In the Studio: Making Cyanotypes!

Finished cyanotypes hanging in the Art Island Center studio.

By Andrew McCormick

We have been making lots of cyanotypes in the studio recently. An early precursor to the photography we know today, vivid-blue cyanotypes were for a time best known as a method for reproducing architects' drawings, hence "blueprints." They are still widely produced by artists everywhere, particularly as photograms (contact prints): they're easy and safe to make and don't require a darkroom or a camera. 

Making a cyanotype photogram

Sitting at our studio table, participants arrange objects on specially treated paper, then press their composition down with a sheet of glass. The whole thing goes outside to sit in the sun for a few minutes. The the tone of the paper shifts from yellowish to blue-gray to cool brown.

At that point, we go back inside and rinse the prints in water. The parts of the prints that were covered by objects rinse away to white, while the exposed areas turn faintly blue. Then we put the prints in a very weak bath of hydrogen peroxide, and the blue instantly intensifies. All that's left is to dry the prints, and they're ready to display.

How does it work?

Before making cyanotypes, you combine solutions of two iron salts, potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate. (These chemicals are sold in separate bottles by Jacquard and other companies.) The combined solution is sensitized: after you paint it on paper and expose it to UV light, the chemicals react. The parts of the print that have reacted to light become fixed to the paper, while the parts that were not exposed to light wash away when you put the print in water. As the remaining chemical oxidizes, the pigment known as Prussian blue forms.

"Solar print" kits with pre-prepared sheets of cyanotype paper are widely available and are a great kids' project. That said, you get the best results when you use fresh chemistry, and you also are free to choose whatever size works for you, as well as experiment with materials. Interestingly, if you display a cyanotype print in bright conditions, the blue will fade, but if you move the print to a dark area for a while, the color will come back!

Making cyanotypes with Naoshima kids

We introduced cyanotypes to our regular group of older elementary schoolers, Naoshima Art Studio. The kids gathered natural materials from the mountain behind the shop, then arranged them on paper we had prepared the day before.

They did a quick first print to understand the process, then experimented with other objects in the shop, as well as drawing on transparent plastic and transfering that to a print. Cyanotypes are so fast to make that it doesn't take long to fine tune an idea and get a good result. 

A few weeks later, the kids made an enormous cyanotype. They came up with the idea of a "Naoshima Skytree" (drawing from the famous tower in Tokyo) and made it out of spider lilies, leaves, craft supplies, and other materials.

This required some special arrangements. We assembled the image atop a full sheet of plywood, and cobbled together several large panes of glass on top, before moving the (extremely heavy!) composition outside. Rinsing the print required our entire sink. It nearly fell apart when we tried to take it out, but the result was worth the effort!

Make cyanotypes with us at Art Island Center!

If your family or group is visiting Naoshima and you would like to make some cyanotypes with us, let us know. We can accommodate up to four participants at a time. (Note that cyanotypes like sunny weather and we cannot run the activity in rain or strong wind, so we may need to switch to a backup activity.)