Libby Nightingale of Chromasia tells us more about the wonders of cyanotypes, one of the photographic processes that will be covered in our upcoming Digital Detox workshop. Here she explains the process and her top tips for making cyanotypes.
What interests you about alternative processes?
I find working with cyanotypes and alternative processes very therapeutic. It's much slower paced, and watching images develop outside in the sunshine is a world away from sitting in front of a computer screen. It also does away with the mass of chemicals and equipment need in a traditional darkroom, making it ideal for busy homes.
For anyone interested in coming to the Digital Detox, what actually is a cyanotype?
Cyanotypes were developed in 1842 by an English scientist, John Frederick William Herschel. At the time, they weren’t terribly popular for images, because of the deep blue colour, but they became very common for reproducing technical drawings – or ‘blue prints’.
On the surface, it’s a very simple method. The process requires only two chemicals, ammonium iron (III) citrate and potassium hexacyanoferrate (III). These are separately mixed with water 24 hours before they are needed. They are then combined just before use. The chosen paper is coated in a low light and left to dry in the dark. A negative or object is then placed on top of a sheet of sensitised paper. The entire thing is placed into a contact frame and then exposed to sunlight for a predetermined time. The finished images give a stunning deep, rich, Prussian blue. However, like many things worth knowing, it takes a day to learn and a lifetime to master.
Can you use any paper to make a cyanotype?
It needs to be sturdy enough to withstand soaking and washing. I recommend an acid-free bleached paper so it doesn’t affect the colour. Texture also looks good, in my opinion. Personally I like ‘Fabriano F5’ but other suggestions are ‘Arches Watercolour Cold Press’, ‘Arches Platine’ and ‘Fabriano F4’. They all have different qualities and show a different range of colours, so a period of experimentation is needed to find a paper that meets your expectations and artistic vision.
So how do you print the image?
Firstly you will need a negative. The snag here is that contact printing produces a print so the image will be the same size as the negative you use – no enlargers in this process! If you are fortunate to have worked on large format film cameras, you may have some negatives lying around that are just perfect to pop into a printing frame, but most of us have to improvise.
The easiest way is to make a digital negative using digital editing software and print it onto acetate or paper negatives. Finally you need to do a test strip, mark off exposure times just as you would in any darkroom.
You will need a contact frame. There are a still a few makers of larger frames out there – but these tend to be very expensive. Alternatively, a clip frame makes a workable alternative. Obviously, you don’t have to stick to negatives, you can follow in the footsteps of Anna Atkins for example and make botanical studies, or use any solid objects.
What do you like most about cyanotypes?
I find it very therapeutic to sit in the sun sipping tea, beer, wine, Pimms or whatever you fancy, watching your negative develop. ‘Mindfulness’ is a current catchphrase, but totally sums up the process. Seriously, you have to try it as an alternative to sitting in front of a screen!
Can you edit the prints after they have developed?
The Prussian blue finish is wonderfully rich, but if it’s not quite your thing you can bleach or tone them. Amongst the most common domestic toning ingredients are tea, coffee and wine - although the list is almost endless! You can also work with cyanotypes on wood and fabric and I am currently working on these materials myself.
If you would like to learn more about alternative processes or just want to try something new then book onto our Digital Detox. You will get the chance to make your own cyanotypes on paper and fabric and a salt print. The workshop also covers film types, cameras and methods.
Image: Libby Nightingale