here's one I made earlier :: cyanotype

Katie | April 3, 2011

Inspired by a recent exhibition about camera-less photography at the V&A called Shadow Catchers, I thought I’d try my hand at cyanotype, a type of ‘sun printing’.


Cyanotype buttons


Cyanotype, originally used for reproducing notes and diagrams in engineering circles (blueprints) was discovered and developed by English scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel in 1842.

Anna Atkins used the technique to document 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, and so became the world’s first female photographer.


Anna Atkins algae cyanotype


Using both sun-print paper and sunography fabric, this is the technique I used. Bright sunlight is required, so I kept my fingers crossed, and headed out into the back garden. Both the paper and the fabric come in a black, light-proof bag, so the trick is to keep them in there until you’re absolutely ready to expose them.


Sunography fabric in light-proof bag


For the image at the top of this post, I used a selection of buttons. I had to get the paper out quickly, without exposing any of the other sheets in there to the light (easier said than done!), place it down on a flat surface, arrange the buttons on top of it, and then place a sheet of glass over the top to hold everything in place while it’s being exposed.


A selection of buttons on sun print paper under sheet of glass


After exposing the paper to the sun for two minutes, I whipped it out from under the buttons and glass and popped it back into the black light-proof bag.

And then I tried a few different items…


Luggage tags

Paint brush


Birthday candles


Cassette tape

Slide film


Then I tried the same thing using the sunography fabric, but because this takes much longer to expose (up to twenty minutes) I only tried one item – the slide film.


Slide film on sunography fabric


With the paper and fabric safely tucked into their respective light-proof bags, I tidied up and came back inside. The paper had to be submerged in cold water for one minute, and the fabric washed under running water for two minutes.

The paper and fabric were coated with a photosensitive solution of potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate. On exposure to sunlight, the iron (III) on the parts of the paper or fabric that weren’t hidden by the object placed on top are reduced to iron (II).  The iron (II) then reacts with the ferricyanide to form an insoluble, blue dye (ferric ferrocyanide) known as Prussian blue.

Rinsing with water washes off the (yellow) unreacted iron solution, leaving the Prussian blue print on the areas where the objects weren’t. The areas where objects have protected the paper or fabric from the sun, are left the original colour. Like this…


Luggage tags cyanotype

Paintbrush cyanotype


Birthday candle cyanotype


Cassette tape cyanotype



Slide film cyanotype

Slide film fabric cyanotype


I suspect you’d have to spend a long time experimenting and learning to produce images of the quality of Anna Atkins‘ or of the artists featured in the V&A Shadow Catchers exhibition, but I did enjoy my first attempt and was quite pleased with the results. I learnt that the flatter the object, the cleaner the image, but some of the less flat objects created prints which almost looked three-dimensional. The fabric was more sensitive and captured the detail within the slide film, as well as some tonal variation.

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Founding Editor – Katie Treggiden

Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.

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  • Won’t the dye eventually lose its colour over time, or if left in sunlight or put in the dishwasher?

    • The higher the concentration of dye in the solution, the less colour is lost. There seems to be a point at which the moisture is fully absorbed back into the air, leaving the particles of dye in the ceramic body unable to move and so the colour/ pattern is fixed

      Sunlight doesn’t seem to affect the colour; I had a few test pieces sat on the window sill in direct sunlight with a line of tape on them to see if sunlight did anything and nothing happened. The test was conducted over the few months so am not sure about longer term exposure

      The pieces are decorative so wouldn’t need to be put in the dishwater but I did test them, one with a sealant on and one without, and there wasn’t any change – although I left some tiled pieces I made in the rain and the dye moved around again and became very vibrant

      There is lot of science behind the process, most of which I don’t fully understand and sometimes doesn’t make any sense – could talk about it for hours but I’ve tried to be concise!

  • Kuo

    this is such a cool process. did your friend emma come up with this on her own?? that’s incredible! also, i was watching the video while listening to “Goodnight, Travel Well” by the Killers, so the video was very dramatic for me haha

    • Thank you and yes – the process came from trying to dye everything, even the studio sink!

  • The technique is so pretty and natural. Thanks for sharing.

  • Fer

    Wow! I love your work. Congratulations!

  • Christine Lynn

    I like the watercolour effect on the pieces. They look very natural because they don’t look like they were painted. By using the dye to colour the pieces, is it safe to use the bowls and cups for dinnerware?

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