, , , , , , ,

During my primary school  teaching career, I discovered that ‘sun prints’ allowed me to provide ‘alternative photographic’ experiences for my students without the ‘danger’ of using chemicals. The students,mainly 9-10 year olds really took to the process and not only produced some excellent sun prints but also wrote creatively about the experience. What was useful,as a teacher, is that the process was very portable -so on field trips we could take some light sensitive paper and make our sun prints from whatever natural materials we could find and make a record of them to take back to school (see Anna Atkins examples from the Victorian era below).  Now I have learned that the cyanotype process can also be used with fabric, such as cotton and silk.


The cyanotype process for making prints was invented by Sir John Herschel in 1842 and came from his discovery of the light sensitivity of iron salts.

John Herschel-Julia Margaret Cameron

Cyanotypes became popular because it was a simple process and didn’t require a darkroom and very little equipment. Interesting to note, the process was used to copy architectural drawings, hence the term “blueprint”. John Herschel   developed the process as a means to copy his notes.

A sheet of paper was brushed with iron salt solutions and dried in the dark. The object to be reproduced – a plant specimen, a drawing or a negative – was then placed on the sheet in direct sunlight. After about 15 minutes a white impression of the subject formed on a blue background. The paper was then washed in water where oxidation produced the brilliant blue – or cyan – that gave the process its name.

Cyanotypes are one of the earliest photo processes.

Anna Atkins

Anna Atkins produced the first photographically illustrated book and is recognised as the first female photographer, with her three-volume British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions appearing in instalments from 1843. Atkins used the Cyanotype process which had been invented in 1842 by Fox Talbot’s associate Sir John Herschel.

Anna Atkins

Cyanotypes are fairly long-lasting, as some of Sir John Herschel’s originals from the 1840s are still clear. More modern forms were developed in time using different mixes of chemicals, but the process remains basically the same. The cyanotype process was popularly used in copying architectural plans but was made obsolete (fairly recently) by computer printers and photocopying. Cyanotypes remain to this day one of the most beautiful and unique processes in early photographic history

Anna Atkins


Cyanotypes are made by combining two chemicals, potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium. Paper is coated with the mixture and left to dry in the dark. Negatives can be placed on the paper or objects are laid down and exposed to sunlight. Once the paper is exposed, it’s given a water bath. This produces a white image on a blue background.

The process in detail:http://www.photogs.com/bwworld/cyanotypes.html

Originally, Cyanotypes (called “ferro prussiate”) were used in conjunction with scientific recordings of mathematical tables, a diverse range of plant specimens and architectural structures. In fact, the first woman photographer, Anna Atkins, used Cyanotypes to print “Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns” and was the very first book of printed photographs and text.Anna’s work and details of a variety of early photographic processes can be found on the V&A website.

Cyanotype processing involves two stock solutions which need to be kept separate from each other in dark glass bottles until required for coating. Stock Solution “A” uses Ferric Ammonium citrate Stock Solution “B” uses Potassium Ferricyanide Both of these chemicals are very toxic and care for yourself and the environment muct be taken at all times. When handling the chemicals, wear protective clothing and gloves, plus a dust mask when handling the powder form. OK! Enough of that….what you do to start making blueprints….

Ferric ammounium citrate      90g
distilled water                         8 fl oz (124ml)

Adjust water temperature to 75 degrees F (23.8C). Using a funnel, pour 90g (124ml) ferric ammonium citrate into a clean glass beaker. While stirring, add enough water to make 8fl oz (250ml) of solution. Stir until dissolved throughly and pour into a labeled brown bottle.

Potassium Ferricyanide        50g
distilled water                        8 fl oz (124ml)

Adjust water temperature to 75 degrees F (23.8C). Using a funnel, pour 50g (65ml) Potassium Ferricyanide into a clean glass beaker. While stirring, add enough water to make 8fl oz (250ml) of solution. Stir until dissolved throughly and pour into a labeled brown bottle. Both solutions should last several months, and longer sometimes, if kept in tightly sealed containers and in a dark, cool cupboard. Make sure you keep these bottles clearly labeled and away from animals and children.

To use the solutions, shake each bottle then mix together 1oz (29ml) of both A & B together in a glass or ceramic bowl. This will coat around eight 8×10 in sheets of paper (any type of thick printmaking/drawing paper). Dip a wide haired or foam brush in the mixture and apply a small amount to the paper, coating the yellowish mixture evenly in long strokes to cover the area needed. Dry by a cool fan or hairdryer or lay flat until dry.

The Process

To expose the paper, place it on a backing board and cover it with the negative you have made to the same size as the paper. Sandwich it all together with a sheet of glass and clamp it with bulldog clips. Place the frame under direct sunlight or another strong ultra violet source. The exposure times will vary from around 5 minutes to half an hour or longer depending on the level of light. You will be able to see when the emulsion is ready when it changes colour from yellowish green to blue/green to bright blue.

To develop the paper, simply remove it from the frame and hose it in a sink with cool water until the rinsing water is clear. You can then intensify the print by making a brightening solution with 2 capfuls of bleach to 2L of water and rock the print in a tray of it until the image turns a deeper blue. Wash the print throughly for 10 minutes, blot dry and hang on a clothesline or use a fan or hair dryer.

