Experimenting With Cyanotype At Art School

Over the last few years, I’ve taken on all sorts of different design projects. Through this, I’ve learned new techniques like screen printing, video production and animation. Ever since I bought my first SLR camera I’ve wanted to try film photography. In the past year at university, I’ve been able to try out film cameras and even process my own film. From this, I’ve come across what I think is the most interesting photographic technique: cyanotype.

Before starting art school cyanotype was something I had never really come across. I vaguely knew it had something to do with technical drawings but not much more. It’s surprising to me that in a short space of time Cyanotype has gone from something I know little about. To one of my favourite photographic techniques.

WHAT IS CYANOTYPE

Cyanotype is what’s known as a photographic printing process. It was first invented in 1842 and has been used up until very recently as a low-cost way to reproduce diagrams and drawings. The process works by mixing two chemicals, ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. This creates a liquid which is sensitive to light.

By placing objects on paper coated in this substance it is possible to create a silhouette effect on the paper. The liquid reacts with sunlight causing it to turn blue where it was exposed to UV rays. Once the chemicals are washed out this leaves a cyan coloured print with the unexposed areas left in white.

Cyanotype is a very easy photographic process and can be used for much more than just reproducing photographs. The first book featuring cyanotype prints was created by Anna Atkins in 1843. Cyanotype allowed Atkins to document ferns and other plant life by creating what is known as photograms. This is a process still used today by many well known modern artists.

MY FIRST EXPERIMENTS WITH CYANOTYPE

As you might expect, my first experience with cyanotype was rather disappointing. While at an art shop in London I came across a Sunography pack. This was a pack of paper covered in the photosensitive solution.

The advantage of using this paper is that you don’t have to mess about with dangerous chemicals. All that has been done for you. You just need to find something to print using the sun paper.

Straight away it became obvious there were a few problems with the Sunography paper. First, it came with six sheets which wasn’t much to experiment with. Second, the paper had been coated in the cyanotype solution on both sides. Not ideal since you had to use both or the back side would wash out. Finally, the instructions on how to expose the paper were massively inaccurate.

Cyanotype process using sunography paper.

When it comes to using light-sensitive solutions I’m more used to using photo emulsion. Depending on the light this will expose anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes. According to the sunography paper, the exposure time should have been something similar. After doing a few experiments and some googling it turned out the paper needed to be exposed for at least a few hours.

Exposing sunography paper.

What I know now is that based on where I am in Scotland. Exposure time can vary from 10 minutes to a few hours depending on cloud coverage. This was slightly annoying because the Sunography paper was quite expensive, £10 for 6 sheets. Out of that I only got one useable print.

USING CYANOTYPE SENSITISER

The sunography paper wasn’t working so I had to try some other way of creating cyanotypes. The process works by mixing two chemicals together. Though ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide are dangerous they can be bought online. I bought a pack containing the powdered form of these two chemicals.

They came in bottles which I just had to top up with water. By mixing equal parts of the two solutions you create a chemical which becomes sensitive to light when dry. As I learned this method was much easier than using premade paper. I could mix the exact amount of solution I needed and coat whatever type of paper I wanted.

Cyanotype process chemicals.

Cyanotypes need to be rinsed for at least 10 minutes after exposure. This washes out the remaining chemical. This means it is preferable to use a heavier weight of paper. Printer paper just wouldn’t work. Incidentally, I learned that Fabriano Artistico hot press paper works very well with the cyanotype process and makes a very nice print.

USING CYANOTYPE AT ART SCHOOL

I want to share some of my projects at art school where I’ve been able to use cyanotype as part of my process. It’s something I’ve really have fallen in love with. I never expected to use cyanotype at university.

MODERNISM PUBLICATION

The first project where I used cyanotype was for a brief about modernist art. The brief asked for a 12-page publication on some aspect of modernism. This was a very open brief which meant you could do whatever you wanted so long as it had something to do with modernism.

Modernism publication.

You’ve probably heard of modern art before, it defines a period of time between the 1860s and 1970s. During this time artists began moving away from realistic representations of a subject towards a more abstract view. In part, this was aided by the invention of photography. Artists had to find some new way of making their work relevant when a photograph was a much easier way of creating the true likeness of a subject.

CYANOTYPE AND PHOTOGRAMS

However, artists also found that photography could also be used as a new form of art. Artists like László Moholy-Nagy experimented with a technique called photograms. This is a type of photography very similar to the cyanotype process. It works without a camera by placing objects directly on photosensitive paper. Exposing the paper to light then creates a negative image of the objects.

By using the workshops available to me at university I was able to experiment with both film photography and creating photograms. But what I came to realise is that I much preferred the cyanotype process to photogram.

Cyanotype print.

I like having texture in my art. And the cyanotype process worked very well for this. Especially at first when I had to learn the proper way to coat the paper in the cyanotype solution. I later learned that the Fabriano Artistico paper creates a very nice texture when being used for cyanotypes. Something I experimented with in my next project.

