Written By Sandra Hutton, @artimmersionstudio

Immersing in the world of Cyanotype

Recently, I was introduced to the art of Cyanotype and quickly became intrigued by the possibilities of this art form. During my exploration, I was struck by how the process made me feel more connected to the natural world. The rich blue colour produced by the prints appears as if by magic and this appeals to the part of me that enjoys spontaneity in art. You are never quite sure of what you are going to get until it appears before your eyes! In addition to being a beautiful art form in its own right, I can imagine the possibilities of how it could be explored further. For example, adding embellishments using other media could offer artists with incredibly diverse methods for expression. I also think that this is an art form that could provide artists of all ages the chance to engage in what art is really about: playful exploration that could (but does not have to) lead to reflective composition. 

What is Cyanotype?

Cyanotype, a photographic printing process known for its distinctive cyan-blue prints, has a fascinating history that dates back to the 19th century. It was invented by Sir John Herschel, an English astronomer and scientist, in 1842. Herschel was experimenting with light-sensitive chemicals and discovered the photosensitivity of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide when exposed to ultraviolet light. He named this process “cyanotype” due to the rich blue hue that characterized the final prints. Cyanotype gained popularity as an alternative photographic technique and found applications in various fields, including architecture, botany, and scientific documentation. Its versatility and simplicity made it accessible to amateurs and professionals alike. Notably, cyanotype was used by Anna Atkins, a British botanist, to create the first-ever photographic book, “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions,” published in 1843. Today, cyanotype continues to inspire artists and photographers, retaining its unique charm and evocative aesthetic. A wonderful book about Anna, truly a pioneer in the field of photography can be found here.

In the realm of contemporary art, numerous artists have embraced the captivating charm of Cyanotype as a medium for their creative expressions. One notable artist is Christian Marclay, a Swiss-American visual artist and composer known for his innovative use of various mediums. Marclay has incorporated Cyanotype into his multimedia works, blending it with sound, video, and performance to explore the boundaries of visual and auditory experiences. Take a look at some of his work at the Fraenkel Gallery from 2011 here! Absolutely incredible! Another contemporary artist who has embraced Cyanotype is Meghann Riepenhoff. Riepenhoff’s captivating cyan-blue prints often incorporate natural elements such as water, rocks, and foliage. Her large-scale works are celebrated for their ephemeral and atmospheric qualities, blurring the line between photography and abstraction. These artists, among many others, continue to push the boundaries of Cyanotype as a medium, showcasing its enduring appeal and adaptability in the contemporary art world.

The process of Cyanotype can be a therapeutic and meditative practice that contributes to an artist’s overall well-being. I have experienced this first hand!  Engaging in Cyanotype allows artists to disconnect from digital screens and immerse themselves in a hands-on, tactile experience. The process of mixing chemicals, preparing the sensitizer, arranging objects, and exposing them to light encourages a sense of mindfulness and presence in the moment. This mindful engagement with the creative process can provide a sense of calm and relaxation, offering a respite from the fast-paced digital world.  This connection to the natural world can be grounding and rejuvenating, fostering a sense of harmony and well-being.  The process of Cyanotype can serve as a therapeutic and nourishing practice, allowing artists to find solace, inspiration, and a renewed sense of balance in their creative journey.

Cyanotype allows artists of all ages to interact with the natural world. Cyanotype created by Sandra Hutton, 2023.

Creating a cyanotype print involves a straightforward yet captivating process. First, a solution is prepared by mixing equal parts of two chemicals: ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. This mixture, known as the sensitizer, is then applied evenly to a suitable surface such as watercolor paper or fabric. Once dry, the sensitized material is placed in contact with a transparency or objects like leaves, flowers, or any other desired subject. The arrangement is then exposed to ultraviolet light, either from the sun or specialized UV lamps. The exposure time can vary depending on the intensity of light and the desired effect. As the light passes through the transparency or objects, the chemicals on the sensitized surface undergo a chemical reaction. After exposure, the material is rinsed thoroughly in water, revealing a negative image in shades of cyan-blue. The print is then left to dry, and the final result is a beautiful, detailed, and visually striking cyanotype print, showcasing the intricate silhouettes and delicate textures captured during the process.

