Digital is cheap, requires little space and makes no mess but, although I can happily spend hours in Lightroom, it doesn’t have the same therapeutic value as messing about in an old fashioned darkroom.
Unfortunately I have a crowded house full of children and pets and no room for chemical developing.
Fortunately, if we go back a little further in time, we find we have no need for one! 🙂
Cyanotypes were developed in 1842 by an English scientist with the rather distinguished name of John Frederick William Herschal. At the time, they weren’t terribly popular for images, because of the deep blue colour, but became very popular for reproducing technical drawings – or ‘blue prints’. Personally, I prefer the vibrant, rich blue to the dull brown other methods produced, but this didn’t fit with the Victorian aesthetic.
On the surface its a very simple method. Its requires only 2 chemicals, Ammonium iron (III) citrate and Potassium hexacyanoferrate (III), that are separately mixed with water 24 hours before required and combined just before use. The chosen paper is coated in 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 exposed to sunlight for a predetermined time, then rinsed.
The finished images are a stunning deep, rich, Prussian blue.
However, like many things worth knowing, it takes a day to learn and a lifetime to master!
Firstly there is the question of which paper to use. It needs to be sturdy enough to withstand soaking and washing, unbleached so it doesn’t effect the colour and acid free. Texture also looks good – in my opinion. Personally i like ‘Fabriano F5’ but other suggestions are ‘Arches Watercolour watercolour cold press’, ‘Arches Platine’ and Fabriano F4. All have different qualities and show a different range of colours, so a period of experimentation is needed to find a paper that meets you expectations and artistic vision.
Once you have decided on the paper you will need a negative. The snag here is that contact printing produces a print the same size as the negative you use – no enlargers in this process!
Now, if you are fortunate to have worked on large format film cameras, you may have some negatives laying 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 in Photoshop, resize it and print onto acetate. I found this VERY frustrating and tried different printers and acetates before I got anything that was anywhere near acceptable. The alternative is to make paper negatives. I have a friend who is great at making these, but mine were a disaster and far too dense.
Finally you need to do a test strip, just like in the ol’ darkroom, marking off exposure times.
Vintage contact print frames are lovely (in my opinion) but smaller than we are now used to – remember the bit about being the same size as the negative?
There are a few makers of larger new contact frames – but these tend to be very expensive! However, a clip frame make an affordable modern alternative. Its not as good – but, if you have done a test strip, is a workable alternative.
Obviously, you don’t have to stick to negatives – you can follow in the footsteps of Anna Atkins and make botanical studies as I have below, or use any solid objects!
Its 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, as i quietly sat, totally absorbed with the paper changing colour in front of me.
Seriously, you have to try it as an alternative to sitting in front of a screen!
And thats it…or is it?
The Prussian blue finish is wonderfully rich….but if its 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!
Unfortunately, instant coffee is recommended for this process (yuk), and I had drunk all the red wine – so this image is toned with tea 🙂
I’m now working with cyanotypes on wood and fabric …and fascinated by cyanotypes on glass.
More posts to follow!