Easy step by step instructions for starting your cyanotype photography journey

Cyanotype combining plants with acetate negatives, by Jo Howell 2023

Hello! My name is Jo Howell and I am a photographic artist who has worked with cyanotype as one of my main materials for nearly 14 years. Cyanotype has many amazing attributes and is an easy process to gain results from. You can be as skilled or as unskilled as you like. It’s a very forgiving medium.

Step 1

Get your equipment ready. As with all art forms, 90% of the work is in the preparation. Prepare well and the work will go smoothly. You will need the following:

After exposure with and then without plants, then after the was 2018 by Jo Howell
Jacquard cyanotype chemistry in blackout bottles
  • Cyanotype chemistry. I usually use Jacquards chemistry as it comes in blackout plastic bottles and is really easy to mix. The more confident you become then you may want to invest in a stock of crystals rather than purchasing the bottles each time. I save them to use with other cyanotype formulations. For example when I do cyanotype on glass with gelatine.
  • Access to cold water. The colder the water the better. A neutral PH or slightly acidic is best for cyanotype process.
  • Sponge brush or a paint brush, but I prefer sponge as I think it gives a more even coverage.
  • Water Tray it is definitely best to have a dedicated wash tray. This will save you ruining your bathroom or kitchen sink when washing your prints. This could be a kitty litter tray if you don’t have photography trays available. Make sure it’s a new one though!
  • Paper or surfaces you want to cyanotype on you need to consider which materials you want to use. This may be natural fabrics such as cotton or linen. These will need no special treatment prior to applying your cyanotype to it. If you are recycling fabric remember that certain fabrics are treated with a fire retardant, and cyanotype solution just won’t stick to it. Paper wise you want to aim for papers that are acid neutral and robust enough to stand up to the water bath. Some papers will want to disintegrate if handled roughly in water.
  • Drying rack or line this needs to be somewhere that you can peg up your prints to dry. I usually peg just one corner to allow run off on the diagonal.
  • Pegs for drying your prints
  • A plane of glass the thinner the glass the better for cyanotype printing. I tend to use glass clip frames. This because the glass is cheap, untreated with a uv filter, and the edges are finished which is great for health and safety.
  • Bits and bobs, pressed flowers, and acetate negatives you will need to consider your plan of action. What are you making your cyanotypes out of?
  • Sunlight or a UV exposure unit I use both because I live in the UK. We are definitely not guaranteed any UV light throughout winter, so I move the process in doors.
  • PPE you may be fine working with cyanotype as it is non-toxic, but you can develop sensitivities over time, or you may have a skin condition that makes you prone to react. If you are worried, then wear some gloves when applying your cyanotype solution.
  • A small tub for your sensitised cyanotype.
Vintage tiles from The Mountain Daisy, by Jo Howell 2023

Step 2

If you are beginning with cyanotype crystals then I would suggest mixing up enough of each solution 24 hours prior to printing. Mix the crystals with water, but keep both solution A and solution B mixed up in separate containers and store in a dark cool dry place. You will combine solution A and solution B when you are ready to make your prints.

In a clean container mix solution A and solution B together. This will sensitise the solution and make it react to light faster. Only use what you need at the time. A small mixture at a ratio of 1:1 should be enough to prep several pieces of paper or a couple of pieces of fabric.

The Mountain Daisy treasure box, by Jo Howell 2023

Step 3

Use a sponge brush to thinly apply your solution to the surface of your paper or fabric.

Cyanotype is a photographic chemical, it does not work like a pigment or dye. Thin application is usually best as you are working on a molecular level. You only need a thin layer of those molecules to create amazing blues. Too much solution and you risk uneven coverage as well as risking that the image will just wash away.

Step 4

Put your prepared paper away in a cool dark place. Once you have applied the 2 solutions to paper or fabric you can let them dry and store them in a dark cupboard for up to 2 weeks before using them. If I am teaching i tend to prepare my paper the night before.

The Mountain Daisy treasure box by Jo Howell 2023

Step 5

Prepare for exposure.

Take your cyanotype paper and arrange your objects or acetate negatives on top of the yellow side. If you are using the sun then you will need to weigh down your arrangement using the plane of glass. If objects are too 3d you may not need the glass at all. Have it on standby if you are doing cyanotypes from acetate negatives you will need the glass to ensure that you have a good even contact between the negative and the cyanotype.

Step 6

Expose your image.

In my opinion it is better to over expose a cyanotype, (leave it in the sun or under the lamp for too long), than to under expose it. This is because you can always wash your print for longer to bring out information that was lost to over exposure, but you can’t add the information back in if it wasn’t exposed enough in the first place. Cyanotype is made from a base of iron oxide (rust) and it will show slightly orange rust colours once the cyanotype solution has been properly exposed. This happens very fast on a good summers day!

Tile details by Jo Howell 2023

Step 7

Wash in super cold water.

Cyanotype sets beautifully with very cold water. This shocks the blues and fixes them. If you don’t wash for long enough then your blues won’t develop properly, and the paper could still be sensitive to light and therefore continue to go dark. Better to wash for slightly too long than for too little. You are not just removing excess solution you are activating and fixing the chemical reaction.

Step 8

Peg up your print to dry.

Just letting your print air dry is the best way. Do not get over excited and use a hair dryer. The heat will effect the print. Just be patient and let it dry slowly.

String on antique book paper cyanotype by Jo Howell 2023

Step 9

Wait a few days.

As the print dries fully it will reach it’s true blue. This can be affected in the future by too much exposure to uv, not enough air circulation in frames, or damp. But, if your cyanotype is displayed in an area that doesn’t get too much direct sunlight on it, they should last for ages.

Step 10

Show everyone your amazing art.

You may have so much fun making it that you forget to show everyone! Use hashtags like #cyanotype #alternativeprocessphotography #cyanomasters to reach other like minded artists. Good luck! I can’t wait to see what you come up with

Seagull suitcase by Jo Howell 2023

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