Despite spending a lot of time developing my cyanotypes I never used any of them in my final publication. Instead, I went in a different direction, looking at photomontage. My film photos had the same aspects which made me love the cyanotype process. They contained lots of texture and you were never quite sure how the photo will come out till it has been developed.

Exposing cyanotype process.

But working with cyanotypes was still an important aspect of this modernism project. I’ve very glad I got to learn about this process as part of it. As it turned out my final project of semester 2 was also heavily inspired by cyanotypes and technical drawings.

THE INFOGRAPHIC BRIEF

My infographic poster project was the last brief I worked on in year 2 and I think it was the one I had the most fun with. This brief was split into two parts. First I had to create an infographic based on a piece of personal data. For this, I looked at how much I use my phone. I’ve mentioned in another post how this made me realise I’m too reliant on social media.

The second part of the brief asked me to visualise a set of pre-made data. The brief didn’t specify what the outcome should be. I made a poster but you could do anything. I know one student made a card game based on a data set. Honestly one of the things I love about my course is how you’re not restricted in creating a design for a specific medium.

Cyanotype print. Typography and diagrams.

The data set I chose was titled “Timeline of the Far Future”. This came from a book called Information is Beautiful by David McCandless. If you want to see his visualization of this data set it can be found on the Information is Beautiful website. If you want to create your own infographic based on this data set you can also find a spreadsheet with all the data on that same website.

The first and most obvious problem with this data set was how to cram it all on an A3 poster. I actually had to get help in figuring out how to lay out this timeline. When you start getting to numbers like trillion and quintillion my brain just can’t cope.

TIMELINE OF THE FAR FUTURE

This project was kind of funny. Originally I planned on doing a data set based on dog breeds. Then I found this timeline of the far future set and realised I had to stay on brand. The entire way through college I chose projects where I could create something related to science fiction (or fact). Why change from what I enjoy now I’m at university.

My original idea for my poster came from LCARS. This is the operating system displayed on screens in the Star Trek television shows. The LCARS design was created by Michael Okuda in the 80s and I have legitimately been obsessed with it since the age of 10. I remember going into Borders when I was just a little kid. Finding a book about LCARS and being so damn excited about it.

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With LCARS as my starting point, I went on to research terminals and screens from various science fiction movies and eventually started looking at NASA. This is where I learned that NASA has a website which is essentially an archive of technical drawings and diagrams from the 60s. It was really interesting being able to look through this archive and it was a huge inspiration for the overall look of my infographic.

This is also how I got back to the idea of using the cyanotype process as part of my infographic design.

A CYANOTYPE INFOGRAPHIC

When I got onto this idea of using the cyanotype process my initial thought was to use cyanotype to produce the poster. As I continued with this idea I came to the realisation that this probably wouldn’t be possible.

However by the time I got to the end of the project I had learned so much about the cyanotype process that with the right tools and exposure time I probably could have produced the design as a cyanotype print.

Washing out cyanotype print.

The entire way through developing my idea I was creating typographic layouts, diagrams and grids which I would turn into cyanotype prints. To do this I printed my designs onto a transparent medium. In my case, I used screen printing transparencies. You then lay this sheet over the paper covered in the light-sensitive solution. The printer ink blocks light so that those sections won’t be exposed and will wash out.

One thing which because obvious was that taping the transparency to the light-sensitive paper wasn’t enough. My prints were coming out patchy because the paper was warping. Using a glass sheet to hold the acetate against the paper made a huge difference to the print.

I got so excited when my first print came out looking like it should. A lot of work was involved to get to that point and I really enjoyed the whole learning process.

THE FINAL INFOGRAPHIC

As I said, I didn’t have the right tools to actually produce a handmade version of the infographic. It’s easy enough getting A3 paper. But I didn’t have a large enough board to hold the paper flat. I also didn’t have a large enough sheet of glass to hold the acetate against the paper.

Infographic design using cyanotype texture displayed on computer screen.

Instead, I exposed a sheet of paper with no objects or transparencies covering it. This gave me just the cyanotype texture. This sheet I could then scan onto the computer and create a digital version of the cyanotype using illustrator. I could have used Photoshop to blur parts of the text, adding to the cyanotype exposure feel.

FINALLY

I’ve had so much fun learning cyanotype over the last year. I love that my art school has given me the opportunity to learn new techniques like cyanotype and darkroom processing. Cyanotype is something I would highly recommend everyone give a try if you get the chance. Though it wasn’t great you could even get some of the Sun paper because of how simple it is.

Dangerous chemicals aside. I’m amazed I don’t see cyanotype being talked about more as a kids craft. It’s so easy to do and you get an interesting output. There is also way less mess needing tidying up compared to some actual kids crafts I’ve tried.

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