The process itself is very very simple and the results are strikingly beautiful. As with most alternative proceses you can experiment and combine processes such a Van Dyke and Cyanotype, although print the cyanotype first or the blueprint will obscure the print underneath. You may also like to try and experiment with placing objects such as ferns etc on top of the emulsion…the variations are unlimted.

For a wide range of ‘alternative ‘ photographic processes see the alternative photography website.

Using photoshop to produce cyanotypes

If you dont want to go traditional and get your hands wet -you can copy digital photographers who  have been trying to recreate early photographic processes using photopshop. Today’s cyanotypes, like the one pictured above, also fall under the umbrella of Photoshop Duotones. These are made with black, blue, and cyan ink; sometimes the smallest amount of green is added. See the tutorial from Digital Black and White

Also check out this Photoshop creative magazine article

Step One:
Select your images
Open the image statue and butapest and place both images in one photoshop file. Name the file “Cyanotype”.

Step Two:
Transform and Blend
To remove the black background behind the statue, switch the statue layer’s blend mode to Screen. Then transform the layer’s scale to work with the Budapest background. Be sure to hold the shift key down while transforming the image so that it will stay in proportion.

Step Three:
Bring back detail
Create a new layer sandwiched between the Statue and teh Budapest layers. Then with a large brush set to about 150 pixels, paint by dabbing over the statuue with a middle grey color. (R-128, G-128, B-128)This will bring back some definition in the statue while creating a grainy look.

Step Four:Add some grain
Select the Statue layer and add some extra grain via the filter/ pixelate/mezzotint. Select medium dots. Now fade the filter, edit/Fade by 30%. When done select the eraser tool, and use a large soft edge rush to erase around the statue where the mezzotint sprinkling has crept into the statue’s background.

Step Five:More Grain
Select the Budapest layer and apply some added grain, filter/texture/grain. Set both intensity and contrast to 50 and use the regular grain type. When done, save your image for backup and then merge the layers. Layer/merge visable.

Step Six:go vertical
With the image merged into a single layer, go back into the grain dialog again and then use Vertical as teh grain type. Now enter 18 for the intensity and 0 for the contrast.

Step Seven:From RGB to GReyscale to Duotone
Convert the image to greyscale, image / mode/ greyscale. click ok when asked to discard color information, click the ok button. Then immediately convert from greyscale to Duotone, image/mode/ duotone. The duotone dialog box opens.

Step Eight:The duotone dialog
The duotone dialog separates the image into printing inks. click on the color swatch under the black swatch and choose a cyan blue color hex value 024C7B for the duotone. click into the box with the diagonal line next to the black swatch and make a point in the center of the box and drag the point downward. Click ok. Click into the box next to the blue color and when the large dialog box cmes up click into the center and drag the point up to increase the blue tint. continue changing the amount until you have a nice combination of blue and black int he image.

Step Nine:convert to RGB
convert back to RGB mode and copy the layer and name it blue overlay. Switch the blend mode to overlay and make the opacity to 33%. Now apply a gaussian blur, filter/ blur / gaussian blur with a radius of 20. Finally desaturate teh layer, image/ adjust/ desaturate.

Step ten:Add some text
Select the foreground color to access the color picker and choose a light blue violet RGB 198,204,255. Pick the type tool and use a script font to type several lines of text until it fill s the screen. use the character palette on the options bar to ensure the text is closely spaced and overlaps slightly.

Step Eleven:Random transparency
Teh text is for effect, not readability, so to push it further into the background and make it look randomly scattered, add a layer mask to the type layer and apply the difference clouds filter three times on the mask. Filter/ clouds/ difference clouds.

Step Twelve:Add a border
Add a rough edge around the image by creating a new layer at the top of the layer stack. Select a chaulk or dry brush and dab at the edgeing all the way around the image. Use more than one brush to build the effect. Now change the layer’s blend mode to screen at 955. ‘ Save your work.

If you want to take it further and make semi real Cyanotypes you can purchase prepared light sensitive paper or fabric on which  you can place objects and negatives (which you can process in your image software programme by turning an image into a negative, increase the contrast and print out on transparent film ) and expose them to the sun, when rinsed under the tap , the images appear.

Take a look at

For fabric cyanotypes -take a look at Blueprints on Fabric:

Another artist who uses cyanotypes creatively is Katie Knight:

I print on paper or on fabric, with a fondness for silk. Its various textures influence transparency, saturation, and how the cloth hangs. After concocting the emulsion and coating it onto paper or cloth, I find myself making nests of natural materials, arranging them onto the sensitized surfaces. Watching birds and animals make their nests during my spring residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I began composing nests as an expression of my interest in shelter. I layer the objects over the course of the exposure, playing with both time and distance from the surface. I can use the cyanotypes on fabric to construct sculptural forms that become nest-like houses. Alternatively, I can build them into boats that drift in air currents, whimsical or haunted with the spirits invoked by images.

Whether on paper or fabric, these delicate blue prints reflect the fragility of our blue planet, our dependence upon sunlight and water, and the vitality of dancing lightly with nature.

And a book to find out more about alternative photographic processes: