Known as cyanotypes, these blue prints feel like magic to make.
Years ago in college, I learned how to make light drawings, or “sun prints” as they are commonly called, using an alchemistic process that uses light sensitive chemicals combined with sunlight to render an image on paper. This simple process was one of the earliest photographic processes, relying on just the basic principles of photography without using a camera—in fact, this process eventually led to the invention of the camera.
Some of you may be familiar with photograms and the process here is the same. These photographic prints can be made in shades of blue, sepia, or black, but today I’m going to talk about how to make the blue ones, called cyanotpyes.
What you’ll need:
A low-light area (like your home at night; instructions for setting one up during the day, below)
Gloves and an apron, optional
Light-sensitive cyanotype solution (I prefer to order it in two parts that you mix together in equal parts, but you can also find it pre-mixed.)
An opaque bowl or bucket, for mixing solution
Thick watercolor paper
A wide, cheap paintbrush, for painting the solution on the paper
A heavy black trash bag, for storing coated papers
Leaves, flowers, or scraps of lace (any object you want to print in silhouette!)
A piece of glass, like one from a picture frame, for holding down the objects (optional)
Tray or baking sheet
A sunny day
How to make your own cyanotypes:
1. Set up a low-light room in your house.
I do this process in a darkroom, but you may do it in any space you have available that has no UV light (sunlight or light bulbs) present.
An interior room without windows, like a bathroom or a basement, would work well. You can place a few small candles in the room to shed just enough light to see what you’re doing—though I mix the solution and paint it onto the paper in complete darkness when necessary. It is kind of a fun experience!
2. Mix the solution.
There are readily available kits for making cyanotypes (called sun-print kits), as well as easy-to-brush-on light sensitive emulsions like Lumi’s inkodye, but I prefer mixing my chemicals from scratch. To do so, order cyanotype emulsion from a photo-supply store, which often comes in two parts that you mix together.
When you’re ready, take your solution supplies and an opaque bucket into the low-light room and mix them according to the instructions on the bottle (you might read the instructions before you go into the dark). The solution will last a few months sealed up in the opaque container and stored in a dark place, so you can wait for a sunny day to come along.
One thing to note: These are chemicals, so be careful and wear gloves. The pigment will stain clothing, so it is also wise to wear a smock or apron.
3. Coat your paper.
In the low-light room, paint one side of each piece of paper with the chemical solution, taking care to ensure it’s well-coated, and allow the paper to dry overnight. (I would dedicate an inexpensive craft brush to this process and not use it for anything else.)
Once the paper is coated it is sensitive to sunlight, so you must take care to keep it in the dark until you are ready to begin making your prints. (You can stack and store the sheets in a heavy black plastic trash bag to keep the light out. It will last for months or even a year this way, so long as no light gets in the bag.
4. Gather objects.
Once you have coated your paper, the next step is to collect the specimens that you want to turn into prints. I often use cuttings from my garden, but I have also used old lace, and I have even asked my children to hold very still and place their hands on the paper (the chemicals are safe to touch once dry). Specimens that are flat work best, but sometimes you can get good effects from things that are more 3-D.
5. Wait for the sun.
Next, you need to wait for a sunny day. I prefer making them around midday when the sun is high in the sky, and often in the summer—as that’s when my garden is most bountiful. This can make for a hot day, but I love it.
You may also make these indoors under UV lights, but I do not, since you lose the experience of being outside, which is part of the fun. Inside, you are able to control the light more—for instance, you do not run the risk of clouds passing in front of the sunlight and you can make the light drawings at any time, rain or shine.
6. Expose your sun prints to the light.
Once your paper is coated in solution and you have gathered your specimens, the process is simple: When you’re ready to make the light drawings, open the black trash bag where your paper is being stored and pull out one sheet. Place it, emulsion-side up, on a tray or baking sheet and arrange the specimens on it in the desired pattern, then quickly walk the whole arrangement outside into the sunshine. (You may use a piece of glass if you wish to hold the specimens flat on the paper.)
On a very bright day, you should see development happening almost instantly; the paper will turn grey. After about 5 minutes in bright sun (longer if it is cloudy), the piece is ready for the next step. You may check exposure by carefully lifting up one corner of your specimen to see if there is a color change underneath it.
A simple water bath rinses the extra chemicals from the paper and fixes the image in place permanently. This wash should take about 20 minutes and can be done outside with a garden hose in the shade, or inside in a sink or darkroom, if you have access to one.
8. Hang to dry.
Once your print has been thoroughly rinsed, you may hang it to dry. A simple clothesline situation in the yard will make this fly by.
I love this process because it gets me out in my yard, is a great way to preserve what is growing in it, and each one is unique and impossible to predict as the process is so alchemistic. It is a nice break from the digital world of photography! Note that sometimes the prints do not work out, as that is the nature of the process, but keep trying…when one finally works you will be so glad you did it.
How are you making good use of the last long, hot sunny days? Let us know in the comments!
Rinne Allen is a photograher living and working in Athens, Georgia.