There’s always excitement when spring/summer comes! I’m so happy to see the green of all the plants and the sun. It’s a perfect reason to get out, take a walk and look at all the beautiful, botanical specimens. My love of dyeing, art, photography and design all come together in cyanotype print making. Let me show you how to make amazing cyanotype prints on paper.
What kind of plants can you use for cyanotype?
I know every part of the world will have quite different vegetation to choose from. You have to look closely to see what kind of details & shapes the botanical specimen has. The options to design with botanical plants and leaves is really endless.
This process uses an emulsion ( 2 chemicals that you mix yourself) that is applied to either fabric (see my post here) or paper to make it sensitive to Ultra-violet light. In this case, I am exploring all the possibilities of printing on various papers. You can use plants that are dried or fresh. The important thing to remember is that in order to get crisp prints you need to have a good contact with the light sensitive surface
The Awesome Allium Plant:
Many years ago, I bought a few bulbs of the Allium plant. I am attracted to plants with great shapes and colours. Now, every spring I have allium coming up all over the place. Alliums are the first to grow in spring (like tulips) but have a flower that resembles a firework. They are almost 4 feet tall when in bloom but however they don’t last long, so I like to use them for some design when I can. Since they are a complete sphere, it is hard to flatten them for Printing. For that reason, I cut the stem in half all the way up to the flower head and also slice that in half.
That makes the flower head, much less bulky, so that it prints with more space between all the tiny flowers. I carefully press that flat between paper so that it can dry.
I’ve also used these beauties for making relief prints (plaster & concrete) with botanicals.
What Paper to use for Cyanotypes:
When it comes to which papers to use for cyanotype printing, there’s many options. Since I have spent quite a few decades as an illustrator and painting with watercolor, I have used many kinds of papers. The best paper to use for Cyanotypes is a good quality, watercolour paper. Please check out the video where I explained some of the details about the papers. Watercolour paper comes in different weights, and they are usually specified in pounds and also gsm (300gsm = 140lb). A very heavy card like paper is sometimes specified about 300 pounds. Lighter weights can even be as low as 90 lb.
The paper finish often comes in a choice of cold press or hot press. Cold press paper has more texture and often little dimples in the surface. Hot press paper has a much more smooth finish. Personally, I prefer cold press paper as I like the finished look of the art as it then does not look like it has been printed by a machine.
Arches, Fabriano, Strathmore and Canson are reputable paper manufacturers. Buying from an art supply store is also a better idea than a department store. I would not suggest using a weight lighter than 90lb (140 gsm) but I prefer over 140lb. The 300 lb paper will not wrinkle as it is as thick as board.
When you look closely at the edge of a good watercolour paper, it has a deckle edge. That is where the fibres are soft & loose from the paper-making process. When you make smaller sheets and want to get the suggestion of a deckle edge, you can score the page, bend it, and then rip it. That will mimic the soft edge that you get with the deckle.
How to Make the Cyanotype Emulsion (light sensitive solution)
Stay safe and use gloves and a good mask while measuring the powders. Prepare your work surfaces in case of spillage. You will. need a scale to measure the chemicals. Prepare a vessel to hold the chemicals once mixed. Since the mixed solution is light sensitive it needs to be stored in a dark bottle. You can wrap a jar with black electrical tape if need be.
There are two chemical ingredients required to create the cyanotype solution, Potassium Ferricyanide, and Ferric Ammonium Citrate. I bought a bit larger quantity from a photo-supply store but you can get convenient kits (jacquard) as well. There are options to buy pre-treated cyanotype fabrics and papers as well to be even more convenient.
The basic recipe of cyanotype chemicals is 10g of Potassium Ferricyanide mixed with water to make up to 100ml. Measure 25g of Ferric Ammonium Citrate and add water to bring it up to 100 ml as well. Mix these two solutions together and keep in a dark container. The solutions should be well dissolved and it is also recommended to sit for a bit of time.
For more details of making the light-sensitive solution see my post here. This process is very much like photography; as the light sensitive emulsion will react to the sunlight, and create a print. Good quality Paper is like fabric as it is made with fibres that often include wood products or cotton. If you would rather not work with the chemicals, you can also buy cyanotype paper that has already been prepared to print
Apply the Emulsion:
When you have your solution ready make sure to work in an area that does not get sunlight. Use a foam brush, soft or hake brush to paint the solution on the paper. Even our light bulbs have a little bit of UV light. Work quickly and place in a dark area to dry. To experiment I also did not apply the emulsion very flat. I wanted to see how variations of the emulsion application would affect the print.
