Turning Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, Kurt Cobain, and even Princess Diana into monochromatic blue fashion Ts has become quite the TikTok DIY pastime.
It’s called cyanotype, a process developed by astronomer and chemist John Frederick William Herschel in the 1840s. It’s a relatively simple process requiring two chemicals, absorbent material and UV light. The result is a cyan-blue print that works on various canvases and imagery possibilities.
The relative ease of the process combined with the big artistic bang for the buck has likely helped contribute to its popularity on social media. The hashtag cyanotype currently has 37.2 million views on TikTok, and 428,000 posts on Instagram.
A search for cyanotype on Etsy returns nearly 8,000 results. Cyanotype kits and pre-treated materials are also readily available on Amazon for as low as $7.
How to Make Cyanotypes
Even without the kits, the process is relatively simple. First, potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate are mixed with water to create solutions that are mixed again.
A variety of materials can serve as a canvas, including paper and clothing. Artists and DIYers coat the canvas with the chemical solution and leave it to dry in darkness. A photo negative or even an object like a leaf from a plant is placed on the canvas under a UV light source — a UV lamp, lightbox, or just basic sun. After UV light exposure, the canvas is rinsed with water. Once dry, the print is ready for hanging or wearing.
Artist Christine Nguyen of Colorado has been using the cyanotype method since the ’90s when she was in college. She has continued to incorporate the process into projects over the years.
“I like working in an analog process, especially one that relies on the sun to expose the light-sensitive paper, collaborating with nature,” she said.
Nguyen said it is also called the blueprint process and was introduced by Herschel, who was trying to find a way to copy his notes. In 1843, botanist Anna Atkins illustrated a book with cyanotype called “British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions,” according to Nguyen.
Modern Cyanotype Artists
Modern artists like Nguyen have taken this historical process and made it their own. For example, Nguyen said she coats paper or fabric with chemicals and lets it air dry.
“I usually do this in the late evening when the sun has gone down. You want this to dry in the dark,” she said.
Once the paper or fabric dries, she places objects on the UV-sensitive paper and exposes it to the sun. The amount of sun exposure time varies.
“You wash the cyanotype in water until the water runs clear and then let the print dry,” she said. “The end result is a blue-and-white print that is fixed.”
Nguyen said that the process’s ease could help account for its current popularity.
“I think cyanotypes are a fun and easy project,” she said. “It’s for all ages and easily accessible to buy pre-coated paper and fabric. Especially when people can make unique one-of-a-kind items.”
She can even remember making one as a child.
“I think maybe it’s a trend that brings people joy, especially during the pandemic,” she said.
Alternative Photographic Processes
Cyanotypes are part of a larger trend known as alternative processes, historical processes, or non-silver processes in photographic printing. Other examples of alternative photographic processes include anthotypes, chemigrams, and lumen prints.
Anthotype is an environment-friendly process that prints photos with juice extracted from fruit peels, flower petals, and plant pigments. Chemigram uses photo paper to make an image by playing with the typical chemical photographic process.
Meanwhile, lumen printing uses black-and-white photo paper, organic materials (like leaves), glass, and the sun to create unique images.
Blade Gillissen, professor at the School of Photography at Orange Coast College in California, said alternative photographic processes have become very popular.
“Especially the inexpensive ones like cyanotype and lumen prints, less so with the more expensive processes like platinum and palladium,” said Gillissen. “I think people really miss working with their hands and creating something that is unique and completely one-of-a-kind.”
Many high schools have cut programs like art, and students are tired of sitting in front of a computer.
“There is nothing like creating something with your hands and then just sitting back and admiring it,” he said. “Also, most of these processes need a large (4×5 or bigger) negative, and now that digital negatives can be created so easily, people don’t need to spend hours in the darkroom creating that larger negative.”
Gillissen said social media platforms like TikTok had played a huge role.
“I don’t spend much time on social media, but students are always showing me sites and asking, ‘How’d they do this or that?’ The ‘flow of information’ is just amazing,” he said. “I often see people doing something in a different way and think, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”
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