I spent this sunny Sunday making some new cyanotypes, some of which I plan to hand-tone with tannic acid from black tea. Keep in mind, this is a chemical process, not digital or Photoshop toning.
The process starts with watercolor paper sensitized with the cyanotype solution, a large negative that’s the actual size of the final contact print, and some sunlight. This is one of the oldest (and easiest) processes in the history photography, and results in a beautiful shade of blue instead of blacks in the shadow areas.
The problem with cyanotypes is that everything is blue
While cyanotypes are striking and beautiful, not everyone likes blue prints. And it’s true, a blue landscape is a little odd. So, there are ways to chemically change the color of the blue. I’m toning with black tea, but anything with tannins should work — red wine, green tea, and coffee are all possibilities that will give unique results.
Here’s how the toning process works
Because cyanotypes are a type of contact print, you need a negative that’s the same size as your final print size. Large negatives can come from large format cameras, or they can be made digitally in Photoshop from a digital photograph, and printed onto transparency film with a high-quality inkjet printer. A third option is the one I’m currently using, which is to output digital files onto photographic film with an LVT machine.
Choose a good quality watercolor paper, especially if you intend to bleach and tone the print, because the repeated soaking and the washing soda are all very tough on papers. Cheap watercolor paper will not hold up well.
Sensitize the paper with the solution, following the directions on the package. Spread the sensitizer in a thin, even coat over the paper. It doesn’t need to be heavily applied, but be sure the surface is fully covered, especially if your paper is textured.
For best results, prepare your papers on the day you intend to make the prints. Freshly sensitized paper seems to work better than papers that have been allowed to age. Let the surface dry fully, and then get busy!
I made a series of prints from different negatives for various lengths of time, as the sun passed over head. I tracked the lengths of exposure and time of day on each print. Many photographers who regularly make alternative prints use a well-controlled electric UV light source, but for me, it’s the changing sunshine.
Bleaching and toning
Allow cyanotypes to develop overnight or use a peroxide bath
Cyanotypes won’t achieve full color richness until they have dried for about 24 hours. Or, you can get immediate results by dipping the print in a bath of water mixed with a small amount of hydrogen peroxide. This will bring the print to immediate color richness. Rinse with fresh water and move on to the bleaching phase.
Once the cyanotypes have fully developed, they can be soaked in a bath of water mixed with fully dissolved laundry washing soda which bleaches away most or all of the blue, leaving the paper almost pure white. This must be washing soda, not washing powder. Here is the kind I used, made by Arm and Hammer.
The bleached print can then be rinsed in water, and transferred to soak in a bath of strong tea, coffee, even red wine — anything with tannins. The tannic acid in the tea bath replaces the original cyanotype iron salts and stains the paper, giving it an aged look, and returning the bleached image in the color of the tannins.
The final print is rinsed in fresh water to get as much of the tea out of the paper as possible, then dried, flattened, and ready to frame.
What you will need:
- Negative in the exact size of the final print
- Suitable watercolor paper
- Cyanotype solution
- Glass frame to sandwich the negative to the cyanotype paper (can be two sheets of glass clamped together). Be careful not to cut yourself.
- UV light source — can be the sun
- Plastic trays to hold the baths, must be large and deep enough to hold your chosen paper size
- Development tray – fresh water
- Water plus hydrogen peroxide dip to speed-up development (optional)
- Washing soda bleach tray
- Toner tray with strong bath of tea, coffee, wine, or tannin solution
- Select or make the negative
- Mix chemistry and sensitize the watercolor paper (pre-sensitized cyanotype paper is affordable and widely available). This can be done in semi-dim conditions or under indirect room light as long as it’s not UV light or bright daylight. I recommend high-quality watercolor paper like Arches, because it holds up well to repeated washes.
- Sandwich negative and paper into an exposure frame (this can be as simple as two sheets of glass clamped together
- Expose to UV light (sunlight or an electric UV light source)
- Rinse the exposed print under tap water to develop it
- Allow the print to fully dry and age overnight to achieve full color richness, or rinse them in a bath of water with a small dose of hydrogen peroxide, which will immediately bring cyanotypes to full color
- To remove the blue, wet the print in water, then quickly soak in a bleach bath made from water and laundry washing soda (not laundry detergent washing powder). This happens very quickly. Buy Arm and Hammer Washing Soda here.
- Rinse under tap water to remove the washing soda bath
- Soak in the toning bath of tea, coffee, or red wine
- Rinse and allow to dry
- Flatten and frame
Here are the materials I use to make cyanotypes. These are Amazon links — if you can’t see them, try pausing your ad blocker.
Arches hot press (smooth) watercolor paper
High-quality watercolor paper will hold up under the repeated soakings necessary to make toned cyanotypes
Cyanotype sensitizing solution
This formula is super-affordable and goes a very long way.
Be sure to rinse this with water and clear out any loose bristles in advance. Let it dry before first use.
Washing soda for bleaching
This is not laundry detergent. Be sure to get washing soda. I used this brand but use whatever brand you choose. This bath will bleach the cyanotype blue, and prepare it for toning in the tea or other tannin-based bath.
Below are some of the cyanotypes and toned cyanotypes I’ve created.
Thanks for reading!