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How to Make Artful Cyanotypes

While in isolation at home I have been working on a personal project creating cyanotypes, and I thought you too might like to experiment with them also.

Cyanotypes are a very old and traditional photographic form of printing which came about in the 1800s.

I love their inky indigo blues and how natural they are, as you need to work with sunlight to expose them. They really are completely handmade images, using the sun, paper and an object sandwiched in between.

What I probably love the most about cyanotypes is that they are playful and completely unpredictable. It’s really lovely to create without the pressure of always getting something ‘perfect’ or ‘right’. I find it’s more beautiful this way. I have just added a handful of Cyanotype Kits to my shop to make it really easy for you to access and have a go. This is a great project to do with kids!

Above left: My string bag filled with collected sea bird feathers from the local beach / Above right: Admiring and taking notice of the forms and shapes of the collected feathers.

Now that I have a little more stillness and calm within my day I decided to start a project documenting what’s around me during ‘The Great Lockdown of 2020’ using cyanotypes as a medium.

In the mornings I go on early walks along the beach and collect seabird feathers. All different shapes and sizes, even those scrungy ones that aren’t that pretty (I find they work the best for this project).

Natural objects which work well for cyanotypes are ones which are fairly flat, like feathers, interesting leaves and delicate ferns, I have even been pressing and drying seaweed. Just rememeber when collecting bits and pieces for your cyanotypes you need the light to come through and expose the shape.

Above left: Beautiful watercolour paper torn into two sizes ready to be painted in chemistry/ Above right: The Cyanotype Kits, with their components of chemistry.

Now you need to prepare your paper. What you will need is some nice heavy weight watercolour paper, which you will be making into light sensitive paper. Watercolour paper from any art supply store will work well. Either in a pad or by the sheet.

Just make sure you tear your paper down to size using a ruler or an edge of a table, never scissors. It’s so artful to see the raw edge of paper. I find 6×8″ an easy size to start off with, then the more experienced you become you can use larger sheets of paper.

You will also need your Cyanotype Kit of chemistry to make all the magic happen. They come with instructions, the chemistry and a syringe, so all you need to do is add one part of each chemical into an old glass jar. Too easy.

Above left: Making sure my watercolour paper will fit underneath the empty photo frame I’m going to use as my ‘press’. / Above right: In my fabulous laundry preparing to paint the watercolour paper with the mixed chemistry. Usually it would be a bit darker than this, but I kept it lighter so you can see my set up.

I use an empty photo frame as my ‘press’, using the glass and the backing board. Just make sure your paper will fit in nicely under the glass.

Last step is painting your watercolour paper with the chemistry. You can either use a brush or sponge to do this. I do this in the laundry on the washing machine, which I coat in a garbage bag, as it can be messy, especially as you need to paint the paper in subdued light. Pro Tip: wear old clothes :)

I usually prepare the paper on an overcast day or in the evening with the door only just open. Then leave your pieces of paper out to dry in the dark until they are bone dry. Won’t take long. Once dry place the paper in the black garbage bag and double it over so no light can get in.

Above left: A feather sandwiched between the light sensitive paper and the pane of glass, being exposed on the deck in full sunlight / Above right: Working outdoors is always fun and uplifting.

Now you are set to rock and roll. Make sure it’s a sunny day. I grab my feathers or whatever I’m planning on exposing and take the photo frame and glass and head to the laundry to assemble everything.

Again, in subdued light I place one piece of paper (light sensitive side up) on the backing board of the photo frame, then place the feathers in a pretty manner and then add the glass on top to weigh it all down.

Head outside and place it in the full sun and wait about 10 mins. You will see the paper change colour from a yellow colour, through to blue, then to a grey dirty white colour.

Above left: This is what the paper looks like just as you remove the object from on top of it / Above right: You can see the image developing underwater and the yellow tint fading away.

Once you remove your object from the paper you will see the negative imprint it has left behind and it will look rather iridescent. Immediately place the paper in a water bath and wash for 15 minutes then place somewhere flat to dry.

This is a really fascinating time to watch the print develop underwater, as the print is still developing and working with the water to reveal itself.

Above: A collection of some of my cyanotypes of feathers, perfectly imperfect.

I really love working with the feathers, though you can use so many different objects and experiment with their placement on the light sensitive paper.

Above left: The lounge room at home where I have stuck a small collection of cyanotypes out to admire and see what I can improve on next time/ Above right: Beautiful inky layers of indigo blue.

I find even some of my mistakes are usually the ones I like the best. Where I have missed a bit of paper while painting the chemistry on, or my paper wasn’t bone dry when I used it (impatient).

All those little nuances are part of the story behind creating these handmade prints and they have merit.

Above: Such an interesting and easy project to do, especially when you can collect your favourite things from nature to collect.

It’s strangely a really beautiful and calm process to do, especially right now. Making something with your hands and collecting natural objects, and then using the sunlight to create something of beauty. Something to remember these days by.

Above left: The feathers look so delicate and feminine in this medium  / Above right: A self portrait in the mirror.

Above: Layers and layers of inky blues, incredible that this process has been around for over 200 years.

There are a lot of tutorial and resources out there to learn more about cyanotypes. Photographer Linda McCartney even made a book of her cyanotypes in 1972 called ‘Sun Prints’ and I also admire the work of English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, who used seeweed in her beautiful cyanotypes.

Just remember to have fun with it, these old alternative processes are about enjoying and being in the moment with your craft.

Kara x

p.s: its always a good idea to wear gloves when painting the chemistry.


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