Cyanotypes by Jim Read.

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Cyanotypes by Jim Read.

Post by Admin on Thu Dec 25, 2008 4:28 am

This article first appeared on the early CIM site in 2008....

The Cyanotype.

Is the simplest photographic process and unlike other DIY processes it is not specifically designed to kill you. You don't need a fume cupboard, a rubber apron, *mask, goggles and long rubber gloves to do it. You DO need these with lots of those other old processes, so do NOT be fooled into a false sense of security READ the fact sheets first and abide by them, they have been written precisely because people have died as a result of not knowing or failing to take the necessary precautions.

*If you suffer from skin allergies a mask and gloves when mixing and coating Cyanotype are advisable, the chemicals are classed as IRRITANT.

So, after the dire warning (have you read it!) it's very easy to make a Cyanotype and toning brings out a range of colours unequalled by any other process.

The Process

Requires two chemicals that are easily obtainable from laboratory and chemical suppliers, I buy mine from;

Silver Print Ltd
12 Valentine Place
London SE1 8QH
Tel 020 7620 0844
Fax 020 7620 0129
The names are
  • Ammonium Ferric Citrate (green) and
  • Potassium Ferricyanide

To tone the prints you will need;
  • Some washing/cleaning Soda Crystals (sodium carbonate)
  • Strong Tea, Coffee or Wine Tannin

And some paper, heavyweight cartridge paper is fine for proofs and to practice on, when you get a bit more serious Canson Montval is very good and Somerset Satin or Velvet printing papers are excellent, these are not to be confused with the inkjet stuff with the same names. I buy mine from Intaglio Printmaker in London.

How to do it

Mix 10 gms of the Citrate with 50 ml of warmish water and store in the dark or a brown bottle.
Mix 5 gms of the Ferricyanide with 50 ml of warmish water and store as above. I use those little Colmans mustard jars and keep them in a light tight box.

The very first time I did it all I had was a 5 ml (1 gm = 1 ml) dosage spoon and a 'calibrated' plastic jug, it worked fine. You don't have to be that accurate and all you have to remember is 1+5 and 1+10.

To use mix equal quantities of the solutions, about 4 ml will cover 8" x 10", I use one of those inkjet refill syringes to get it from the bottle onto a saucer, and then spread it thinly on the paper with a flat pastry brush. Leave to dry in the dark.

The brush is quite inportant, do not use one with a metal ferrule it will quickly corrode and drip metal particles onto your paper. If you want to be accurate with your coating treat yourself to a Japanese Hake brush they are beautiful as well as very good at the job, I've had mine for 5 years now. Do it in a darkish room, 40 watt tungsten indirect light is OK.

When dry put your negative or objects on the emulsion, place in a frame, two pieces of glass held together with Bulldog clips or an old picture frame will be ideal and expose to a UV source. The sun, if you get it is great, leave it out for about 20 minutes. I use an old sun ray lamp with UV tubes and have to be quite careful with the exposure it's somewhere between 6 and 12 mins depending on the negative.

When exposed, you can tell because the picture is visible in a greeny sort of way, wash it in 3 changes of not very much water and hang to dry. The air acts with the emulsion and you can actually watch the deep blue appear before your eyes.

The best way to learn is to buy the stuff, it doesn't cost much, and just do it. Slosh the emulsion onto the paper, you can get some wildly arty edge effects with a pastry brush.

The negative

You may want to make negatives using overhead transparency film and print them using an inkjet printer. This is a very good way of making negatives however the worst thing you can do is to look for some advice on the web, you will be told that you MUST use this and that and the other and you will be asked to spend lots of money for a process that you may not like anyway.

I used the cheapest transparency film I could find to start with from, each time I bought a new printer I kept expecting it to not reproduce the finer detail, it still does, so I've never bothered to try any other.

One does read about expensive transparency film for sale, I expect its just the same but rebadged and hyped up so that idiot photographers who buy anything because its expensive can play their mindless one upmanship games, pardon the rant. It does seem odd that at the same time as one of the expensive companies announced a 'new' film ppdirect sent me some film with a better coating without any comment whatsoever.

Take your image and open it in your chosen software, convert it to a negative (often called invert) and then lower the contrast a bit, or if you have something called 'levels' take a bit off each end, or if you have curves do the same, but add a bit of bending of the curve to extend one end of the range. What you are doing here is compressing the tonal range to accommodate the limited Cyanotype range. Once again there are acres of technocrappery about doing this on the web.

What they don't tell you is to make a negative that suits the image and by that I don't mean the tonal range but the subject and your personality. And how do you feel about your images, what did you see when you first pressed the shutter, what did you think the final print would look like. If this does not appeal to you then by all means go to the technocrap, if on the other hand you have a sneaky feeling that you are a photo artist then read on.

To begin with you will make a total balls up of everything, look at what you've done and work out why. Change it by using different settings and gradually you will find yourself looking at an image and being able to say this needs a particular treatment to obtain your style. And it WILL be your own style, for you and you alone have worked out how to do it, it is a steep learning curve, but those who never made a mistake never made anything.

Which brings me finally to image quality, if you are looking for highly detailed critically sharp images don't bother making prints onto watercolour paper you will just end up frustrated and disappointed, if you are looking for prints that have character and presence then this is for you.

The toning

Is really easy, mix a small teaspoon of Soda into 1 Ltr of water and dilute your strong Tea/Coffee/or 25 Grams Tannin into another litre of water.

Wet the print first and swish it about in the Soda for anything between 5 secs to the image practically disappearing. Then place it in the Tea/Coffee/Tannin mix for anything from 10 mins to 2 hours. Inspect it at intervals and pull when you like the result. The tone will change as the toning mix gets older and it will take longer as it gets exhausted. Afterwards wash the print in a couple of changes of water. Hang to dry.

It is a lovely way to make prints and to hold one that has been handmade on watercolour paper is an experience in itself, they look and feel totally different from an inkjet or commercial product.

This is how I work and am very happy doing it, I often sell prints and have recently opened an Etsy shop you may see it at

And if you've read this far, good luck - Jim

Posts : 21
Join date : 2008-12-22
Age : 49
Location : Near London, UK.

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