I became interested in this process when the illness I suffer from took a turn for the worse for a while which meant I was rather lacking in energy so that hours spent in the darkroom wasn’t really on the cards.
It’s a relatively simple process and I don’t pretend to be an expert in any way. My experience is limited and work by Jim Read and others is what I aspire to. Having said all that it is fun and lovely to be really engaged in the whole process.
First here’s a list of what you will require:
25 grams of Ferric ammonium citrate (green).
10 grams of Potassium ferricyanide.
Water – preferably distilled or similar.
Protective clothing– this stuff can stain and its important to keep it off your skin, out your nose and eyes and in your lungs.
Smallish brown bottles for storage – eg 100ml.
Brush for coating.
Negative; actually, you can do cyanotypes as photograms whereby a leaf or similar can be placed on the coated paper then exposed.
Sun or UV lamp. Sun is quicker if its high in the sky but up here on the Outer Hebrides I require a UV lamp to get reasonable length exposures.
Carefully measure your chemicals in powder form and mix each with 100 ml water. Put into labelled brown bottles.
If it’s a photo-image rather than a photogram you would like to make you’ll require a negative. If you have a large format camera then you can make a nice neg with this – just overdeveloping a bit to give the neg some density. If you have a proper darkroom, you could make an enlarged neg using light-sensitive ortho film – but since I don’t know how to do this, you’ll need to look it up on t’internet. I either use a large format film neg or else produce one on an inkjet using translucent inkjet film – or cheap OHP inkjet film – which I find is just as good. You could use thin paper for this too –although it does make for long exposure times. There is loads on the t’internet about making digital negs but it’s possible to do it easily by using something like PS Elements 2 as I do – I lighten the image a bit then invert and print with an orange tone which seems to work just fine.
You can also use photocopy negs too if you have access to this equipment.
You can use virtually any paper but one of the cheapest and easiest to use is cartridge paper – available from art shops. Watercolour paper is good – if you like the surface – but I find it needs a quick soak in a weak stop bath and then a wash before drying and coating. I have also found a use for your inkjet paper as this cyanotypes well too.
I tend to coat while the paper is still a bit damp – but that’s just my thing. Not wet mind as this will make the emulsion go blueish before you even expose it.
My preference is to coat with a brush. This is because I have a brush – an unused paint brush – and don’t have a glass rod – another coating method. Hake brushes are preferred but paint brushes work ok and are cheaper – and available on this island where I live.
Anyway, to prepare your emulsion; no need for the darkroom but do it in a place away from food and where a spill won’t cause havoc as it stains everything. You don’t require a safe-light for this. Tungsten lights are best but fluorescent lights are OK as long as you don’t have the mixed emulsion out too long.
Measure equal parts of each chemical and mix in a glass pot.You should only require a few ml – perhaps 5- to coat a couple of sheets of A4.
Brush along the paper horizontally not using too much emulsion. Then brush vertically across the other brush marks. I prefer the brush edges but if you prefer the straight edges, mark around the edge of your negative and coat up to this point. I do it the first way but then, I don’t like to complicate life.
Let the coated paper dry – keeping away from sunlight, UV and fluorescent light.. Some people coat the paper twice but to begin with once is fine. There seems to be some credence in super-drying the emulsion on the paper with a hair-dryer. Whether this has any real benefits, I’m not sure but it does make me feel I’m doing some good and it warms my hands anyway.
Put the coated paper under the neg and place heavy glass on top to hold flat – or else use a split contact frame. Then sit the set-up in the sun – if you have any or use a UV source. I have a converted scanner box with UV strip bulbs that the nice electrician at the Manchester Velodrome, where I used to work, put together for me and it works just fine. Since the exposures are longish, make a cup of tea and think about the next step. According as to the density of the neg, I find that 30 mins to 1 hour suffices –but exposures usually end when I remember them!
The well-exposed cyanotype shows a hint of brown in the emulsion when it ready but experience is the best way to learn and since it is a cheap process, you can try it many times without breaking the bank.
Slip the exposed paper into plain water and lightly swillaround a bit. Change the water a few times. I find warmer water helps the clearing process. You need to have the yellow clearing from the highlights – the white bits. If the blue comes off too then you may not have exposed long enough. If you wish to make the print deeper blue, put a dash of your Hydrogen Peroxide into the last wash.
Dry the paper. There you have the cyanotype
The Way Forward
The fun does not end there since you can tone and/or stain and generally play about with the print. Tannin is the main chemical to use to tone the blue towards brown/black but tea and coffee work fine. My fav is green tea and mixed herbs straight from the kitchen. Since I live in a place surrounded with lichen I have so far tried one sort of hairy lichen that has longish fronds. After boiling it up and soaking the print in the resulting elixir, it bleached the print back nicely L. I shall have to try some other ones – the ones they used to use to dye the Harris Tweed on the island perhaps.
Mixing It All Up
My mother has often tried to tempt me to paint ever since I painted a picture she still have hanging at home. I did that 35 years ago and I still hate it! Anyway, Mum recently sent up some water colours so I have set to colouring the cyanotypes with these and rather like the technique even if I have not quite got to exhibition standard yet.
I’m not sure of the archival properties of this process – especially with the toning I use but, I have some I did a few weeks ago and they still look great now – if that helps!
Oh, and I’m feeling much better these days too thank you very much…