Cyanotype is a photographic printing process that produces a cyan-blue print. Engineers used the process well into the 20th century as a simple and low-cost process to produce copies of drawings, referred to as blueprints. The process uses two chemicals: ammonium iron(III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide.
The English scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel discovered the procedure in 1842. Though the process was developed by Herschel, he considered it as mainly a means of reproducing notes and diagrams, as in blueprints. It was Anna Atkins who brought this to photography. She created a limited series of cyanotype books that documented ferns and other plant life from her extensive seaweed collection. Atkins placed specimens directly onto coated paper, allowing the action of light to create a silhouette effect. By using this photogram process, Anna Atkins is regarded as the first female photographer.
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In a typical procedure, equal volumes of an 8.1% (w/v) solution of potassium ferricyanide and a 20% solution of ferric ammonium citrate are mixed. This mildly photosensitive solution is then applied to a receptive surface (such as paper or cloth) and allowed to dry in a dark place. Cyanotypes can be printed on any surface capable of soaking up the iron solution. Although watercolor paper is a preferred medium, cotton, wool and even gelatin sizing on nonporous surfaces have been used. Care should be taken to avoid alkaline-buffered papers, which degrade the image over time.
A positive image can be produced by exposing it to a source of ultraviolet light (such as sunlight) through a contact negative (which can be produced by any suitable means, e.g. a conventional photographic negative or a print on acetate film made using photo-processing software to invert a positive monochrome digital image). The UV light reduces the iron(III) to iron(II). This is followed by a complex reaction of the iron(II) complex with ferricyanide. The result is an insoluble, blue dye (ferric ferrocyanide) known as Prussian blue.
Exposure to ultraviolet light reduces the iron in the exposed, turning the paper a steel-grey-blue color. The extent of color change depends on the amount of UV light, but acceptable results are usually obtained after 10-20 minute exposures on a dark, gloomy day. The highlight values should appear overexposed, as the water wash reduces the final print values. Prints can be made with large format negatives and lithography film, or everyday objects can be used to make photograms.
After exposure, developing of the picture involves the yellow unreacted iron solution being rinsed off with running water. Although the blue color darkens upon drying, the effect can be accelerated by soaking the print in a 6% (v/v) solution of 3% (household) hydrogen peroxide. The water-soluble iron(III) salts are washed away, while the non-water-soluble Prussian blue remains in the paper. This is what gives the picture its typical blue color.
In a cyanotype, a blue is usually the desired color; however, there are a variety of effects that can be achieved. These fall into three categories: reducing, intensifying and toning.
Reducing is the process of reducing the intensity of the blue. Sodium carbonate, ammonia, Clorox, TSP, borax, Dektol and other reagents can be used to do this. A good easily obtained reducer is Sunlight laundry detergent. When using a reducer it is important to pull the cyanotype out of the weak solution and put the cyanotype into a water bath to arrest the bleaching process.
Intensifying is the strengthening of the blue effect. These reagents can also be used to expedite the oxidation process the cyanotype undergoes. These reagents are hydrogen peroxide, citric acid, lemon juice, and vinegar.
Toning is the process used to change the color of the iron in the print cyanotype. The colour change varies with the reagent used. There are a variety of elements that can be used, including tannic acid, oolong tea, wine, cat urine, and pyrogallic acid.
In contrast to most historical and present-day processes, cyanotype prints do not react well to basic environments. As a result it is not advised to store or present the print in chemically buffered museum board, as this makes the image fade. Another unusual characteristic of the cyanotype is its regenerative behaviour: prints that have faded due to prolonged exposure to light can often be significantly restored to their original tone by simply temporarily storing them in a dark environment.
Cyanotypes on cloth are permanent but must be washed by hand with non-phosphate soap so as to not turn the cyan to yellow.
The world's largest cyanotype was created by artist Rosie Emerson at the Hackney WickED Arts Festival on 3rd August 2014. The final piece was made with help from Ben Rider and a team of volunteers including three models who became figures of sirens. Once the piece was developed it measured 46.81 square meters.
The previous largest known cyanotype is Coup de Théâtre, which was organised by Vincent Martin and Michel Miguet at le festival Art et Science at Avignon, France on July 11, 2013. Fifteen people lay on the 5.5m x 7.9m coated cotton cloth to form a circle with their bodies while others put their hands around the periphery. The work was exposed to the sun for 10 minutes. This is the largest cyanotype made since The Dance in 2004.
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