Art Term Tuesday: Cyanotype

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints and Drawings

In 1842 British scientist Sir John Frederick William Herschel presented his findings to the Royal Society in London on a new photographic process, the cyanotype. Herschel was amongst the earliest inventors of photography, alongside Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (daguerreotype) and Henry Fox Talbot (photogravure).  

In Greek cyan means dark-blue impression, and the cyanotype’s characteristic blue tonalities range from light to deep and intense. While most early photographic printing processes are silver-based, cyanotype is not. Iron, rather than silver, is used in cyanotype, platinum, and palladium prints. The printing of cyanotypes is dependent on the reduction of ferric salts into ferrous salts, leading to the formation of Prussian blue.  

To make a cyanotype, the artist applies a mixture of potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate onto a substrate, most commonly paper or fabric, under dim lighting conditions and allows it to dry in the dark. This makes a light sensitive coating. Then, there are two approaches to creating imagery: one option is to place a negative in direct contact with the sensitized material and expose it to sunlight or an artificial UV light source. The exposed material is rinsed in a water bath, which completes the formation of Prussian blue in areas exposed to light. Using a negative creates a positive print, as in Amy Pirrotta’s The Tightrope.   

Amy Pirrotta, American, b. 1976. The Tightrope. Cyanotype on paper, 2017. Gift of the Artist, 2018.147. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

The other option is for the artist to place opaque or semitransparent objects directly on the light sensitive material. After exposing to light and rinsing with water, a negative image is generated, known as a photogram or camera-less drawing. Fort Wayne photographer Stephen Perfect’s image of a single leaf, below, captures the delicate network of veins.   

Stephen Perfect, American, born 1938. Untitled, Leaf. Cyanotype on paper, 1989. Museum purchase with funds provided by the American Art Initiative Capital Campaign, 2012.14. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

Anna Atkins (1799-1871) has the distinction of being the first woman photographer and author of one of the first photographically illustrated books. Atkins, who was a botanist, published Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843-53) in three volumes. Her father was acquainted with Herschel and she used photograms to record the botanical specimens instead of drawing them by hand; because cyanotypes are made through contact printing, the printed image is the same size as the source.
Accurate and quicker to produce, the Prussian blue in cyanotype was perfect to evoke the color of the ocean.   

The fairly simple process was popular amongst amateur photographers from the 1870s through WWI. Experienced photographers found it useful for making proofs and contact sheets before printing the more expensive silver gelatin prints.  

Cyanotypes have advantages: it’s inexpensive, it requires few solutions, and has few steps. Despite this, cyanotypes didn’t catch on right away. Esteemed photographer Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936) suggested that there were only certain subjects suited for the medium, perhaps discouraging its widespread acceptance. A preference for black and white tonalities dominated. 

Cyanotypes were made into postcards until the Kodak 3A folding pocket camera produced negatives that fit within the dimensions of a postcard. The medium became indispensable to engineers and architects, who reproduced plans and architectural drawings in what is commonly known as blueprints. This continued until the 1950s when it was replaced by the diazo process, which is also blue.  

Perhaps its connection with amateur use and industrial reproduction kept the medium in the margins of fine art photography. Interest in cyanotypes, however, along with other historical photographic processes, increased in the mid-20th century. For example, Robert Rauschenberg and Susan Weil experimented with a series of collaborative photograms of human bodies and other objects around their apartment from 1949 to 1951.

Besides paper, artists have printed cyanotypes on wood, glass, and fabric. Betty Fishman used the camera-less method and juxtaposed plants, silhouettes, and lace on fabric in Triangle Engagement. Her choice of lace and fabric are significant in the context of the 1970s. During the women’s movement, female artists embraced art forms traditionally associated with women by integrating them into their art: needlework, quilting, textiles, and china painting were examples of art that were overlooked or devalued over painting and sculpture.  

Betty Fishman, American, b. 1923. Triangle Engagement. Cyanotype on fabric, 1970s. Museum purchase, 2007.26. Image courtesy of FMWoA. 

Andrea Peterson used a cyanotype fragment of a dandelion going to seed in Spirit from 2004. Her use of plant life and cyanotype recall Atkins’ work in botany, one of the few sciences that was deemed appropriate for women during the Victorian era. 

Andrea A. Peterson, American. Spirit. Woodcut, watermarks, and cyanotype on handmade paper, 2004. Gift of the Area Artists Association, Michigan City, Indiana, 2008.09.15. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

Cyanotype’s distinctive blue color carries different psychological associations. In abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky’s writing on color theory, he said that “Blue is the typical heavenly colour. The ultimate feeling it creates is one of rest.”i Many people connect the color with melancholy or with Blues music.  

Azya Lashelle, American, b. 1997. “My Name is Blue.” Cyanotype on glass, 2021. Loan from the Artist. Image courtesy of Azya Lashelle.

Blue adds additional layers of meaning to the works in the exhibition, Baby I Got the Blues: Photographs by Azya Lashelle (on exhibit in the Print & Drawing Study Center through March 25, 2022). The photographer says she uses cyanotypes to explore “the ways in which ‘Blue’ shows up in the Black community. There are multiple ways in which to experience the color Blue: the derogatory phrase ‘Blue-Black,’ commonly used to describe a person whose skin has gone so far beyond black that it looks Blue; the state of emotional being, as in ‘Today I feel Blue’; and the physicality and act of turning Blue, for example, when one can’t breathe.”

Visit the Fort Wayne Museum of Art and the Print & Drawing Study Center Tuesday-Friday, 11-3, to see Azya Lashelle’s cyanotypes on view through March 25th, 2022.

i Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. M.T.H. Sadler (New York: Dover Publications, Inc.), 38. 

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