Sometimes the simplest way of doing something creates the most striking results. Even though photographers and artists have advanced digital photography techniques at their disposal today, the art of creating cyanotypes has made a comeback. But what are cyanotypes? And how to make cyanotypes? This article explains it all.

What Are Cyanotypes?

If you’ve ever used the word “blueprint” to refer to plans or designs, you may be able to work out what a cyanotype is. Cyan means blue, and type means print. Cyanotypes are the oldest photographic method and are still loved by artists for their simplicity and striking blue and white contrast. Cyanotypes use special photographic solutions that develop when exposed to sunlight, and they’re always blue and white.

The process of how to print cyanotypes was first developed in 1842 by Englishman John Herschel, a mathematician, astronomer, chemist, inventor, and experimental photographer. He used the process to reproduce documents of the sort that we now often refer to as blueprints. The technique was further developed and popularized by Herschel’s friend, botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, who learned how to create cyanotypes and photographed a variety of land and sea plants for publication in a book.

Although botanical subjects like leaves and flowers are popular, partly because these were the subjects of Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes, they aren’t the only subjects that can be used. Other objects with defined outlines that can be laid flat are suitable for cyanotype printing.

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Examples of Cyanotypes

 Anna Atkins cyanotypes.
Search for cyanotypes and you’ll probably find many examples of Anna Atkins cyanotypes.
John Herschel cyanotype of house
John Herschel developed cyanotypes to act like an early photocopy machine.
botanical cyanotypes
Learn how to print cyanotypes of botanical subjects.
Botanical cyanotypes as cards.
Botanical cyanotypes make great greetings cards.
Cyanotypes made with paper clips and buttons.
Cyanotypes made with paper clips and buttons.
fabric cyanotype
You can make cyanotypes on fabric as well as paper.

How to Make Cyanotypes

The following step-by-step guide is for making cyanotypes of botanical subjects and uses items you can easily find in your garden. The process is almost the same for making cyanotypes depicting other subjects, so you can follow the same instructions using anything else you have on hand.

Step 1: Gather Your Materials

There are two stages to gathering your materials in the cyanotype process: gathering your materials for preparing your paper, and for making the prints outside.

Materials for Preparing Your Paper

materials needed for cyanotypes
The materials you’ll need to prepare your paper.

To create a cyanotype you will need:

  • Paintbrushes (foam or bristle)
  • Good quality printmaking or watercolor paper
  • Cyanotype solution A and B (ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide)
  • Measuring cup and dish
  • Lightproof container or envelope (a black trash bag will do if you don’t have a photographic bag).

Materials for Printing Outdoors

  • Clippings of plants
  • An outdoor washing line, or twine and clothespins to make your own
  • Two pieces of glass
  • A large plastic tub

Step 2: Prepare the Paper

Paint the solution over your paper.
Paint the solution over your paper.

In your measuring cup, mix one part solution A with one part solution B. Mix the solutions together and pour them into a dish. Saturate your paint brush with the solution and paint it over the paper in smooth, long, even strokes. Coat the paper thinly to avoid the chemicals pooling, and try to work quickly.

In addition to coating the paper that will become your finished art, prepare a few test strips in the same way. These can be smaller or thinner pieces of paper.

Ideally, complete this process indoors, in an area without too much light. Doing this in the evening is also a good idea, because once you’ve finished coating your paper, you’ll need to leave it to dry in a dark place. The solution is photosensitive and you don’t want it to react to the light before you’re ready. An ideal place to dry the paper is in a dark cupboard.

Step 3: Choose Your Plants

vase of flowers
The plants in this vase make good cyanotype subjects.
non transparent leaf
An example of a plant that doesn’t make a good cyanotype print.

It’s important to select your subject carefully. Cyanotypes capture the silhouettes of subjects, rather than details upon their surface. As illustrated in the pictures above, leaves with a big surface area don’t make a great subject, as you’ll end up with a large white blob in your print. Instead, plants like ferns, grasses, or those with little and many leaves and flowers are better.

Step 4: Arrange Your Composition

Arrange your plants
Arrange your plants in the way you want them to appear.

Before taking your paper out of its light-proof container, plan your composition and arrange the plants in the way you’d like them to appear in the print. This may mean trimming parts.

Step 5: Do a Test Run With Your Test Strips

do a test piece
Doing a trial run with a test strip is an important part of the cyanotype process.

Cyanotypes require differing lengths of exposure to the sun depending on the conditions of the day. To avoid messing up your prepared paper, do a test run with a test strip first and see how long you need to expose the paper to the sun to create the desired effect.

Place your plant on the paper between two pieces of glass. Place an opaque material over the top, such as a thick piece of cardboard. To begin with, just expose a portion of the paper and plant to the sunlight and time that for a minute. For every minute that passes, expose another section of the paper and plant to the sun.

Step 6: Wash Out The Test Strip

submerge the test strip in water
Submerge the test strip into a water bath.

Once you’ve finished exposing the whole test strip, wash it out. Do this by filling your plastic tub with water and submerging the paper. Move the paper gently, turning it over and washing away the cyanotype solution from the paper without rubbing or scrubbing. Wash the paper until the water drips away clean when lifted from the tub.

By the end of this process, you should have a piece of paper imprinted with a design in varying shades of blue. Determine which shade you prefer (most people are going for a deep blue color) and remember how many minutes of sun exposure it took to create that effect. That’s the same amount of time you’ll want to expose your non-test paper to the sunlight for. 

Results and timings will vary depending on the weather, season, time of day, latitude, and cloud cover in your location, but exposure times of around five minutes are standard. Try to create your final cyanotypes within an hour or two of completing your test strips. If you wait longer, the sunlight conditions are likely to have changed.

Step 7: Compose, Expose, and Wash Your Final Prints

Exposing it to the sunlight.
Exposing the final composition to the sunlight.

Repeat the composition, exposure, and washing out steps with your final pieces of paper (rather than the test strips). The process is exactly the same, though you might want to take more care with the composition than you did with the test strip. Time the sun exposure to match the preferred tones from the test process.

dry your prints
Line dry your prints in the air.

Once you’ve washed out the print, hang it carefully on the line to dry. You don’t need to worry about sun exposure at this point because all the cyanotype solution has been washed away.

FAQs About Cyanotypes

How Long Do Cyanotypes Last?

If printed onto high quality archival paper and displayed out of direct sunlight, cyanotype prints can last for many years. 

Do Cyanotypes Fade?

Like other works of art created on paper, cyanotypes can fade over time. Prolong the life of cyanotype prints by storing them in a plastic sleeve or framing them and displaying them away from direct sunlight. Using high quality archival paper will also reduce their risk of fading.

Are Cyanotypes Toxic?

Cyanotype solutions consist of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. The solutions aren’t toxic, but take sensible precautions when working with them and avoid ingesting them or getting them into your eyes. Some people may experience irritation if the solution gets onto their skin. Keep solutions out of the reach of children. 

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Written by:

Elen Turner