Monday, June 22, 2020

Creating Cyanotypes with StencilGirl® Products

Most mixed media artists who use collage in their work are usually in search of unique collage material.  The convenience of pre-printed collage papers and ephemera is all well and good, but nobody likes to see material that they have used showing up in someone else's work.  Speaking from experience,  I can attest that it can be an uncomfortable feeling.  This is one reason (among many reasons) why so many of us appreciate the exclusive designs available through Stencil Club.
Hand StencilGuts (limited availability)
         One of my favorite techniques lately has been cyanotyping, and now with the weather so cooperative it is high time for more sun-printing.  If you have never used this photographic technique, it's easy to get started with pretreated lightweight paper, sold as "Sunprint" paper.  The basic chemistry is that a light-sensitive solution is painted onto paper; when exposed to sunlight, the treated paper will darken.  Any shadow cast during the whole exposure will remain white.  A wash in cold water will stop the reaction, and you'll be left with a beautiful cyan blue and white print, such as the small print to the right.  The beauty of this process is that each print is unique - the length of exposure and the brightness of the sun will result in subtle variations every time, as will some of the next-level techniques I'll be discussing in this column.   Once you have experimented with the pretreated paper, I highly recommend purchasing the chemicals (available on-line at the big art supply retailers) and sensitizing your own paper.  The advantage of this is that you can sensitize book
Bird StencilGuts (limited availability)
paper, fabric, large sheets of heavy watercolor paper - whatever you like, with some caveats to be discussed shortly.  Once you start with "cyanotyping 101" you'll be hooked.  I particularly like leaving brushstrokes on the paper, or sensitizing a shape.  Lately I've been experimenting with what you might call "cyanotyping for the adventurous" -  adding water, soap, vinegar, ink, and other dyes into the process.  More on that shortly, too.
Botanical Wildflowers Masks L774, Botanical Stem Mask L773
                   Cyanotypes with stencils and masks is a match made in heaven, but first you have to make sure that your Mylar is opaque - it has to block the sun or it will not give you a good print.  If a mask is small, I'll just dip it into a jar of India ink and let it dry - with larger stencils and masks, a good coat of black spray paint on both sides does the trick.  Rae Missigman's recent botanical masks were an obvious choice for a project like this; I followed her directions for freeing these delicate beauties from the Mylar sheet, and spray painted them (although sometimes the paint peels off, as you see in the lower right - I can just paint it again).
        As I mentioned earlier, one of the few limitations on making cyanotypes is that the substrate has to be able to withstand washing.  Because collage material ideally is thin, this presents a bit of a challenge.  Very thin paper simply will not hold up to this process (trust me, I've tried) and although heavy watercolor paper yields a beautiful cyanotype, its stiffness does not lend itself to collage, especially in an art journal.  For these reasons, I decided to try cyanotyping on very thin silk.  I had some in my fabric stash, so I treated some pieces and got to work.
This unappealing pile of rags is my treated silk.  Although sensitized paper will appear dark green, on silk, this chemistry turns a deathly gray.  The solution and treated paper or fabric in this process is not sensitive to electric light, only direct sunlight, so you can handle this inside without ill effect, and no special darkroom conditions are required.  This makes it easy enough to set up your print.  You'll need a rigid platform of some kind (I use an old cutting board) and a pane of glass to hold everything in place.  The basic process is that you lay down your sensitized substrate - paper or fabric on the base - then the opaque stencil or mask, cover with glass, and take out into the sunshine.  Exposure time will depend on the time of year and the time of day, but figure on somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 minutes on a cloudless summer day.  There is a lot of experimenting with this process and you'll go through many prints to find the right exposure time: use a timer and take notes!  When the time is up, bring it all inside and rinse the print for several minutes to remove the unexposed chemical, then hang to dry.  This will yield a crisp blue and white image.
            With cyanotyping for the adventurous, or wet cyanotyping,  the magic really begins.  As above, you lay your substrate on the platform, and then your stencil or mask, but before covering with glass, try sprinkling some powdered turmeric (it contains a strong yellow dye) and spritzing with water.  The turmeric and water will react with the cyanotype solution in unpredictable ways, leaving splots, dots, and blotches that can be absolutely gorgeous.  Diluted vinegar will also make the chemistry go wild, as will inks and soap bubbles. Anything water-based will instantly effect the dried cyanotype solution.  Some wet cyanotype artists leave their wet prints out to expose for many hours, which really does wacky things to the chemistry, and depending on the substrate - paper or fabric - the reactions will vary. You'll never get the same results twice.
Different swatches of silk with the botanical masks - different exposures, different additions (water, vinegar, spray inks, turmeric) - showing unpredictable and unique results.  

       To see how the finished sun-printed silk held up to collaging, I decided to make an encaustic collage.  I love the wax finish and the ghostly quality it adds to an already mysterious print, like some kind of night-blooming fantasy flower. I added a few pin pricks of white oil paint and called it done.

       One of the great pleasures of cyanotyping is that once you have the chemicals, which aren't expensive and last a long time, you can print just about anything on any porous surface.  The technique lends itself particularly well to botanicals, and collecting leaves, flowers and branches outside to print this way is a great activity to do with children.  But anything that casts a shadow will work - although be aware that the more 3D an object is, the less distinct its shadow will be, which is why stencils are ideal for sun-printing. Here's to sunny days ahead!


  1. These look amazing! Such a perfect use of these stencils and so much wonderful information about creating the cyanotypes. I haven’t had much success with this form of printing but I’m definitely inspired to try again! Thanks!

  2. Thanks for all your great tips on this fun process!

  3. I love this! I immediately ordered some chemicals! Thank you. Did the turmeric make the green tints in the montage above?

  4. Yes, I'm pretty sure that tint came from turmeric - I made these several weeks ago. You can also try paprika and spray inks - you won't always get a really strong effect but it's fun to experiment.


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