Lockdown Cyanotypes

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As an artist & photographer I always have multiple projects on the go and some bubbling away in the back of my mind for a long time before they come to the surface. Many ideas and projects are interlinked and have a natural progression to the next. Over the last few years I have been thinking about cyanotypes and have been pressing plants, collecting art papers, researching methods, and even bought a UV light box 2 years ago.

In March 2020,  I couldn't have been happier, I was booked to teach workshops for the Royal Horticultural Society on Botanical Studio Photography and Creative Tree Photography. I also had lots of people booked on 1:2:1 photography workshops and was preparing for my stand at the National Flower Show.  This was going to be a great year both personally and creatively but then the whole world went into lockdown and everything changed.

My first thoughts were fear and panic for the future, sadness at not seeing my family,  and then disappointment for all the things I wouldn't be doing this year.

As time slowed down, my world contracted and like many people I took solace in my garden (I am lucky to have one) and by walking in my local neighbourhood. Since being a little girl I have always noticed the details in nature and I think this is a trait that many creative people hold on into all their lives. 

I think this heightened sense has become magnified during lockdown and many people have found ways to express themselves in creative ways. For me it was my time to start making cyanotypes from the plants (including weeds) that I collected in my garden and whilst walking in my local neighbourhood. During lockdown I produced (and am still producing) over 200  images using this historical alternative photographic process.

Traditional Cyanotype Process

Cyanotypes are also known as blueprints & sun prints. The process was invented by Sir John Herschel in 1842 and was used by an English botanist Anna Atkins to create the first book with photographs in 1843 using her cyanotypes of Algae (specifically seaweed).The process is quite simple but  the results will vary depending on the paper used,  the intensity of UV light and length of exposure time. It is advisable to do test strips when using a UV light box to see how long the exposure needs to be. Below is a simplified description of the process: 

In subdued light, coat a surface (e.g. natural paper or fabric) with iron salts which react to UV light, leave to dry in the dark overnight

Place an object such as a leaf, or an image printed as a negative onto acetate, on the coated paper

Place in a contact frame so the object or negative are held in place

Leave in the sun or under a UV light to create a sun print

Wash the paper to remove the chemicals

Hang to dry and the print will oxidise to a blue colour


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Wet Cyanotypes - A Beautiful Mix of Art & Science

Modern day artists have adapted this technique to make ‘wet’ cyanotypes by adding another step in the process. The paper is prepared in exactly the same way with the Cyanotype chemicals.  At this stage you can either let the paper dry in the dark as usual or go straight to producing your print. I usually do the former. I then spray the paper or plant with diluted vinegar and sometimes add soap bubbles made from washing up liquid or bubblebath. This is then placed in a contact frame and left in the sun.

There are many variations of this and other things can be added such as salt & tumeric (dried or in solution), cling film can also be used to create different effects in the same way that water colour artists use it to create textures.

This results in interactions between the plant, water, vinegar, soap and/or other additions,  paper and UV light creating a picture with interesting and unique patterns.  It is experimental and a very satisfying process to create images by capturing a small part of the world around you at a point in time. The natural world provides an infinite source of inspiration and this process kept me connected to it whilst distracting me from overthinking during the pandemic. I have also enjoyed finding out the names of the plants around me and have been recording them. I sometime like to record the whole wet cyanotype process as the picture goes through a series of colour changes and reactions from exposure to final oxidation to blues.

Unless you want blue hands or cyan patterns on your clothes you need to wear rubber gloves and protect your clothes.  Even when you think you are not getting any solution on your hands you  probably are during this process even when washing  and drying.  You will soon find out if you have taken a chance if your fingers turn blue or you find blue fingerprints on your fridge as I did!

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Colour Change of Wet Cyanotype

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Depending on the strength of the sun, I leave my wet cyanotypes out from between 1 to 5 hours, some people leave them out for much longer.  This results in interesting colour changes as the iron salts react to the UV light.  The print is then washed and the final colour is achieved after it oxidizes over the next 24 hours (or instantly if you use Hydrogen Peroxide and are impatient like me).   I find the colour changes absolutely fascinating and often take quick snaps during the process. 

Notes & Experiments

Whenever I'm learning, researching and experimenting a new technique I keep copious notes of dates, material used, exposure times, weather conditions etc so that I can remember what I have done and learn from my mistakes.  I also like to record the names of the plants or flowers I have so that I can  label my prints.  This is a great way to observe your garden, wildflowers on verges and the leaves on trees and I have greatly enjoyed this process.

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Further Techniques

I'm still experimenting and have a long way to go on  my journey. I have a vegetable collection of cyanotypes including Luffa, courgette, tomato, carrot and cabbage leaves, a leaf collection and I'm just starting on different grasses..  Here are a few more experiments below using fabric and multiple exposures.

Wet Cyanotype on Fabric

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Multiple Exposures & Multi Part Works

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If you'd like to follow my journey you can find me on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter (links below)