Hope Vigil-Shuck's sketchbooks entries outlining experimentation with the cyanotype process

Student Experience: An Exploration of the Cyanotype Process

Feb 17, 2021
Allison Lauricella

by Hope Vigil-Shuck

In the fall of my senior year, I was able to spend the semester experimenting with and perfecting the process of cyanotype printing. I spent the beginning of the semester researching cyanotype because I had never read about — much less utilized — the technique. I focused on the different ways cyan-blue prints were described across sources, because there can be variants in the process. After taking the time to research the history and various methods that can be utilized, I began experimenting with my own prints and writing down what did and did not work for me.

Sir John Herschel first introduced cyanotypes in 1842. In 1843, English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins was among the first to utilize the technique commercially. Atkins illustrated books using the cyanotype process, making hers the first books to be produced with photographic illustrations. 

My initial research led me to a website called Alternative Photography, which provided information on both the history and technique of cyanotype. My process then developed from the steps outlined on the Alternative Photography website and from personal experimentation. 

Cyanotype print by Hope Vigil-Shuck

The Alternative Photography process consists of mixing the chemicals, preparing the substrate, printing, processing and drying. The chemicals used when making cyanotypes are potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium mixed in equal parts. Once the chemicals are mixed, the printing surface can be prepared. While any receptive surface such as cloth, wool or canvas can be used, I exclusively used paper. To prepare the paper, I applied the chemical mixture to the surface and evenly distributed it with a paintbrush. Once the chemical is applied, it is important to leave the paper to dry in the dark. 

The traditional method of exposing a cyanotype print is by the sun, but more modern printing tools include a light box or UV exposure unit. The exposure time is completely dependent on your chosen light source. Once the print has been adequately exposed to light, it requires a water bath and time to hang dry. 

As a senior studio art major, I am able to experiment with different mediums, most of which I have worked with before. However, when I began working with cyanotypes for my printmaking independent study, I had no previous experience with the medium. I found it to be the perfect blend of printmaking and photography. There is a wide range of how cyanotypes can be produced, but I opted for the photographic route. This consisted of using transparencies of my photography to expose the cyanotype. Since a wide range of variables determines the exposure time, I had to experiment to find the time that worked best with the equipment I had access to. 

Along with exposure times, I experimented with the developing process. The most common process that I researched was to add the paper to a water bath, remove the paper and spray with hydrogen peroxide, and then return the surface to the water bath. Since the exposure time is dependent on the light source used and can vary widely, I did even more experimenting. 

My final process was exposure for 20 minutes, initial water bath for three minutes, spray the whole cyanotype with hydrogen peroxide, and then a final water bath for three to four minutes. I also experimented with tea baths because the tea is supposed to affect how blue the cyanotype is after development. In my experimentation I found that the tea stained the paper resulting in darker blues, but it also affected the whites of the cyanotypes. I decided against using tea baths in my final process because I did not like the way it affected the final product. 

The process of experimenting and learning as I went was a new thing for me, but it really helped me gain a deeper understanding of cyanotypes. Overall, I am glad that I have been able to work with this process and will be using it in the future. I have also made sure to document my experimentation in my sketchbook so that I can reference my results at a later time.