I offer regular creative workshops in NSW, Brisbane and on the Gold Coast. Over the last year I have been focussing on workshops in Cyanotype printing, and have created lots of Cyanotypes myself. The humble Cyanotype is a simple yet elegant contact printing process that produces beautiful Cyan prints. What I like about the process is that you can create prints when ever the sun shines, and the process allows for printing on a range of art papers. My favorite paper at the moment is Saunders Waterford 300GSM cold presses water colour paper. Below some more historical information about the Cyanotype.
The cyanotype is a photographic printing process invented by the English scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel in 1842. Also known as shadowgraphs or blue-prints, this simple printing process produces photographic images that are Cyan blue. Anna Atkins created a series of cyanotype limited-edition books that documented ferns and other plant life from her extensive seaweed collection, placing specimens directly onto coated paper and allowing the action of light to create a silhouette effect. By using this photogram process, Anna Atkins is sometimes considered the first female photographer.
Initially the cyanotype did not receive a favourable uptake in the world of photographic processes as most photographic printing processes produced either shades of brown or grey. In the twentieth century the cyanotype was mainly used by engineers to make copies of technical drawings, hence the term ‘blue-print’ was born.
Unlike most other photographic printing processes which are silver based, the cyanotype is an iron based process, which makes the creation and handling of the prints a lot easier, as the iron compounds are not very sensitive to light. To create a cyanotype no darkroom is required and the development of the prints is done in tap water
In May 2017, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam acquired one of the copies of Atkins book for €450,000. Rijksmuseum General Director, Taco Dibbits, said: We are very pleased with this wonderful acquisition of the first ever photo book, by the first ever female photographer. Anna Atkins’ work sits on the border between art and science. Apart from its historical significance, Atkins’ images are characterised by their timeless beauty, which looks contemporary because of the abstraction of the silhouettes on the photographic paper.
For the various editions, Atkins produced thousands of cyanotypes, or blueprints. In those days, this photographic technique was a relatively simple and inexpensive way of making contact prints. By using two ferric salts, and exposure to strong light, a Prussian blue colour is created. The technique of placing an object onto a light sensitive surface became known as “photogenic drawing” a term coined by Fox Talbot.
With the rapid technological advances in photography at the beginning of the 20th century, the cyanotype process was mainly used by engineers to copy technical drawings and by artists to create camera-less photograms. The famous American painter Robert Rauschenberg was introduced to the cyanotype process when he was a student at the legendary Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the late 1940s.
Untitled 1951 is among the first of his exceptionally beautiful blueprints, or blue photograms. Here, the actual one-to-one scale of these objects and bodies silhouetted against a blue background directly places the sitter in their environment, whether it be the model’s hands clutching branches and twigs, the feet and foliage, or the human figures contorting, posing and stretching their bodies into a variety of positions that fill the edges of the paper. This photographic enlargement and faithful translation of one-to-one scale echoed Rauschenberg’s unrealised plan to deploy the medium of photography to “walk across the United States and photograph it inch by inch in actual size”.
Robert Rauschenberg Untitled 1951 182.8 x 121.9 cm
It is important to remember that a cyanotype is not a photograph but a photographic process. It is a way of making an image without the mediating gaze of a lens or a camera. There is no perspective illusion. No suspension of disbelief is required. The subject is indelibly present in the cyanotype in the same way that it is always absent from a photograph. The subject of a cyanotype must be directly in contact with the paper, preventing the light from reaching it, and recording often only its outline but, unexpectedly, a 3D effect can also sometimes be seen.
In its materiality the cyanotype it is closer to a painting — or a even a 2D sculpture — since it has been made by directly engaging with the materiality of the object at the same time as the image comes into being. In this sense a cyanotype has more in common with a work by Yves Klein than with a landscape painting but a cyanotype does in fact evoke the landscape. Indeed it is in and of the landscape by virtue of the fact that it involves a direct relationship with the depicted object and light.
Regardless of one’s artistic practise or choice of medium, the cyanotype process can offer a way of creating images for multiple uses, such as unique works on fine art paper or material such as silk, cards and books. The cyanotype can also be used as a starting point to be added to with paint or water colours. The creative possibilities are endless which is evident in the work of film maker, sculptor, performer and sound artist Christian Marclay. In 2009 Marclay produced a series of cyanotype works using unspooled cassette tapes, inviting comparisons with paintings of Jackson Pollock.
Marclay All-over Cyanotype on paper, 254cm x 127 cm, 2009
In stark contrast with Marclay’s cyanotype works is the prints Meghann Riepenhoff produces. Riepenhoff unconventional techniques of using the cyanotype process yields surprising results. Rather than carefully placing objects on the coated paper, Riepenhoff takes her prints into the landscape where she submerges the prints into the ocean or covers the prints with sand.
The resulting prints are like the recording of natural processes such as wind, tidal flows, decay and so on. The methods she uses to expose the paper pushes the process to an extreme, which again shows the versatility of the cyanotype process of making an image.
Meghann Riepenhoff, Littoral Drift , 2013, 11×14 inch.