Blue Monday

I spent yesterday on a one day course in cyanotype printing at the CityLit Institute in Holborn. I’d come across cyanotype prints in a couple of amateur art exhibitions and in a Landscape magazine article about an artist who prints onto fabric from which she makes lampshades and soft furnishings, and thought I’d like to try it. In case you’re wondering what this has to do with gardens and gardening, it’s a technique that has been used since it was invented in the C19 to document plant material.

The story starts with the astronomer Sir John Herschel who invented the cyanotype printing process in 1842. His friend Anna Atkins (1799-1871) is credited with being the first woman to create a photograph and the first to publish a photographically illustrated book. She was, first and foremost, a botanist and adopted this new technique to record with great accuracy the plants and seaweed she collected and studied. She often dried and pressed the plants she portrayed before laying them out for the image. Many of her works are now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Our tutor Adam Hogarth explained that by the end of the course we would have learnt how to make cyanotypes using both photographs and found objects. The first step is to coat the paper with ‘iron salt’ a solution combining two chemicals with bottled still water. Adam prepared the light sensitive solution in a plastic flask and kept it in a cupboard to protect it from daylight until we needed it. Fortunately the day was very overcast and the light levels in the studio were low, because the process should be carried out in subdued light.

Using Canaletto 330g paper, we painted on an even amount of solution with a broad dry brush, leaving it to dry in a dark cupboard until needed. This usually takes about an hour, but the process can be speeded up by using a hair dryer. These sheets are called contact sheets.

Before I go on to describe the various techniques we learnt for creating the images which we were to learn how to print using the cyanotype printing process, here is the recipe for the solution:

10g Potassium Ferricyanide: using still bottled water, make up to 100ml in a calibrated flask.

25g Ferric Ammonium Citrate: ditto

Make sure both components are thoroughly dissolved before combining them.

Technique No. 1: Digital acetate

We emailed a few images to Adam who used Photoshop to convert them to black and white, he then adjusted the images for brightness and contrast before turning them into negatives and printing them onto A4 acetate sheets.

I chose four photographs: Seamus the cat on the kitchen windowsill, a scene from Kew Gardens with the Davies Alpine House in the background, a Euphorbia flower head and a pair of snowdrops photographed at East Lambrook Manor Gardens in February (Galanthus plicatus Phil Cornish).

Technique No. 2: Autographic marks

This was the bit I found very challenging: the brief was to hand draw bold marks on tracing paper using a selection of black wax crayons, a Japanese calligraphy pen, black markers etc. The blacked out areas would appear white when printed. I tentatively made some random shapes with a wax crayon, trying to make the blacked out areas as dense as possible. Drawing is not my strong suit and part of the appeal of this printing method is to create something artistic without having to draw!

Technique No. 3: Found objects

Plant material such as fern fronds, leaves or seed heads seem the obvious subject but I learnt that you can use all sorts: feathers, lace, scraps of woven fabric such as scrim, anything that might create a pleasing pattern on the finished print. Because we were using a light box with a rubber cover which was suctioned down flat onto the objects whilst they were being ‘printed’, our found objects had to be relatively flat so as not to damage the cover. Wineglasses were not allowed!

Next came the fun part: placing the acetate, tracing paper or found objects (or a combination of them) onto the surface of the lightbox and covering them with a contact sheet before closing the lid and pressing the GO button. The lightbox was on a setting of 55F meaning it was on full beam. A thin sliver of UV light was visible around the edges of the cover while the lightbox rumbled loudly during the period of exposure. Lifting the lid, we transferred the contact sheets into a bath of tap water to wash off the yellowy green solution. Swirling the paper around in the bath the image begins to emerge against a blue background which, as the paper dries, intensifies to a deep indigo. We stuck our images to a screen above the bath to drip dry for a few minutes before moving them to a huge multi-sectioned drying rack.

The original and most low tech method for developing cyanotype prints is to harness the sun’s UV light by exposing the contact sheets in bright sunshine. The rest of the process is much the same, save that because the light source is from above rather than below the contact sheet is placed facing upwards with the found object or the acetate* placed upon it. A sheet of glass or a perspex clip frame is used to hold the subject flat.

Once we’d printed a couple of conventional sheets using found objects and acetates, we were encouraged to experiment by mixing our source material. I tried superimposing a fern onto my Kew Gardens photograph, and popped a cut out of a snowdrop acetate onto the same image, resulting in a rather ghostly scene!

Cyanotypes can be tinted using tannin (tea, coffee, red wine!) to substitute sepia tones rather than an intense blue. Adam also told us about another technique, anthotype printing, where the light sensitive solution is made from strongly pigmented plants such as spinach leaves or beetroot instead of chemicals. The plants are mashed up in a blender and strained through a muslin, the liquid is used to create a light-sensitive contact sheet with the images or objects being placed on top of it as outlined above before exposing the sheet to the sun. Rather than blue, the images emerge in green or dark red, depending on the material used. It struck me this would be a great activity for the great nephews on a hot summer’s day.

I’d no idea until attending this course how popular cyanotype printing is and the extent to which you can make quite abstract images. I’m abuzz now with ideas for perhaps a seaside themed image, using shells and seaweed or for a cyanotype record of the flowers in the garden through the seasons.

*The image printed onto the acetate should be a digital positive when printing with a light source from above.

At lunchtime I walked across Kingsway to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and through to New Square in Lincoln’s Inn where I worked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although the squares and courtyards of this atmospheric Inn of Court are still lit by gas light I noticed that a concession to the 21st century has been made with the installation of electric car charging points. I admired the beautiful planting in the garden areas of the Inn, exemplified by this stunning combination of Euphorbia and Stachyurus praecox in the garden to one side of New Square.

I think this was my favourite image from the eight or so I made yesterday, combining the skeleton of a magnolia leaf, a piece of fern and a cut out acetate of an unusual snowdrop (Galanthus plicatus Phil Cornish).

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