in certain craft shops)
- Sponge or brush
You can buy a cyanotype kit, which includes all materials and a live workshop link, from Rachel’s website, iPrintedThat.
How to make a cyanotype print from scratch
1. If you’re making the cyanotype solution from scratch, mix the ferric ammonium citrate with water according to the instructions on the label (approximately 100g in 400ml water). Store in a labelled, opaque container.
2. Do the same with the potassium ferricyanide (approximately 40g in 400ml water) and store it in a labelled, opaque container.
3. Mix together equal amounts of the ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide solutions in a container to create the cyanotype solution.
4. Wipe the solution evenly across your pre-cut paper with a sponge or brush.
5. Leave the paper to dry overnight in a very dark room or cupboard.
Complete steps one to five in a dark room away from sunlight.
6. If you’re using pre-prepared cyanotype paper, begin at this step. Place your prepared paper on a thick piece of card or MDF.
8. Once you’re happy with the arrangement of your objects, put a piece of clear perspex or acrylic over the top and secure with bulldog clips – be careful not to place these over your design.
Try to keep the cyanotype paper out of direct sunlight while completing steps six to eight.
9. Now it’s time for the sun to work its magic. Leave the paper outside in the sunlight until it turns blue. The length of time this takes will depend on how sunny it is. On a sunny day, this should take around 15 minutes; on a cloudy day, it could take longer.
10. Once the paper has changed colour, remove the bulldog clips and clear the perspex sheet before taking the cyanotype paper from the cardboard. Rinse the paper under cold water for a few minutes until all the chemicals have washed off. The chemicals are usually safe to touch, but you may want to use gloves to do this.
11. Leave the paper to dry completely before admiring your finished design.
Rachel’s tips for making perfect cyanotype prints
Less is more
When you’re placing objects on the cyanotype paper, it’s best to leave some space between them. “You want to think about the negative spaces,” says Rachel. “It’s best not to pile too much on the paper, so you can see the contrast between where your objects have been and the final exposed paper.”
“You can use almost anything to create your design,” says Rachel. Natural objects like leaves and flowers create arresting designs. “If you’re after a solid design, it’s best to go for thicker leaves. If you want something more delicate and ethereal, white petalled flowers work well.” She also recommends using seed heads and weeds: “Bindweed makes absolutely beautiful prints!”
Fabrics like lace and sheer materials with a pattern can also create interesting designs. Even antique bottles, Victorian keys and interesting cutlery can work.
Use the sun to your advantage
Understanding what sun exposure will do to your design means you can experiment with different effects and colours. “Bright, intense sunlight will give really deep indigo and denim blues,” says Rachel. “Weaker sunlight will create pale, milky light blues.”
Be mindful if you’re using delicate materials. Overexposing thin petals or leaves to the sun can cause them to disintegrate.
Know the wildlife codes
If you’re using botanical objects, be respectful when picking them. “Make sure you don’t pick any plants from the root and try not to pick too much of one thing,” warns Rachel.
It’s also best not to pick toxic plants, which could leave dangerous sap on your hands.
Buy a read-made cyanotype kit, or sign up to Rachel’s next cyanotype printing workshop on July 17 via her website. You can find out more about cyanotype printing and other printmaking techniques on her Instagram page, @iprintedthat.
Images: Rachel Moore
Rachel Moore, printmaker and founder of iPrintedThat
Rachel Moore is a printmaker based in Rochester, Kent. She runs workshops for all ages and experiences in a range of printmaking disciplines, including screen printing, linocut and gelli printing.