The History of Cyanotypes

Cyanotypes are a photographic technique that uses a dye and a negative to create a positive image. The process was invented by British astronomer and chemist John Frederick William Herschel (1792 – 1871).

The cyanotype process was seldom used until the 1880s when it was used to create inexpensive proof images. Architects and engineers used the process to make copies of design plans. We know them today as blueprints.

The technique can also be used to capture gorgeous botanical images. I can’t think of a better way to create art from your home garden than to make sun prints from plants and leaves found in your backyard.

Photo collage of my most recent cyanoptypes.
Photo collage showing my latest sun prints

What Motivated Me to Try This Fun Technique

I’ve always wanted to make sun prints, but I never got around to it. Luckily, a friend of mine made a series of sun print cards for her Etsy shop. Those cards inspired me to give it a go.

Sun prints are created by placing objects on light-sensitive paper. When the paper is exposed to sunlight, it creates a brilliant cyan-blue image.

Sun print by Anna Atkins New York Public Library Collection

The First Book to Use Photographic Illustrations

In 1843, a woman named Anna Atkins began playing around with cyanotypes to capture images of her native Britsh seaweed collection.  Over the next 10 years, Ms. Atkins would publish versions of her photo book for friends.  The book was titled Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.  It’s considered to be one of the first books illustrated with photographs.

I found it completely inspiring that a woman in 1843 was the first person to use this newly developed photographic technique to document her botanical collection. The historical significance of the books she published can’t be understated. If you are interested in seeing Ms. Atkins’ original images, they can be viewed online at the New York Public library

My Latest Cyanotypes on my Studio Bulletin Board

Step by Step How To Instructional Video

If you’d like to try the process yourself, I made a video showing the step-by-step process I use to create prints.

My Quick Sun Print Tutorial video

Contemporary Art and Artists to Check Out

Winter Blues: Contemporary Cyanotypes at the Center for Photographic Art by Aline Smithson March 14, 2020

The Center for Photographic Arts in Carmel, CA recently opened the exhibition, Winter Blues: Contemporary Cyanotypes, curated by Center Director Ann Jastrab. Running through April 5th, the exhibition features the work of Diana Bloomfield, J.M. Golding, Brenton Hamilton, Barbara Hazen, Max Kellenberger, Heidi Kirkpatrick, Meghann Riepenhoff, Paula Riff, Leah Sobsey, and Brian Taylor.

Materials for the Best Results

The process is super easy, requires just a few materials, and the end result is a beautiful piece of art. I spent a couple of days experimenting with different types of paper and printing techniques and found this is what worked best for me.

  • Use watercolor or multimedia paper (heavy weight paper doesn’t rip when wet).
  • Mixing your own chemicals gives you more freedom than pre-coated paper
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment and make the process your own

Ideas of How You Can Use this Process to Make Your Own Gifts and Artwork

Sun prints can be used to create art prints, table clothes, and clothing. You’re only limited by your imagination. This technique is perfect for making artwork. Take a look at the list below to find inspiration for your next project.

  • Postcards
  • Gift tags and wrapping paper
  • Lamp shades
  • Table runners
  • T-shirts
  • Unique wallpaper images for your Smart phones

Find Inspiration on Pinterest

Helpful Resources

Dick Blick Cyanotype Supplies

Yes — Cyanotypes Are Safe to Make

My Pinterest Board showing tons of Cyanotype Inspiration

Cyanotype: The Photographic Process that “Blue” Everyone Away 170 Years Ago

Sun prints are fun to make. I’d love to hear if you give this process a try. Hit me up in the comments below and let me know what you made. If you send a photo, I’ll add it to my Pinterest board.

If you like learning about new projects and techniques, I share inspiration in my weekly newsletter. Every week I send the newsletter straight to your inbox. It’s filled with helpful tips about garden design, plants, and garden-inspired DIY projects.

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