For those wishing to try Cyanotype, you may find this list of materials helpful. I am not receiving any affiliate links and am only offering this to artists or art educators because I believe it may be of value: 

Cyanotype Sensitizer Kit: This kit contains the necessary chemicals for sensitizing the printing surface. It typically includes ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. 

Watercolour Paper: A suitable surface for creating Cyanotype prints is watercolor paper. Look for acid-free, heavy-weight watercolour paper to ensure good absorption and durability. Here’s an example: Amazon.ca – Watercolour Paper

Brush Set: Brushes are necessary for applying the sensitizer solution to the printing surface. A set of assorted brushes with different sizes and shapes is ideal for achieving desired effects. Here’s a brush set you can consider: Amazon.ca – Assorted Brush Set

UV Light Source: To expose the sensitized material, you can use the sun or specialized UV lamps. I prefer working on a sunny day but a UV light source is also an alternative.  Here’s an example of a UV lamp suitable for Cyanotype printing: Amazon.ca – UV Light Lamp

Water Container: Having a dedicated container for rinsing the prints is convenient. A shallow tray or basin large enough to accommodate your prints will suffice. You can find a suitable container like this easily at a local Dollar Store. 

The Process: 

  1. Take equal parts of the chemicals in the kit and apply it to watercolour paper using a paint brush or a foam brush. You can take a capful from each of the chemicals and mix them in a small glass or jar as a starting point. The paper will look greenish when the chemicals are first applied. One thing to keep in mind is that it is important to do this in an area where there is not an abundance of light. Once the chemicals have been applied, put them in a darker area to dry and then put them in an envelope until they are ready to be used. 
  2. Gather some materials from the natural world or even objects from within your household (dandelions, pussy willows, leaves, flowers, nuts and bolts, old jewelry etc). Sometimes the juxtaposition of things from the natural world, combined with man-made objects can be interesting! 
  3. With your paper still in an envelope, go outside and place it in an area with direct sunlight. Quickly gather your items in a composition on top of the paper. Keep in mind that as soon as your paper is exposed to sunlight, changes will happen! Therefore, you need to move quickly to lay down your composition of items. It is always a good idea to test out your composition before laying it out. I would recommend putting a layer of plexiglass down on top of your composition once it’s on the paper to prevent the wind from moving your materials around. 
  4. You will note that your paper starts to lighten. This could happen within 5-15 minutes. 
  5. Take your paper off and rinse it in water. You can run it directly under the tap or shower head or you can use a tub full of water. What you will notice is that magically the paper turns blue and the areas of your composition will be white! 

An example of a Cyanotype kit.

How Can Art Teachers Incorporate this technique into art programs? 

The chemicals used are considered to be safe for even the very young but art teachers can  incorporate Cyanotype into their art programs through exploring alternative methods and materials as well. One approach is to utilize cyanotype fabric sheets such as Jacquard Pre-Treated Sheets or pre-sensitized papers such as the Sunprint Paper Kits that eliminate the need for chemical mixing. These pre-treated surfaces are light-sensitive and can produce cyan-blue prints when exposed to UV light. Another option is to explore a cyanotype mural kit such as the one created by Jacquard.  By incorporating these easy and fun products,  art teachers can still introduce the artistic and aesthetic qualities of Cyanotype. 

Incorporating literature or stories about artists is one of my favourite ways to engage students in the learning process. A wonderful book for children is the picture book, The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs.  This is a beautifully illustrated book in shades of blue that perfectly captures the story of Anna Atkins who, not only played a significant role in the world of botany, but also in the world of art; she is believed to be the first woman to publish a book of photographs. Her work truly showcases how science and art intersect in a fascinating way, helping us all to develop a greater understanding of how magnificent the world really is when we can take a closer look at the divine beauty of nature through the bluest of blues. 


Sources and More Information: 

The Cyanotypes of Pioneering Photographer Anna Atkins

The New York Public Library’s online collection of Anna Atkins’ work

Cyanotype History: John Hershel’s Invention

Meghann Riepenhoff

Christian Marclay Cyanotypes

Robinson, Fiona. The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019.