Cyanotype? It’s basically foolproof!

The post is guest-written by Arlene Westen.

I have been an art instructor for many years, and one of the most common remarks that I have heard from beginner students is, “I want to make art but I’m just not that creative.”

I know that it’s not true, but my job as an effective instructor, is to create confidence in students so that ‘they’ can dispel that belief.

When I can demonstrate materials or a technique that gets people excited, and then further lead them down that ‘rabbit hole’ of surprises, unexpected outcomes and marveled-upon successes, I feel like someone who has just handed the keys over to the next occupant of a grand castle.

Okay, that may sound a little corny, but I really am passionate about sharing creative processes that are almost entirely foolproof!

Creating cyanotypes is really just that.

With the ease of pre-printed cyanotype fabrics and papers, there is no need for any special equipment, darkroom, or having to expose oneself to hazardous chemicals. The only things needed to produce incredible one-of-kind prints in beautiful Prussian Blue is a UV light source and an object that will cast a shadow.

For well over a century, those objects were often plant-based materials; flower specimens, leaves and roots. These early prints were created with two chemicals, Ferric Ammonium Citrate and Potassium Ferricyanide, and photographically documented the natural world long before darkroom chemistry came into existence.

Photo courtesy of Arlene Westen

Nowadays there is no need to mix cyanotype chemicals (unless one chooses to) as pre-sensitized fabrics are readily available. Although mildly light-sensitive, one has ample time to remove a pre-coated sheet from the sealed protective package under subdued light conditions, lay it on a flat surface to support it, set an object on top to block out some light, place the stack into direct sunlight and wait the desired amount of time for the print to develop. Exposure time could take anywhere from 5 to 45 minutes depending upon how strong the sunlight is on any given day. Once the print has been exposed, it needs only to be washed out under cold running tap water to stop the developing process and remove all residual chemicals, and then dried to further stabilize the colour.

The entire process can take as little as ten minutes from start to finish. This is truly entry level cyanotype printmaking for beginners!

There are so many things to love about this art form. The pre-coated fabric sheets are not toxic to use when handled correctly. They retain their original hand and drape, and the entire process is relatively inexpensive compared to other methods of transferring an image or printing photographs.

So, if it’s that easy, why should anyone want to take a class to learn more about this historical photographic process? Let me just say, that this is only the beginning! Once you have created your first print, you may never look at the world in quite the same way.

One can delve so much further into the cyanotype process by mixing the chemicals from scratch, coating various substrates other than fabric or paper, using negatives instead of placing objects directly on the coated surface, manipulating the timing of objects to create wonderful ombre effects, bleaching or toning prints with botanicals to achieve subtle colour variations…and I could continue but I have only been granted between 500 and 700 words for this blog post, although I may be compelled to write a further one in the future covering experimental blueprinting, as it is difficult not to get excited by the many possibilities that this art form presents!

Photo courtesy of Arlene Westen

As someone who has been working with cyanotype for many years, I believe it should be part of every artist’s toolkit. Not only is it great fun, but it is still especially admired by those who appreciate old-world photography, contemporary image-making and alternative photographic processes. Cyanotyping opens up a vast playground of creative possibilities for fibre and mixed media artists, photographers, printmakers, botanists, children of all ages, natural history buffs and students of science to continually learn from and explore.

For those who feel ‘creativity’ is for other people, I whole-heartedly encourage them to try making their own cyanotypes, whether on their own or in one of my classes at the Paint Spot.

Arlene Westen, Sponsored Instructor of The Paint Spot

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