Cyan-o-what?! What is cyanotype?

Let me start by clearing up a little fact that trips every beginner cyanotype experimenter. Cyanotype is not actually a physical thing. Many beginners including myself, fall into the assumption that each picture they make is ‘a cyanotype’. Well, apparently not.

Cyanotype is the name of the process.

It is a photographic process, in fact, it is considered one of the original forms of photography, but it does not utilise a camera. Rather, it utilises the sun to expose the silhouette of an object on a page that has been treated with the UV sensitive cyanotype solution, the result is often called a photogram.

It is also described as a contact printing process. This means that the image or photogram made is the same size as the object used as the negative. All the prints I create are the same size as the plant or feather (etc…) specimen I use to create them. If I want to print a full-size palm frond, I would need a huge piece of paper to capture that whereas if I want to capture a dainty little daisy or forb, then I could achieve that in a small page.

The cyanotype process was invented in 1842 by Sir John Hershel, an astronomist, who originally used it as a method for copying notes and mathematical tables. Essentially, cyanotype, was utilised as a photocopier before machine photocopiers we know today were invented. In fact, you have probably heard of the term of a blueprint, used for architectural and engineering drawings? Well those blueprints were made via the cyanotype process to create copies of drawings.

Cyanotype works because of iron salts in the solution. They are sensitive to UV and the best source of UV is the sun. On a treated page, in areas covered by an object, the page will not react to UV exposure but areas not covered will. After exposure, the page is washed in water and the exposed parts turn Prussian blue and the unexposed parts are white – or whatever colour the page is.

That is my quick lesson introducing you to the process of cyanotype.

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