The magic of Cyanotypes

I’ve always kept a traditional darkroom where, on occasion, I love to get completely away from modern technology and the reliable, high quality but somewhat predictable medium of digital imaging.

Ten years ago I was still shooting film on a medium format camera and processing the results traditionally, sometimes using my enlarger to print black and white silver halide prints, using chemicals to develop and fix the projected negatives. Indeed, I still enjoy this side to the craft on personal projects.

Though not everyone has the facilities and patience to spend hours in the darkroom gloom, there is a relatively simple way to combine both digital and traditional techniques with alternative processes. Producing Cyanotypes requires little specialised equipment and is great fun. Images with texture and character are particularly suitable for this treatment.

Cyanotypes date back to 1842, when Sir John Herschel developed an alternative palette of chemicals to Fox-Talbot’s silver based processes. Engineering ‘blueprints’, developed using a reprographic process, are based on the same principle.

These days Cyanotypes are a rarity but they can easily be created using both digital and traditional techniques. The colour and tonality is completely unique and results in a deep Prussian blue monochromatic print on traditional artist’s watercolour paper.

Under dim, or ideally safe-light conditions, you use two chemicals, mixed to a specific ratio with water, and brush the mixture onto your paper. Once dry, but kept in completely dark storage, these ‘sensitised’ sheets will keep for a very long time, ready to use with your image to produce the print. In order to produce the negative you convert your image to black and white in your chosen software and print it out onto OHP film, ticking the negative option in the print dialog box. This is then held in close contact with the sensitised paper using a clip frame or similar. The resultant sandwich of paper, negative and glass can be placed in direct sunlight for around 10-15 minutes, while the image is transferred or ‘burned’ into the light sensitive surface.

Once disassembled, the paper is placed in a photographic developing tray, and gently rocked from side to side under running water. It is at this stage that you experience the magic of watching the image emerge. Faint at first, the picture will deepen in tone after it has been hung up to dry. You can hasten the process using a hair dryer but I prefer to peg the paper on a washing line to dry naturally.

I love the random way that the brushing process hits and misses the paper to leave some parts sensitised to the image and others not. The gentle tonality has a lovely antique feel and is highly satisfying. The whole process is fascinating and highly addictive!