To prepare, I have gathered a lot of different, specimens, weeds, flowers, whatever looked interesting and then store them between paper to keep them flat.
Place the Botanical material:
Once the coated paper pieces are dry I arrange the plant material on top. Consider the design of your shapes. I place a sheet of glass on top and secure with binder clips.
During the strong sun of midday, I take the board outside and place in the sun. You will see how the green colour of the emulsion turns to a darker blue very quickly. Exposure time can depend on your UV index. The amount of time of exposure also depends on how much you would like the light to pass through the plant material. It really is just like a photographic printing process, as I remember from my days at art college.
A short exposure time will give you silhouettes that are quite white whereas a longer time may allow too much light to pass through thin specimens. It can take some experimentation.
A longer exposure time may allow the UV light to pass through the plant material and not be as contrasted. You will get interesting affects from some of the puddles of thicker emulsion application.
Here (above), you will see how the prints are affected by the mottled application of the chemical (after rinsing). I will be experimenting to make wet Cyanotypes in the future. Just like art, there are many variations that you can create according to your own style.
How to Make Amazing Cyanotype Prints on Paper
- Dark bottle/Vessel – (to store light sensitive solution)
- Dust Mask
- Rubber Gloves
- Stir sticks
- Accurate scale
- Paint brushes/foam brushes
- Measuring cup
- Quality paper (watercolour, print making paper 90lb or higher)
- Board – (to place paper on)
- Transparent Plastic or Glass Sheet
- Binder Clips
- 10 grams Potassium Ferricyanide
- 25 grams Ferric Ammonium Citrate
- Prepare a space to work that is dimly lit to avoid UV light (mostly from sun but also small amounts from light bulbs) Protect the surface.
- Collect the supplies and tools
- Measure 10g of Potassium Ferricyanide and add enough water to make 100ml. Mix gently.
- Measure 25g of Ferric Ammonium Citrate and add water to bring it up to 100 ml as well. Mix gently.
- Mix both solutions together in a light-proof vessel. Allow time to fully dissolve.
- Prepare fabric (make sure it’s very clean)
- Apply the Cyanotype solution onto the desired area(s) of the paper with a brush or foam roller. Application does not necessarily have to be flat or over entire surface
- Allow to dry in a dark place
- Place the prepared paper on a board for ease of transporting. Place Objects or botanical items in your chosen design. Be aware of how much the items are in contact with the fabric surface for clear prints
- Place a clear sheet of plastic or glass over flat items to keep in place. Protect the piece from sun exposure (may place in a dark bag) until ready to expose
- Take your board outside on a bright sunny day to expose to the UV rays. The time will depend on a few factors such as UV level. You will see the colour of the fabric turn from yellowish green to darker blue quickly. 5 minutes on a bright day was enough for mine but tests could be performed to see affects of longer exposures
- Once exposed bring inside to quickly take off objects and rinse before further exposure. Rinse until water runs clear.
- If a darker blue is desired a small capful of hydrogen peroxide can be added to final rinse.
- Dry in a area out of direct sunlight.
- Prints can be ironed or pressed if flattening in needed.
Why I love Using Paper for Cyanotype Printing:
Yes, cyanotype printing is a fabulous art. I do really enjoy using paper because the application method of the chemical can also be artistic and unique. The amount of solution that is used for paper is far less than for fabric since it does not absorb as much. Notice the details of the brushstrokes picked up in the final prints.
Play with your shapes and create unique designs.
See the negative image here; printed using the allium and some grasses. So much detail is picked up from the flower head.
Nature always surprises me. I’m not sure quite how these colours came to be.
Notice how the green emulsion has turned into blue once it is exposed in the sun. There are areas of darker blue that will change. It is now time to rinse the print.
Once rinsing the print in a sink/tray full of (tap) water, the rich cyan blue starts to develop. It is always very fascinating to watch.
Once it has been rinsed, the print will continue to darken as it dries. If you would like to darken it right away, you can dip it into a water bath that has a tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide added. It will immediately turn into a rich cyan-blue print.
The Cyanotype emulsion was applied in a loose circular way to enhance the circular flower element here.
Whatever you choose; the most important is that you are being creative. Enjoying ‘Mother Nature’ is a big bonus! I hope these instructions inspire you to give this sun printing a try…